‘Worried for our families’ futures’: Grandmothers in Tel Aviv protest judicial shakeup

A dozen grandmothers boarded a bus Thursday to make their way from an assisted living facility in Israel’s center to Tel Aviv’s HaBima Square. Usually, their driver would drop them at a philharmonic performance, but this time, they joined hundreds of other senior citizens as part of a grandmothers’ protest against the government’s plan to increase political power by constraining the judiciary.

“We made a placard with little grandchildren all around it and we wrote how many we have,” said Rossie Gelb, 81, one of the dozen protesting residents (the total was 92).

Thursday’s protest was the second organized by “Savtot for Democracy,” which employs the Hebrew term for grandmother.

Founded only six weeks ago by Anne Berkeley, 70, a Glaswegian who made her home in Israel in 1978, the movement hopes to add what Berkeley called overlooked voices among the panoply of protest organizations that have sprouted up in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s plans.

“A lot of people don’t see or hear older ladies… we get to a certain age, our hair gets grayer, and we kind of become invisible in a way,” Berkeley said.

Gelb, who herself immigrated to Israel from Montreal in 1961 and raised her four children in Israel, echoed the sentiment, saying that this new addition to the protest scene gives her a sense of “support.”

Women taking part in the ‘Savtot for Democracy’ protest take a bus from an assisted living facility to the Tel Aviv demonstration, April 20, 2022 (Rossie Gelb)

Gathered in HaBima Square, the women were joined by hundreds of other grandparents, as well as their children and grandchildren who came in support. Many had brought their own lawn chairs as makeshift accessibility accommodations, and formed a tight-seated circle around which the protest expanded.

“Where are your grandchildren?” a fellow attendee asked an elderly woman. “In the army!” she smiled.

Marguerite Director, 65, arrived with three of her five grandchildren in tow, alongside her daughter. Pointing to her brood, Director said it was important for her to join on Thursday “because it’s their future, I am worried for them.”

Seated nearby were old friends Ronit and Miki, septuagenarians who declined to share their last names.

From her perch, Ronit was sharp with her criticism. “If they succeed in doing this, it’s a complete destruction of a 2,000-year-old dream,” she said, implying that the government’s judicial shakeup would be the end of Zionism. “We aren’t sleeping at night from worry.”

Agreeing vigorously, Miki said that they go “every Saturday night” to anti-overhaul protests, currently in their 15th week.

Israelis take part in a grandmothers’ protest in Tel Aviv against the government’s judicial overhaul plan, April 20, 2023. (Stav Tzur)

A frequent face at protests, Labor MK Efrat Rayten addressed the crowd, saying that about four months ago, protesters like those assembled “woke up because [the government is] talking about taking our very basic rights, those rights that we fought for.”

Journalist Peerli Shahar targeted her message toward supporters of Netanyahu’s Likud party, who brought his coalition to power after the last election.

“We want to tell our Likud voter friends that we’re here for you too. This judicial coup will affect everyone’s rights,” Shahar said, outlining a host of women’s rights and religious freedoms potentially at stake, should an independent, empowered judiciary not stand as a bulwark against policies already telegraphed by Likud’s far-right and religious coalition partners.

“Shame!” one of the protesters shouted, prompting the crowd to break out into chants. “Democracy or rebellion,” a common anti-government protest slogan, also ripped through the assemblage, accompanied by an orchestra that otherwise led the demonstration through classics of the Zionist canon.

Despite a coherent message of concern for how the government’s full shakeup plan may affect their children and grandchildren, several attendees — most of whom lived through Israel’s early years and major wars — were adamant that they continued to see Israel as critical to their family’s future.

A woman takes part in a grandmothers’ protest in Tel Aviv against the government’s judicial overhaul plan, April 20, 2023. (Stav Tzur)

Several protesters in other camps, especially tied to high-tech sector demonstrations, have raised the specter of moving themselves or their capital offshore in the face of the government’s attempt to place itself over judicial power.

“We cannot give up on this country,” said Gelb, who pledged to keep “fighting” for judicial independence. “We absolutely cannot give up on this country.”

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