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April 19, 2023 8:17 am

Holocaust Survivor Finds her Place Among Israeli Protesters

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avatar by Reuters and Algemeiner Staff

Esther Paran, 79, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary looks on during a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 15, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Nir Elias

Esther Paran navigated her way in a wheelchair through the throngs of Israelis marching through Tel Aviv in protest at government plans to overhaul the country’s judicial system.

She was pushed by an aide. She did not bang on drums or yell along with the crowd. But she understands more than most about the vulnerability of democracy.

Paran, 79, is one of roughly 147,000 Holocaust survivors still alive in Israel. She was born in Hungary towards the end of World War Two when her family was in hiding from the Nazis. They came to Israel in 1957 after a deadly uprising in Hungary that failed to end Soviet rule.

Democracy needs a lot of safeguards, she said, and the highly-contested judicial overhaul plan that has caused months of turmoil in Israel is what disturbs her today.

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She never drew a comparison between events from her past and the current rift in Israel.

“When I see the television I get so angry I can’t sleep all night,” she said at one of the demonstrations that have drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters. “Here at least I feel that I do something. And I believe it will help.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to make sweeping changes to the court system has caused an unprecedented fracture in Israeli society.

His right-wing coalition wants to rein in the Supreme Court it sees interfering in policymaking. This sparked outrage at home and concern abroad about the erosion of Israel’s checks and balances and a weakening democracy.

That enmity, though, will take a back seat on Tuesday as Israel marks its Holocaust remembrance day and commemorates the death of 6 million Jews. Television channels carry memorial ceremonies and for two minutes Israelis stand in silence as sirens blare across the country.

Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany. Paran said her mother, like many other Jews around Budapest, was able to find them a place to hide with another family thanks to documents from Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

There was little food and constant danger. At one point the family ate meat off a dead horse they found.

Her family stayed in Hungary after the war and through a popular uprising in 1956 that was crushed by Soviet troops. They moved to Israel the next year and Paran became a physician.

She dabbed tears from her cheeks when recalling their life in Hungary.

Paran discussed her worries about Israel more stoically and with a sense of optimism that protesters‘ concerns will be heard.

But in the meantime, she said, to “sit and do nothing is a terrible feeling.”

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