Reporter’s recollections covering judicial reforms and counter protests

By Rolene Marks

I hate slow news days. They unnerve me. I like a steady stream of news to ensure I have loads to comment on when I report daily on radio. Slow news days are the calm before the storm, an ominous sign that something bigger this way comes. While 2023 has not been short of news – Israel’s coalition government’s proposed judicial reforms and the antics of some the ministers have given journalists like me a lot of grist for the mill, the events of the last couple of weeks have been extraordinary, a seminal moment in Israel’s history.

The role of reporters in a functioning democracy where we have a free press is to report the situation on the ground as we see it – and shine a light on those dark corners we believe to be in the public interest. Often, this entails exposing any actions or decisions made by the government that may not be in the best interest of the country. Granted, there are many global news outlets that push specific agendas, but for most of us, especially in Israel’s robust media, we just try to get on with the job.

Saturday Night Live’. Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system on Saturday, March 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg))

Covering Israel is a lot more complicated than any other beat. There are the added layers of the vested, emotional interest of diaspora communities; and the ever-present fact that Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, held to a different standard in the international media. The challenge for many consumers of news from Israel, because there is such an emotional connection, is how difficult it is for many to discern between the news and Israel advocacy.

Since 7 January this year, Israelis have been taking to the streets every Saturday night to protest the proposed judicial overhauls. Armed with Israeli flags, which have become the symbol of the protests, and chanting “democratia” and “shame”, Saturday night protests have become a fixture in the weekly calendar. From Eilat in the South to Haifa in the north, Israelis are exercising their democratic right to protest.  Anti-overhaul protests over the last 12 weeks have become progressively larger and diverse in participation – a reality many do not want to accept, preferring to see this as a left versus right issue, or a reluctance to accept election results. It is a pivotal moment in Israel’s history. While there have been small pockets of scuffles between protesters and police, these protests have been peaceful. The media have been on hand to cover events, which escalated last Sunday night when Prime Minister Netanyahu fired his Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant.

I have covered and explained Israel for two decades and lived here for 12 years and I have never seen events as extraordinary as we witnessed this past week.

In the wake of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s firing of Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, which many Israelis viewed as a step too far, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in protest, furious about the firing of Gallant, canned for calling for a halt to the overhaul because they pose a significant threat to national security. The Histadrut, Israel’s largest labour union, called for a general strike. “We are all worried about Israel’s fate,” Histadrut Chief, Arnon Bar-David said.  “Together we say, enough!”

MobIlizing the Masses. Participants sang Hatikvah – the national anthem – following Histadrut chief Arnon Bar-David declaring a general strike in protest of the judicial overhaul at press conference in Tel Aviv on March 27, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

We have lost our way — this is not about left or right,” the union head says. “We can no longer polarize the nation.” “I did everything I could over the past weeks to stop the situation,” Bar-David said adding that the efforts were in vain.

We are all joining hands to shut down the State of Israel,” he declared. “The malls and the factories will close.” The airport shut down, flights grounded, hospitals, malls, businesses started to close in quick succession like dominoes. Israel had shut down.

A strike of this magnitude coupled with growing protests was unprecedented.

Even top journalist and TV host, Piers Morgan recognized the magnitude of events and sought out an exclusive interview with the Prime Minister, en route home after meeting with British PM Rishi Sunak.

What cannot be disputed is that whether you support the reforms or oppose them, Israel has become a country divided. President Herzog and other officials have been ringing the alarm bells for months, warning of the growing chasms in society that may take us beyond the abyss.

As Israel approaches her 75th year of Independence in a few weeks’ time, many are asking:

 “What will the country look like?”

The media has withstood the worst of the frustration of many. It does not help that in his overhaul announcement, the Prime Minister blamed the press – a tactic he routinely deploys. As a public figure, he must understand that both he and his government are open to scrutiny. Democracy demands it.

I have lost track of the ugly accusations and names that my colleagues and I have been subjected to since the debate on reforms started growing momentum.

Journalists learn to develop a thick skin because we are routinely insulted and know that it comes with the territory but in recent weeks dangerous lines have been crossed.

After writing a series of op-eds and reporting on radio and television, I have been called a “left wing fascist”, told to “go to your room little girl and let the adults run the country”, been told that if we criticize the proposed reforms we simply “do not understand democracy or are brainwashed”, accused of being “funded by the CIA and infiltrated by Antifa”. These are the polite comments. As long as they spell my name correctly!

I have also seen exchanges on social media between both sides really go beyond the limits of polite disagreement.

Sometimes the news is not what many may want to hear but they are the facts and developments on the ground and not “spin”. A lot of the insults I have been able to shrug off or roll my eyes.

I can tolerate many things – but what is intolerable are accusations calling my fellow citizens, exercising their democratic right to protest and colleagues reporting on them, “domestic terrorists”. This goes for either side. The abusive rhetoric needs to be dialed back – and quickly.

The world is becoming increasingly vulnerable to populist type language and the ability to engage in critical thinking is a skill that is fast eroding. The dangers are that we are being conditioned to think in a binary manner – left vs right, black vs white. You are either for, or against. Where are the grey areas?

Defiance in Defence Force. IDF reservists saying will refuse “to serve in a non-democratic regime”.(Photo: Shaul Golan)

In a few weeks’ time, Israelis will celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut. This is a time to reflect on the miracle of our independence; and it is no coincidence that it follows Yom Hazikaron, when we remember the price we have paid to live as a free people in our ancestral homeland.

It is my belief that no matter what side of the reform debate, Israelis deeply love our country. We all want the best possible Israel – journalists as well. It is vital that in a democratic country the press is free to report about what we observe. If we are witnessing great swathes of the Israeli populace form diverse sectors engaging in protests, we have to report it. We are not the enemy.

Perhaps this Yom Haatzmaut, as we reflect on 75 years of the Zionist miracle, we need to be reminded of the sacrifices made, lest we head down a path where we can never return.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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