Israelis challenge their government

by Clare Kinberg

In mid-July I read a Facebook post by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America written after he participated in a massive pro-democracy protest in Tel Aviv. He wrote “I felt honored, and perhaps even relieved, to be a speck in this crowd tonight.”

From our distance here in Washtenaw County, Michigan, it may be difficult to get a sense of what continues to motivate these massive protests, to understand the Israeli government’s determination to push through their agenda, or to anticipate the outcomes and what it could mean to American Jews. It is a rapidly changing situation, and as a monthly paper, the best I can offer readers is links to background reading and questions to help us think.

Among Jews worldwide, opinions on the condition of democracy in Israel are extremely heated — and divergent. Some writers focus on the details and political process of the judicial reforms that have sparked the protests. Writers who trace the background to the current clashes look at the ways democracy in Israel has been limited since the founding of the state.

I asked several local Jews who closely follow news from Israel what they are reading to help decipher this volatile moment. Here are a few of their suggestions.

Eileen Freed, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor suggested the many articles posted on the Israel Democracy Institute website. IDI articles (https://en.idi.org.il/articles/) include in-depth analysis of the judicial changes the government has proposed — issues such as the meaning of the “unreasonableness clause” — and views of various Knesset and cabinet members.

In the July 11 op-ed by Dr. Nadiv Mordechay of the IDI titled, “Massive Protests Show Israelis Understand Democracies Die Gradually.” Mordechay writes, “the public protest and its high rate of participation, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets across the country on a weekly basis, generates significant legitimacy for opposition to the government’s legislative moves. Some 21 percent of all Israelis have taken part in the protests, according to figures collected by the Israel Democratic Institute. That’s the equivalent of 70 million Americans protesting, based on the current population of the United States.”

In his conclusion, Mordechay’s op-ed ties the judicial reforms to differences in policy on the Occupied Territories. He states:

“The current government – the most extreme coalition in the history of the State of Israel – is not disguising its intentions to expand the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. Some government members even openly encourage violence by extremist Jews.

The battle for limited power of the government and for the rule of law is applicable to both Israel and the Occupied Territories. It’s impossible to separate anti-democratic moves within Israel from the desire to continue and expand conspicuous illegality in the territories.

In this sense, the Kaplan Street demonstrators [named for the street in Tel Aviv where large weekly demostations have occurred since January] also represent the possibility of a powerful civil demand by the people to end the government’s hawkish policy in the West Bank, although this voice is still marginal and disputed within the protest movement itself.”

Avi Eisbruch, an Israeli who has lived in Ann Arbor for many years, suggested following Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times. From Friedman’s July 11 op-ed, “The U.S. Reassessment of Netanyahu’s Government Has Begun”: “If the hundreds of thousands of Israeli democracy defenders, who have taken to the streets every Saturday for over half a year, can’t stop the Netanyahu juggernaut from slamming this bill through, it will, as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote the other day in Haaretz, “degrade Israel into a corrupt and racist dictatorship that will crumble society, isolate the country” and end “the democratic chapter” of Israel’s history.” President Biden has spoken directly with Friedman about the importance of the outcome of this conflict in Israeli society to American policy, indicating Friedman’s column will help understand Biden’s policies.

Another Israeli, Shachar Pinsker, professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, who participated in the demonstrations in May, sent me a link to a June +972 article by Oren Ziv. This article and the others Shachar pointed to question to what extent Israel was a democracy even before the recent government pursuit of judicial changes.

In the article titled “Israel’s protest leaders give the anti-occupation bloc the cold shoulder.” Ziv quotes Orly Noy, the chair of B’Tselem (and an editor at Local Call, +972’s Hebrew-language partner site): “… this week marks 56 years since 1967, and ..in the last month alone 50 Palestinians were killed — all this might disturb their celebration of ‘democracy.’”

Shachar also sent a link to a New Yorker article, “The Origins of Netanyahu’s ‘All-Systems Assault’ on Israeli Democracy” in which Isaac Chotiner interviews Dahlia Scheindlin. It’s an indepth piece that stands up, and I quote it here at a bit more length.

“Isaac Chotiner: If we’re talking about long-term causes, is Israeli democracy internally being eroded directly because of the occupation? Do all these forces arise because of an inability or an unwillingness by Israel to fundamentally make peace and end the occupation?

Dahlia Scheindlin (an analyst and policy fellow at Century International, and also a columnist for Haaretz): The occupation certainly has caused one of the biggest contradictions to democracy. It was inevitable, as some predicted early on, that it would undermine the democratic foundations of Israel. Having said that, I’ve been researching this because I’m finishing a book right now on the history of Israeli democracy, and one of my major observations and conclusions is that the problems with democracy in Israel started long before the occupation. The most accessible example is the fact that Israel was unable to pass a constitution, which it was required to do under U.N. Resolution 181, known as the partition plan of 1947. Israel committed itself to that, in its own declaration of independence.

I don’t want to say that all of the problems are caused by the failure to write and ratify a constitution, but it is indicative, and it was a reflection of these completely unresolved problems that are essentially a lack of commitment to the idea of civic equality — equality between all citizens — which to this day is not guaranteed by any primary legislation. We have lots of legislation that provides for specific forms of equality, such as gender equality, and workplace equality — very nice things. Most of those equalities depend on the Supreme Court. That is indicative. We’re nearly seventy-five years old, and we still don’t have anything like a regular law that says all citizens in Israel are equal. That problem goes back to the founding of the state. It’s a problem of preferring to have disproportionate power for a minority of religious Israeli Jews because nobody would consider Arabs as equal political partners. It means that you’re giving disproportionate political authority to people who don’t accept specific principles.”

Even the centrist Daniel Gordis, had a biting analysis published in Haaretz: “If Israel was a marriage, it would now be waiting in the lobby of the divorce lawyer’s office.” He wrote on July 17,

“We are drowning in seething mutual resentment, in a sea of hatred. What are we fighting about now, just as we’ve completed 75 years as an independent Jewish state? No one is certain anymore, and it doesn’t really matter. To be sure, it is largely about what kind of democracy Israel will be, if it remains a democracy at all, but by now it is also about betrayal, about a loss of trust, about the erosion of any sense of shared destiny. What was once a conversation about the judiciary has devolved into a flood of enmity, a tsunami of mutual rage.

Israel had always been a marriage of widely disparate groups and visions who curbed their autonomy and power for the sake of a larger whole, for the sake of a national home for the Jewish people.

That is what we were, not long ago. But that is no longer what we are.”

Another worthwhile read was sent to me by Shifra Epstein by the historian Yuval Noah Harari author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In his essay, “Can Judaism Survive a Messianic Dictatorship in Israel?” Harari asks to “Imagine a world where Judaism discards the spiritual and moral legacy it has accumulated over generations, burns down ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and sets fire to ‘you shall not covet your neighbor’s house.’ Imagine a world in which “Judaism” becomes a synonym for religious fanaticism, racism and brutal oppression. Could Judaism survive such a spiritual destruction?”

When President Isaac Herzog spoke to a joint session of Congress on July 21, his remarks attempted to turn down the heat. Herzog described the many expressions of democracy in Israel: the simultaneous sounds on late Friday of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer and the siren announcing the Sabbath in Jerusalem; the LGBTQ Pride Parade in Tel Aviv; the protection of human and civil liberties; the strong and independent judiciary; and the 120-member Knesset “comprised of Jews, Muslims, Christians or Druze, representing every opinion under the Israeli sun. Herzog said,

“Our democracy is also reflected in protesters taking to the streets all across the country, to emphatically raise their voices and fervently demonstrate their point of view,” he said of the debate and discord over proposed judicial reforms. “Our democracy is the blue and white Israeli flag waved and loved by all Israelis taking part in the debate. … Although we are working through sour issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.”

I look forward to reading your experiences, suggestions for other sources, and thoughts on any of this.

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