This Is the Most Important War in Israel’s History, Says the Leader of the Protest Movement
At the end of my meeting with Avi Himi, I ask him if there’s anything he would like to add, something important he wants to have included in the interview. His reply leaves us both with misty eyes.
“It’s important for me to say that both my wife, Hana, and I, each of us with our respective background – we’re both from the Israeli periphery, Mizrahim whose parents came here from Morocco – are grateful to the State of Israel, which made it possible for us to accomplish everything we dreamed of accomplishing. No one ever put obstacles in our way. We fulfilled our dreams in this country, we both moved ahead in their career, we raised marvelous daughters, and all of it was made possible in this place, which we love so much.
“Our lives are on the line: If the new government’s revolution is successful, it means that our children will not be able to live in this country, and therefore I feel obligated to pay a price in order to stop this madness. You have left us no choice. We don’t have a lot of time. The weeks ahead are critical, just as the War of Independence was critical.”
By January 21, last Saturday night, it was already clear: Himi, the head of the Israel Bar Association, had become the outstanding leader of the protest against the program of regime change in Israel. In his speech to the masses that packed the Azrieli intersection in Tel Aviv, he fired up the crowd with simple, clear words, with straightforward statements and impressive determination. “Cry, the beloved country!” he bellowed, and the crowd responded, “For shame! A disgrace!”
Himi does not fit the stereotypes of identity politics in Israel; he’s not easily subsumed in any of the tiresomely familiar categories. But that’s not the primary reason he has emerged as a hero of the protest movement. What sets him apart is his clear vision of the danger that lurks in the government’s plans, his sharp call for action and the fact that he is truly willing to make the greatest sacrifice that can be made for the sake of Israeli democracy. His life.
“People lost their lives and their loved ones for the sake of the state in Israel’s wars and military operations,” Himi told Haaretz in an interview just days after his speech last Saturday. “We have lost what is most precious to us. From my point of view, democracy is also a worthy cause to die for. We will not live in a dictatorship, period. Safeguarding democracy is as important as safeguarding the country’s borders. It’s even more important than physical borders, because it’s our spirit, our soul. I see this struggle as parallel to our war against outside enemies.
“These are domestic enemies,” he continues, “and they are no less serious a threat than any other enemy. The prices that I am paying because of my decision to struggle pales in the face of my obligation to do battle against this overthrow of our system.” Himi says that he has been on the receiving end of many telephone death threats, and also that he has lost clients because of his activism.
What should citizens do in order to struggle against the coup?
“Every citizen bears the same responsibility, and has the same ability to influence as I have, I don’t have greater weight. First of all, to come to demonstrations across the country. And then to raise the stakes, and shut down the economy. We will not go to work, we will not send our children to school, we shall all assemble in the streets – children, women, men, the elderly, whoever can – we will block roads, we will all come to the Knesset. A million people will arrive and declare that our democracy is untouchable.”
And those who have influence, such as the head of the Histadrut labor federation, the trade unions, university presidents, top figures in high-tech and so on?
“I expect all of them to understand that this war is the most important we’ve had in the country’s 75 years of existence, and therefore I call on all of them to join.”
What should elected officials from the opposition do?
“To work to have [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu declared ‘incapacitated.’ A serving prime minister who is facing trial on three indictments cannot be part of an overhaul of the judicial system, and therefore can also no longer continue to serve as prime minister. The attorney general must take the lead in this legal procedure. She is a courageous, serious woman, a good attorney general. The unavoidable move – given that the prime minister does not understand the conflict-of-interest agreement in accordance with which he is supposed to be acting – is to declare him incapacitated. After that it will be possible to work on new coalition alliances.”
But the coalition heads have already said that declaring the prime minister incapacitated would constitute an illegal removal from office.
“These developments illustrate the intensity of the attempt to terrorize the system. These are patterns of behavior bordering on the criminal; misbegotten and dangerous moves by a ruthless, fear-stricken, power-intoxicated government.”
Himi, 63, was one of the first public personalities to foresee what is currently taking place. Since 2019, when he became the president of the bar association, the professional guild representing the country’s attorneys, he has been shouting from every platform at his disposal his opposition to what he sees as the crazed idea of weakening the courts, when that notion was still only a threatening theory.
“I know the plans of [Religious Zionism MK] Simcha Rothman, [Finance Minister] Bezalel Smotrich and [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin. How did I first get to know about them? One day [in 2020], all the lawyers in Israel received a fancy, glossy pamphlet put out by the Kohelet Policy Forum, containing a detailed explanation of why the Israel Bar Association should be shut down. We, who represent the citizenry in the face of the government – they want to nationalize our profession, so that the government would decide who will be the head and members, and we won’t be independent anymore. Our task is to preserve the rule of law and human rights. I am a criminal lawyer who does battle against the prosecution as the representative of the state, against the Justice Ministry, against the National Security Ministry, against the harsh decrees of the Finance Ministry. They want to put someone like me under their control, make me a puppet to serve them rather than the citizens?”
Already by then the “black robes protest” had appeared. A large group of lawyers, among them leading people in the field in Israel, protested against what they saw as the dangers inherent in the “override clause.” Himi is one of the leaders of the robes protest, and thus the Israel Bar Association – which hadn’t yet recovered from the blow it suffered because of the behavior of the former president, Effi Naveh, who resigned under a cloud – became a central voice in the struggle.
There’s criticism within the bar association itself of your protest activity.
“The face of the bar association is like the face of the generation. People claim my activity is political, but I say that it’s precisely my critics who are coming from a political position. Under the Bar Association Law, our mission is to fight on behalf of the rule of law and for human rights. And that is what I am doing. I respect other voices, that’s part of the democratic discourse, but from my perspective, I am an apolitical head of the association who is working for the lawyers and the citizens of Israel.”
He adds, “We are in such a complex period. In terms of security, the economy, there is a worldwide inflationary crisis, violence is rife in Israeli society, we have poverty to deal with. And the destruction of the judicial system is what they’re starting with? There are a thousand-and-one issues that relate to the citizenry as such that don’t interest them. They started with a judicial coup so that they could appoint convicted criminals and cronies to key positions. I ask myself: How do the citizens fail to grasp that they are doing all these things in order to become the exclusive masters?”
How can that be explained to the public?
“By saying clearly that the citizenry will be directly harmed by this legal coup. Shula from Dimona, Varda from Hadera, Moshe from Hatzor Haglilit – they will be the ones who are hurt. All the markers that political scientists point to in the rise of dictatorships are visible here, one after the other: kowtowing to the leader, the fact that the more one kowtows the more one moves ahead, the destruction of the judiciary, the crushing of the media. By all scientific criteria, we are marching toward a dictatorship.”
Every person is invited to live here with his worldview – Haredim, Orthodox, LGBTQ people, Arabs – and I will fight so that everyone can live as he chooses. But the foundation is a constitution based on the country’s Declaration of Independence.
With the machine of lies that the government is wielding, will the public understand?
“Definitely. The polling shows that opinion is shifting against them. They wanted one fell swoop, and the people of the protest conveyed to the public what that would mean. If you walk on the streets you will see a great many worried people, and not only in Tel Aviv. I know that with certainty, because people are calling me from all over the country who are fearful of the governmental coup. We are a democratic people. I don’t think people here will forgo democracy so easily.”
Even among opponents of Levin’s plan, there are some who say that the judicial system needs a reform.
“I want all the trouble makers and tongue cluckers who claim that ‘we need a reform’ to explain to me how the reform they are proposing will help the people. Write down something that it’s important for me to say: People talk scornfully about the so-called constitutional revolution fomented by Justice Aharon Barak. But what did he do? He gave the right of standing to anyone who believed he had been harmed, to come to the Supreme Court and stand against the state before the High Court of Justice. Is there anything more just and enlightened than that? What is wrong with that, Lord in heaven? It’s the essence of universal values of justice and equality. He led a revolution in our benefit, they are executing a regime overthrow for themselves. The public has to understand the disparity between the two actions.”
Himi adds that he believes “wholeheartedly that the Supreme Court is the beacon of democracy. It is the fortress of human rights. When ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi schoolgirls weren’t admitted to Haredi schools run by Ashkenazim, who solved the problem? Did Shas solve the problem? Did Bibi solve the problem? No way – it was the Supreme Court [sitting as the High Court] that solved the problem. I am married to a feminist woman and I am raising two feminist daughters. From our point of view, the High Court decision [in 1995] in the Alice Miller case not only made it possible for her to become an air force pilot: It opened all the combat professions to women. It brought down barriers.
“That’s the society we want to live in, not a society in which women will be compelled to sit at the back of the bus and female soldiers will only be secretaries because of men’s twisted worldview. When I examine each of the 22 laws that our Supreme Court declared unconstitutional, I am proud. I am proud to live in this country, which such laws that were annulled.”
No bowing down
Avi Himi was born and raised in the lower-class Northern Galilee town of Kiryat Shmona. He is the youngest of eight siblings, five of whom were born in Morocco, before the family’s immigration. His parents, who were poor and uneducated, had a store that sold fish and poultry. The family lived in an apartment of 54 square meters (580 sq. ft.), together with a grandmother. Until the age of 12 he shared a bed with his brothers.
He speaks warmly and with great appreciation about his parents, who despite the material dearth, raised eight fine children with no emotional wants. “My parents educated us not to bow down to politicians – and not to rabbis, either, because the connection to God doesn’t need mediators,” he says, recalling his childhood. “In the simple home I grew up in, my parents knew that ours was a democratic, egalitarian country, one that would enable anyone who wanted to, to bloom. We had no money, but we did have the opportunity to acquire an education. Thanks to that, each of the eight brothers and sisters reached the place they dreamed of.”
From early on, it was clear that Himi was clever and a good student, so at 14 he was sent to the prestigious Reali school in Haifa and resided in a military boarding school in the city. He likes to recount how, on the first day of studies, everyone introduced themselves and he grasped the differences between him and the others. One student related that he had just returned with his family from a sabbatical abroad, another said his father was the director of a hospital department. When Himi’s turn came he told his classmates that his father – who, as noted, sold fish and chicken – was “involved with denizens of the sea and winged creatures.”
He did his army service in the Golani infantry brigade, became an officer and at the time of his discharge, after six years, had reached the rank of captain. As he lights a cigarette, he relates with pride that three months ago, he was promoted to major. He insists on continuing to volunteer for reserve duty as a defense counsel (in the office of the Military Advocate General), though at his age it’s no longer called for. He attended law school at Tel Aviv University, working three different jobs in order to pay the tuition.
“In one of the jobs I did a night shift as a guard for Brinks,” he recalls. “I would finish the shift at 6 A.M., jump over the fence of the university, which was closed at that hour of the day, and sleep for two hours on the grass until classes began.”
He met his wife, whose name he speaks with obvious love, in Kiryat Shmona when they were teenagers. They were married immediately after his army service, and their first daughter was born while both were still pursuing higher education – he in law school, she studying first social work and later criminology. Their second daughter was born five years later. Hana is presently the dean of the Faculty of Consultation, Treatment and Educational Support at Beit Berl Academic College. In the past she worked for the nonprofit organization NATAL, the Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center, which provides various services, including psychological support, to victims of terrorism and war. The couple live in the central city of Rosh Ha’ayin. Tal, their elder daughter, is a clinical psychologist who lives in Paris and is the mother of a 5-year-old son. Noam, the younger one, is an events producer who lives in Tel Aviv. “The girls are adults, the grandchild is in Paris, so my wife and I are engaged only in activity on behalf of the country,” he says.
In the course of his career, Himi became one of Israel’s leading criminal lawyers. He has defended heads of crime organizations, among them Shalom Domrani, one of the most fabled crime bosses, has managed many highly publicized cases and his acquittal record is considered very high. In one case, he defended two members of a crime organization who in 2003 murdered a 16-year-old girl, Shaked Shalhov, from Ashkelon, during an attempt to assassinate a rival. The two were acquitted in Haifa District Court by reason of doubt, but the Supreme Court convicted them both on appeal, and they were sentenced to life in prison. “That was one of my most highly charged cases,” Himi notes.
In 2008, in the wake of the murder of criminal-defense attorney Yoram Hacham, Himi decided to change direction. Hacham, who had represented many crime families, was killed by a bomb planted in his car. Nearly a decade later, organized-crime boss Asi Abutbul, who had been one of Hacham’s clients, was accused of the murder. “Yoram Hacham’s murder shocked me,” Himi says. “The next day I decided not to represent people who belong to crime organizations.”
All the markers that point to in the rise of dictatorships are visible: kowtowing to the leader, the fact that the more one kowtows the more one moves ahead, the destruction of the judiciary, the crushing of the media.
But he does represent people accused of white-collar crimes. Among others, he represented Shlomo Benizri, a former cabinet minister from Shas, who was convicted of bribe-taking, breach of trust and obstruction of justice, and former Kiryat Malakhi Mayor Motti Malcha, who was convicted of sexual offenses.
You say you are opposed to government corruption – is that compatible with representing people like Benizri?
“Despite the charges against him, Rabbi Benizri and I developed deep ties of friendship. He is a smart and loving man, a fascinating conversationalist, and today devotes his life to helping others. My fondness and esteem for him only show how far my current campaign against the government’s plan is from being a political matter, and certainly not an ethnic one. The reform will hurt everyone and [undermine] humanitarian and universal values, no matter their religious background.”
Himi was also the defense counsel of one of the youths who burned to death a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, in 2014. The youth was sentenced to 21 years in prison; he was the only one of the three defendants who was not given a life term (because he was seen as only assisting in the actual act of murder).
“That’s a case that reflects the brainwashing we’re undergoing here,” Himi says. “We have to set the value of equality as the most important one in our country. When your point of departure is that we are all equal and you raise your children to love humanity – incidents like that don’t happen. But in recent years what we are witnessing are hatred, incitement, schism, a war of people against their brethren. We must ask ourselves how we came to this pass, and especially how we can stop it. Here am I, Avi Himi, saying loud and clear that Arab and Jew are one, are brothers. We are equal.”
That’s an important statement, but for the past 55 years the Palestinians in the occupied territories have not known democracy.
“I always said that we need to ensure security arrangements and to separate from the Palestinians, because when we behave toward other people as if we are their masters, we sin against the Jewish ethos of respecting the stranger. I will say it clearly, though there are those who would advise me not to: The measures that the government wants to implement amount to the establishment of a halakhic state, the annexation of Judea and Samaria, with the final stage being an apartheid state. Religious Zionism is leading us to that place, which is a very dangerous one.”
Himi says he “comes from a Likud environment,” adding, “They are flesh of my flesh and I am theirs. I remember how in childhood I went with my father and my siblings to hear Menachem Begin speak in the commercial center of Kiryat Shmona.”
It’s precisely against that background that he is especially angry at Likud. “The Likud ballot has the letters mem-het-lamed [‘Mahal’], the initials of the National Liberal Movement. They forgot the L and have remained with the M and the H, which [in Hebrew] are the initials for “benighted government.” That’s what’s left of them. I see unworthy MKs who insinuated themselves into the Likud’s slate and lost their self-respect. I don’t believe they all are in favor of what they’re calling a ‘reform,’ yet they are all silent. How can they look at themselves in the mirror?
“I say to my Mizrahi brethren: If anyone is pulling the wool over your eyes, it’s Likud. They have been in power since 1977, more or less, and what have they done for the Mizrahim? Menachem Begin launched Project Renewal in the underprivileged neighborhoods, and since then, nothing. What do we have in common with Yariv Levin? Has he even once done something to advance the cause of social equality for the people? Has [Religious Zionism MK Simcha] Rothman ever done anything for Mizrahi society? Has Smotrich ever improved the periphery?
The measures that the government wants to implement amount to the establishment of a halakhic state, the annexation of Judea and Samaria, with the final stage being an apartheid state.
“We don’t need paternalists, we don’t need to be helped, we know very well how to help ourselves. My dream is that a child in Hatzor Haglilit, or in Kiryat Shmona, or in Yeruham will receive the exact same education package as a child in Ra’anana or Ramat Aviv. That’s the whole story. Just a fishing rod, with which we will catch the most beautiful fish in the pond.”
How do you mobilize broad publics for protest?
“In all the demonstrations I’ve attended I’ve seen people from all across the social spectrum. It cuts across communities. People come in the cold and the rain from both the periphery and from the center of the country. There are those who have tried to create a narrative that these are demonstrations of leftists and Ashkenazim. First of all, I despise that discourse; and second, it’s simply not true. The Mizrahi public is smart and it is showing up in its masses. One of the reasons I embarked on this struggle is that I understood the need, and especially the power, of proper explanation. People are buckling under the burden of routine life and don’t have time to go into things deeply, so you need to explain. What’s important is for the person who hears the words to understand, because the issues are simple.”
Things sound simple from the other side, too. For example, when it’s claimed that in the Dery decision [disqualifying Arye Dery from serving as a cabinet minister, following his conviction a year ago on tax-evasion charges – the second time he was convicted of white-collar crimes], the High Court nullified the votes of the 400,000 Shas voters.
“It’s Dery himself who hurt them. He and his friends in the government are experts at bringing hot potatoes to the court so they can attack it later. Mr. Dery, in your last trial, you declared to the court that you would resign [from politics], and because of that fictitious resignation, the court did not categorize your offenses as crimes of ‘moral turpitude’ [which, if imposed, would have kept him out of politics for seven years]. So, before you run in an election, go to the Central Elections Committee and check whether you are entitled to head a party.
“The court did not hurt your voters, all it did was to set a logical and reasonable norm, one that the majority of the public agrees with: that a twice-convicted [criminal] offender cannot serve in the government of Israel. You hurt the voters when you committed corruption offenses. In Israel, a convicted criminal cannot be a taxi driver or a security guard in a school, so how can he serve as a cabinet minister or deputy prime minister? Inconceivable.”
What do you think about the recent calls to establish a broad committee to discuss the judicial overhaul?
“For us to talk to them [the government], they have to declare a cease-fire, because you can’t negotiate under fire. We need to say clearly that the values of the Declaration of Independence must be the basis for a dialogue. Only if they agree with us on that will there be anything to talk about. Until then, there must be a determined struggle. A revolution [mahapeikha] is for the good of the people, a coup [hafikha] is against the people. They are currently carrying out a coup, whose entire goal is to debilitate the judiciary so that they will be able to carry out all the other things they have planned: to shut down the free media, to take over culture, restrict public transportation and more. We will talk to them only if the coalition says, ‘All right, we understand. It was too fast, sharp and evil. We are taking a pause and establishing an objective committee, which might produce different results.”
You concluded your speech last Saturday with a call for Israel to write a constitution.
“The people of Israel has to understand that we must broaden the common denominator between us, and that that is possible only on a basis of shared and indisputable civil values. Every person is invited to live here with his worldview – Haredim, Orthodox, LGBTQ people, Arabs – and I will fight so that everyone can live as he chooses. But the foundation is a constitution based on the country’s Declaration of Independence.”
You have already announced that you will not seek a second term as president of the bar association. Do you intend to enter politics?
“I don’t have any such plan. After I conclude my term this June, I want to contribute to society by helping organizations in the nonprofit sphere – for at-risk youth and disabled children. That’s what’s important for me. [In 2008, Himi established an NGO called “A Future for the Young,” which assists addicted and violent adolescents.] The way politics works in Israel today, I would have to forgo my values and my beliefs to be active politically. I esteem everyone who enters public life for the sake of the people and democracy, because they are truly making a great sacrifice. It’s no easy thing to be a public person in Israel who wants to do good.
“They are saying that a judicial overhaul is necessary because the public has increasingly less confidence in the judiciary,” Himi adds. “If that’s the parameter, then we actually need an overhaul of the government, because the public’s confidence in politicians stands at minus 10. In Israel we have succeeded economically, in security, we have reached outer space, the media here is highly developed, as is high-tech – it’s a glorious country. But we have one big failure: our politicians.”Article link: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-01-28/ty-article-magazine/.highlight/this-is-the-most-important-war-in-israels-history-says-protest-movement-leader/00000185-f492-def6-a7b5-fd9e082b0000
Article source: Haaretz | Netta Ahituv | Jan 28, 2023