Israel’s Tectonic Struggle
Both those protesting in the streets and those remaining at home believe they’re defending democracy.
Last Thursday night, the sirens started wailing in Tel Aviv, the telltale sign of an attack. My first thought was Please, God, let it be a terrorist. Better the familiar trauma of Palestinian terror than the novel horror of Jews shooting at Jews, igniting civil war. Because such a nightmare these days indeed seems conceivable.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets on a nightly basis to protest the government’s judicial-reform initiative, which they believe will strip Israel of democracy and permanently install dictatorial, racist, and, in some cases, criminal politicians. But to many of the millions of Israelis remaining at home, the demonstrations represent something else—a last-ditch attempt by an embittered elite to regain the power it lost at the polls.
As these resentments mount, and the danger of internecine conflict increases, friends are asking me whether we’re witnessing a replay of the year 70 C.E., when Rome besieged Jerusalem while the Jews inside descended into fratricide.
My mother, a former family therapist, was fond of saying that the presenting problem is not the most serious problem, and that is emphatically true about Israel today. Those opposing the reforms, mostly from the political center and the left but with a significant representation from the moderate right, genuinely fear for Israel’s soul. They want to raise their children in this country and are willing to fight for its future. Many are threatening to leave the state entirely if the government destroys its democracy. “Let’s see how long those fascists survive without us,” a business associate of mine declared, pointing to the prominence of high-tech professionals and veterans of elite military units in the protests. “Israel will become Lebanon.”
But those supporting the government believe no less fervently that they are defending their democratically won preeminence, their traditional values, and the embattled Jewish state.
The real problem is not the question of judicial review but the existence of two opposed and arguably irreconcilable Israels. The first is the Israel of its founders, a largely secular, Western-oriented country now living at peace with a growing number of its Arab neighbors. That Israel yearns to be a normal country, a nation of world-class clubs and restaurants, of art and innovation. It wishes to be a state that guarantees equal rights for women, the LGBTQ community, and its Arab minorities. Its citizens are hyper-educated, affluent, and connected with the world. “They basically want Sweden,” a member of my synagogue, a recent immigrant from Paris, told me. “They basically want France.”
But the other Israel does not believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is over. This Israel doesn’t want to be France. The Jewish people were never supposed to be normal and never have been, it insists. Normalcy is the last thing it wants. Israel is, and must proudly remain, abnormal, a country that invests at least as much in religious learning as it does in technology, and that safeguards its territorial heritage. This Israel sees the Supreme Court not as the last bastion against illiberalism, but as the fortress around which the ancien régime has rallied. It resents those who’d welcome an Islamist party into their government but balk at admitting Torah-abiding Jews, or who care more about their savings accounts than they do about 4,000 years of Jewish history.
Ethnicity, of course, plays an underlying role. Although large numbers of Mizrachim—Jews of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry—participate in the protests against the government, they account for a far greater share of the government’s supporters. Many retain memories of discrimination at the hands of Israel’s Western, Ashkenazi elite. “Israel is not a country,” that same French immigrant, a Mizrachi Jew, told me. “It is a corporation: Israel Inc. And the creators of that company refuse to surrender its management to its workers. The Supreme Court is simply a board of directors resisting their own ouster.”
Religion and ethnicity both complicate the vision of a Jewish and democratic state. Our twin identities grind against each other tectonically. As a recent example of the clash, secular Ashkenazi artists in my Jaffa neighborhood sued to close down the mostly Mizrachi synagogue I attend. Our singing was too loud, they claimed. The artists lost. “Let’s be honest,” the judge told the plaintiffs, pointing to the bells and muezzin calls that daily resound in our area. “You wouldn’t have sued if the synagogue had been a church or a mosque.”
That judge, as far as I could tell, was herself Ashkenazi and secular, which remains for me a source of hope. And yet, the demonstrations continue, and the government refuses to back down. There is no solution in sight.
The crisis will probably end in one of two ways: a compromise that satisfies nobody but preserves a semblance of unity, or a showdown in which Israelis will have to choose between loyalty to the Supreme Court and fealty to the Knesset. The latter will significantly increase the chances of deep-seated instability and even violence.
My prayer last Thursday was perversely answered. It was a Palestinian gunman, not a Jew, who shot three Israeli civilians on Dizengoff Street. But averting the horror of civil war and safeguarding Israel—our country, not the corporation—will take far more than just prayers.
Yes, the Supreme Court must be reformed, its judges chosen by the people and not by sitting justices, and its jurisdiction limited in ways that respect the people’s will. But at the same time, the principle of judicial review—a pillar of any democratic society—must be preserved. At stake is not just the balance of majority and minority rights, but the fate of a Jewish and democratic Israel.