Tens of thousands of Israelis protested outside the parliament building on Monday in a show of force against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his government formally launched its controversial plan to overhaul the country’s legal system.

The boisterous demonstration outside the Knesset, coupled with a stormy committee vote inside the building, appeared to deepen divisions over Netanyahu’s program. The plan has sparked weeks of mass protests, provoked condemnation from broad sections of Israeli society and prompted a statement of concern from President Joe Biden.

Netanyahu and his allies say the country’s unelected judges have too much power and need to be reined in. Opponents of him say Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, has a deep conflict of interest. They say that his planned reform of his will destroy the democratic checks and balances of the country and is a poorly disguised plot to make his criminal case disappear.

Monday’s demonstration was the largest to take place in the city in years. Thousands of people poured into Jerusalem from across the country on packed trains, hoisting flags and chanting “democracy” as they left the station.

«They listen to us,» opposition leader Yair Lapid told the crowd as he gestured toward parliament. “They listen to our strength and our commitment. They pretend not to hear. They pretend they are not afraid. But they hear and they are afraid”.

Organizers claimed that more than 100,000 people joined the rally on Monday. They included Arab, women’s rights and LGBTQ activists, as well as opposition parties. They were joined by groups of academics, Army reservists, students, high-tech employees, retirees, and young families.

Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid addresses protesters outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday.
Israel’s opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid addresses protesters outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP – Getty Images

The crowd was loud, honking horns, chanting “democracy”, chanting and whistling. But the event was uneventful and police said there were no arrests.

Many protesters carried Israel’s blue and white flag and banners denouncing what they said was an attack on the country’s democratic institutions. «Shame shame!» and “Israel will not be a dictatorship,” they chanted.

«People won’t accept it,» said Boaz Zarki, a protester in Jerusalem. «The separation of authority is fundamental to the existence of democracy.»

Other large demonstrations were held in cities across the country.

Despite a call from Israel’s figurehead president to freeze the legislation and begin a dialogue with the opposition, Netanyahu went ahead with his program.

As protesters gathered outside, a parliamentary committee controlled by a Netanyahu ally approved the first laws related to the plan.

They include a proposal to give the Netanyahu-dominated legislature control over judicial appointments. Currently, judges are appointed by an independent committee that includes lawyers, politicians, and judges.

A second proposal would remove the authority of the Supreme Court to review the legality of the main laws known as «Basic Laws.»

Another proposal is still in the works to give parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions it doesn’t like. Opponents say the proposal would push Israel towards a system like Hungary and Poland in which the leader exercises control over all major levers of power.

During the disorderly committee vote, opposition members stood at the conference table, banged on desks and chanted «shame!» The committee’s chairman, Simcha Rothman, a member of a far-right religious party, expelled several opposition politicians, at least two of whom were dragged away by security guards.