Trek of tears: Israel’s marathon march for democracy
“My country tis of thee. Sweet land of liberty. Of thee, I sing.” These lyrics from an American song, ironically set to the tune of G-d Save the King, embodies the spirit of the more than 72 000 Israelis who marched for four days from Tel Aviv to the capital, Jerusalem, to protest against judicial reform.
Democracy, protection of civil liberties and the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence have defined Israel in her 75 years of independence. Many across the country and the world are worried that these values could be significantly eroded should the current draft of the proposed reforms be passed.
Many hope they will be cancelled, and most hope for broad-based consensus through negotiations.
The march started on Wednesday, 19 July, and culminated in a rally outside the Knesset on Saturday night, joined by nationwide rallies in protest of the proposed judicial overhauls.
Before the start of the march, grandfathers, fathers, and sons davened shacharit (morning prayers). The image was emotive. Wrapped in their holy cloak of tefillin and tallit, they joined in prayers that have linked generation to generation, sustaining us through exile, persecution, and strife. Perhaps there were additional prayers for the unity of this deeply divided country.
Armed with the blue and white flag of Israel, they started to march. They marched over rough terrain in the scorching sun. A metaphor, perhaps?
Young and old, religious and secular, they marched. A young boy with mobility issues, determined to participate, marched. Families marched. It was peaceful. Minstrels and maestros brought their musical instruments along and kept the mood festive and buoyant. People were on hand, giving out water and snacks.
They marched. They marched for their children, they marched for generations past, and they marched for everyone, including those who disagree with them. They marched for you and for me.
It was a remarkable, seminal moment in Israel’s history, and I like to think that even Israelis who support the proposed overhauls were moved by the dedication and images of their fellow citizens peacefully trekking towards the capital.
I followed the marchers along their route all weekend, and I’m sure that like many across our deeply divided country, I wept tears of pride at my fellow citizens, courageous and determined as they walked kilometre after kilometre in the blazing hot sun, never losing sight of why they were doing this.
I wept tears of sorrow for the divisions and chasms that are so deep in Israel’s society. Perhaps it does take an event of seismic proportions to expose the fissures and cracks that so desperately need healing.
I wept for those who feel marginalised and just want to be heard in the highest reaches of the country’s institutions.
I wept for you and for me, who deeply love this country and just want to see Israel thrive. We face so many external threats by those devoted to our destruction.
For those of us who are journalists, whose job description is to expose the dark areas of our democracy to the sunlight, this has been one of the most difficult events to cover. We’re routinely maligned, some even physically manhandled.
I have been called a “seditionist”, “inciter of hate”, “traitor”, and an “anarchist”.
Our job is to report what is in the public interest. It may not be what many want to hear, but in a thriving democracy, a free press is vital. We face a mounting threat from extremists in government who want to restrict that right severely.
This is why it was so important that tens of thousands marched to safeguard the very tenets of democracy.
On Sunday, protesters and overhaul supporters started the day with prayers at the Kotel. They then formed a human chain from the Western Wall to the Knesset.
The definitive image for me this week was captured later in the day in the most unlikely place – the Jerusalem train station. Throngs of protesters, either descending the steep escalator to catch the trains to Tel Aviv to join a pro-reform rally or ascending to congregate outside the Knesset building to oppose the overhauls reached out hands across the divide. Never forget we are brothers and I love you, they said.
What Israel desperately needs now is a leader willing to do the same. A leader ready to sacrifice office if he must, but to do what’s best for the country and its people. A leader willing to push with all his might for a negotiated solution. Do we have that leader?
Writing this article has been profoundly emotional for me. No doubt, I’ll receive heavy criticism from many who disagree with me. That’s okay. That’s democracy. I do hope that people read this and internalise the message. We need to start talking to each other. Perhaps it just starts with you and me.
- Rolene Marks is a Middle East commentator often heard on radio and TV and is the co-founder of Lay of the Land and the SA-Israel Policy Forum.