From Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh, from Tel Aviv to Haifa and to Ben Gurion Airport, hundreds of thousands of Israelis, holding a wide range of political beliefs, have come together every week since January to protest the so-called "Judicial Reform". Photographer Jonathan Bloom with the faces behind the biggest protest movement in Israel’s history
I arrived in Israel from the UK at the end of 1990 with hope for a better future. For a while that optimism seemed justified as the peace process and the economy made rapid progress. But the last 30 years of Israel’s roller-coaster history have made it almost impossible to reconcile optimism and reality: the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, the Intifada, economic recession, the withdrawal from Gaza, the Lebanon War, countless military operations in the Occupied Territories, a second recession, never-ending political upheavals, and the list goes on. Yet it seems like the last seven months, under PM Netanyahu’s coalition government, the most extreme in Israel’s history, are an all-time low for Israel.
The current protests began in January when the government tried to push legislation to curtail the power of the judiciary, eliminating democratic checks and balances.
The scale and persistence of the protests is unprecedented in Israel’s history. Every Saturday evening, hundreds of thousands of Israelis, holding a wide range of political beliefs, have come together to protest the so-called "Judicial Reform". Additionally, dozens of spontaneous protests all around the country, are becoming more frequent and aggressive as the government tries to move forward with its plans.
Like most of the photographers at the protests, I was captivated by their scale and energy, but I was frustrated by my attempts to capture "the big picture"; it missed out on what I feel is at the heart of the demonstrations – the will of the individual.
I began to take portraits of the demonstrators using an improvised kind of studio lighting - a small flash and umbrella attached to the end of a pole held by my wife Lilach. This allowed me to shine a spotlight on the subject, eliminating much of the surroundings and emphasising the quiet resolve of the individual.
Coming to the occasional protest is a trivial commitment, but to commit to demonstrating every single week for over six months and counting - that shows a serious determination to fight and win the battle for democracy.
Samuel grew up in London and moved to Israel with his family in 2014, where he lives with his wife and 4 children. He works in the financial sector.
“I grew up as a Jew in London, so I’m acutely aware of how minorities are treated, but many Israelis, who grew up as part of a Jewish majority, have a blind spot when it comes to seeing the needs of minority groups.”
Yuvi grew up in Haifa, Israel, and moved to Vietnam in 2016, where she works as a PE teacher. She also teaches Krav Maga. She visits Israel for a month every year.
“Instead of making decisions for the benefit of the country, the decisions of the new government are based on self-interest and what it can take from the country. As a member of the queer community, I feel threatened by this government. I want to feel accepted by my country, to be able to marry whoever I wish."
Originally from New York, Levi came to Israel over 40 years ago and founded the reform congregation ‘Kol Haneshama’, in Jerusalem. He is also one of the founders of the organisation Rabbis for Human Rights. He is married with three children and four grandchildren.
“I come to the demonstrations out of a sense of deep concern as to where the country is heading. This government comprises some of the darkest elements in Israeli society and is steering the country in an anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist and xenophobic direction. I turned 70 yesterday and this is how I’m celebrating.”
Dror lives in Haifa in a shared apartment. She's single, and works as a QA engineer for a software testing company.
“I’m here because of all the laws that this government is trying to pass, turning the country into more of a dictatorship than a democracy. My future also feels threatened by the hatred, aimed by Knesset members in the coalition, at the LGBTQ community which I belong to.”
Benzy’s parents immigrated from India with the Jewish community of Cochin in 1948. He works as a gardener and has three children.
“I’m recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, and am still undergoing rehabilitation as an outpatient, but I couldn’t stay at home any longer. I realise that you can’t get everything you want in your own lifetime, so I’m planting the seeds of justice now in the hope that my children might live in a better society.”
Tuvia recently finished religious high school and will be going to study torah at the Mahanayim Yeshiva in Gush Etzion prior to his military service. He is a founder of the Jerusalem branch of the youth activist movement “Achshav HaNoar” (Youth Wakes Up), established in response to the Government’s plans for judicial reform.
“The belief that God created man in his own image forces me to oppose all forms of racism, including the racist behaviour of the new government. Democracy is designed to protect the rights of all people, to ensure equality, and the government is undermining that protection. We are already seeing increased violence against Palestinians and the LGBTQ community.”
Since retiring as a builder and decorator, Yossi has been producing organic olive oil. He is a 4th generation Israeli; his grandparents were one of the original 66 families that settled Tel Aviv. He is married with three sons and two granddaughters.
“Israel was a very different place not so long ago. Most of the politicians in this new government are racist and homophobic and represent an ugly, loud-mouthed side of society. It’s a small minority forcing its extreme agendas on the majority of Israelis who are basically good people.”
The Brodys moved to Israel from the US in 1978, Robert from New York and Cory from Chicago. Robert is a retired professor of rabbinical literature and Cory a professor of psychology at the Hebrew University. They have five children and ten grandchildren.
Robert: “We are orthodox regarding religion, but politically on the left and have been here pretty much every week since the demonstrations began. What the government is doing is horrifying. It’s as if there is a desire to compose the government entirely from ex-convicts and future convicts!”
Nava was a practicing lawyer until a year ago, when she left her firm to dedicate herself to the fight for democracy. She grew up in a religious right-wing family in Jerusalem, but abandoned religion 16 years ago, when she became a university student.
“I’ve been eating away at my savings, but I feel a great sense of purpose; I’m leading thousands of protestors and we are making a real difference. I organize several activist groups and I receive info of the day to day whereabouts of coalition politicians and send protestors immediately to the location to demonstrate."
Varda has 4 children, 13 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren. She was born in Kibbutz Ein Harod in northern Israel and has lived most of her life in Jerusalem. She worked as an Archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority and taught at Bar Ilan University. Anat is from the village of Alon HaGalil in northern Israel and is working as a teacher’s assistant in a Jerusalem school. She is staying with her grandmother until she finds her own apartment.
Varda: “I come here every week. Normally I get somebody to escort me, but if there’s nobody available, I come alone. I can’t sit at home and do nothing whilst this government destroys the ideals of the state that I helped to build."
Anat: “I don’t believe you can separate between the issues of the Occupation and Democracy. Israel is inherently anti-democratic so long as it occupies Palestinian territory. My grandmother agrees, but doesn’t believe it’s strategically a good idea to include this divisive issue at these protests.”
Born and raised in Nazareth in a Muslim family, Abbas moved to Tuscany in 1991, where he now works as a consultant seismologist for the National Research Council of Italy. He is divorced with no children.
“Every Thursday evening since the protests began in January, I fly out to Israel for the weekend, to be here for the protests. You will hardly find any Arabs at the demonstrations; they feel threatened and alienated by the sea of Israeli flags and former generals giving speeches.”