“People here in Israel come from all over the world,” says Elay Banayan, 21. “These are people with different cultures, different ideologies and different ways of life and one of the things that protects the individual inside this big group called Israel is the supreme court.”
Mr Banayan was one of the estimated 240,000 people who gathered in Tel Aviv last Saturday to protest against the Israeli government’s proposal to weaken the powers of the supreme court – a move which many believe threatens Israel’s status as a democratic state.
After coming to power at the end of last year, the current government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history and is led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has previously served as prime minister and is currently facing corruption charges – which he denies, claiming to be the victim of a witch hunt.
On Tuesday, Israel’s parliament advanced a bill that would allow politicians to pass laws that the supreme court cannot overturn with a simple parliamentary majority. The PM and his allies say the move will constrain an activist judiciary, but critics argue it will upset the delicate balance of checks on authority.
For Mr Banayan, the government’s moves indicate creeping restrictions.
“The government that is now in power in Israel only sees Jewishness and Israel as a specific culture,”
“They don’t want you to be non-Orthodox; they don’t want you to think about women’s equality in like the workplace; they want you to see women as baby factories and nothing else.”
Emmanuel Spiegel, 35, wasn’t surprised that the current government was elected last year.
“The trend was clear but right-wing could mean lots of things,” says Mr Spiegel, “it could mean [right wing] on economics or security. Nobody during the campaign before December had ever talked about these changes…so the trend was clear that we are going right but not that kind of right.”
The legislation that Mr Netanyahu’s government is hoping to pass would also give Israel’s parliament the power to nominate judges.
Mr Spiegel says: “it seems like Israel is not going to be a democracy anymore,” and that “the constitutional framework of the country is just falling apart.”
The weekly protests have drawn tens of thousands of people over the last two months including a broad cross-section of society. On Saturday, most hold Israeli flags while small numbers hold rainbow pride flags and more rarely Palestinian flags.
Siegal, 20, is wearing a knitted cap that features half an Israeli flag and half a Palestinian flag. She’s protesting alongside a small leftist group beating drums, waving Palestinian flags and holding placards with slogans like “We supported an occupation and now we have a dictatorship.”
Siegal says it’s not common for her peers to support Palestine and while she speaks to i, a man holding an Israeli flag approaches her and shouts: “It’s not about this,” while pointing at the Palestinian flag Siegal holds.
Since 26 February, when up to four hundred Israeli settlers rampaged through the Palestinian town of Huwara in the occupied West Bank setting homes and businesses on fire, a few protestors in Tel Aviv have begun holding placards saying: “justice for Huwara.”
“We called what happened in Huwara ‘a pogrom’ because that is the Eastern European name for the atrocities that happened to Jewish people in their own villages a hundred years ago all over Europe,” says Banyan.
“There is a saying in Hebrew which roughly translates as ‘a slave will reign,’” says Mr Banayan. “It refers to how, as soon as someone who was weak and was in a place of vulnerability gets access to power, most often, he uses it to harm other people who are weak… This is what we see right now with the Jewish nation that was subjected to a lot of hate through the last 3,000 years and now has the power to stay.”
“Some people believe that Palestinians are a minority group that shouldn’t be supported,” says Eli Yovel, 18. “I do think that we should stay focused on the Israeli issue, but I think there are many other issues that this reform is going to greatly affect.”
“I walked with a pride flag a few of the weeks but this week I’m not. First, because I do think that it is more focused to walk with an Israeli flag, but mostly because I feel less safe walking with the pride flag or with a Palestinian flag.”
She said the protests have become bigger and also “gradually more violent”.
“Two weeks ago, on my way back from a protest, I was with two of my friends and a group of 10–13-year-olds threw a stone at us because [they said] we do not deserve to be holding the Israeli flag as leftists.”
It has also divided her family, she said, adding that some of her relatives are strong supporters of Netanyahu. They believe that the judicial reforms will make Israel more democratic as the parliament who people vote for will make all of the decisions “rather than a supreme court that we didn’t choose,” she says.
Ms Yovel says she tries not to discuss the topic at family gatherings – “it just brings unwanted attention.”