The Three Biggest Misconceptions About Israel’s Upheaval

And how to better understand the protests there

A photo of a silhouette of a man holding an Israeli flag
Jack Guez / AFP / Getty

For the past three months, Israelis have been protesting across the country against the attempted overhaul of their judicial system by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition. In February, a survey found that nearly one in five Israelis had taken part in a demonstration. This unprecedented activism culminated in a national strike at the end of March that compelled Netanyahu to pause, but not abandon, his efforts to push through the legislation. Today, representatives of the two sides sat down to continue negotiations toward a potential compromise. Yet despite all the coverage these events have rightly received, I’ve noticed a fair number of fallacies circulating about why they came about and what’s driving them.

Myth 1: The protests are about whether Israel should reform its judiciary.

International coverage of the Israeli unrest often casts the controversy in binary terms: Some Israelis support judicial reform; others oppose it. But the story is more complicated. In fact, there is broad consensus that the country’s Supreme Court is overly powerful and should be reined in. At present, the body effectively appoints its own members and exercises authority over politicians and policy that is unique in the democratic world. Back in 2007, the American judge and legal commentator Richard Posner labeled Aharon Barak—the Israeli chief justice most responsible for the expansion of the court’s capabilities—an “enlightened despot.” The leaders of several Israeli opposition parties have themselves sought to correct this imbalance in Israel’s internal affairs.

Such widespread agreement is probably why Netanyahu, who usually has an uncanny grasp of where his self-interest lies, didn’t see the extent of the protest movement coming: He thought he was tackling a consensus issue. But the legislation produced by his hard-line coalition was less a careful recalibration of the judiciary than a decimation of it. A wish list of right-wing reforms, it essentially inverts the perceived problem by subordinating the top court to politicians, giving the government control over most judicial appointments and preventing the court from overruling legislation.

Israelis aren’t objecting to the idea of reform; they’re objecting to this version of it. Polls by the Israel Democracy Institute have repeatedly found that a large majority of Israelis supports “dialogue about the proposed legislative changes and an attempt to reach compromise.” This popular approach has been championed by both Israel’s president, who has attempted to broker such a deal, and the Biden administration, which has called for the reform to be based on “consensus.”

Myth 2: The protests represent a left-wing minority pitted against a right-wing majority that won Israel’s last election.

Supporters of the judicial overhaul often characterize its opponents as a resentful rump that is refusing to allow the majority to exercise its authority, even after it received an electoral mandate. “We won and it’s crazy that they won’t let us govern like the majority wishes,” Meirav Reuvan, an economist who supports Netanyahu’s reforms, told reporters. Versions of this claim have been echoed by more dispassionate outside analysts who have argued that the protests embody an eclipsed Ashkenazi elite seeking to protect itself from illiberal majoritarian rule by an ascendant Israeli right.

But whatever the merits of such sociological analysis, the current coalition does not represent a majority or a mandate. The parties that make up the government received just 48.4 percent of the vote in Israel’s last election cycle, during which Netanyahu campaigned on the economy and security, not judicial reform. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Israelis oppose the current reforms, even as they support a compromise version of reform. This is also evident in the streets: Although hundreds of thousands of Israelis have repeatedly turned out to oppose the overhaul, when the right sought to organize a counterprotest in Tel Aviv, turnout was substantial but sparser. It is precisely because the current coalition chose to pursue a sweeping change to Israel’s democratic order without a popular mandate that the move has provoked such extraordinary opposition.

Myth 3: The protests are ignoring Palestinian rights.

Like any mass movement, Israel’s demonstrations have drawn broad-based support from the country’s population, including conservatives such as Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and the family of Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister. For many protesters, the Palestinian people are the furthest thing from their minds, and some have gone so far as to harass other demonstrators for displaying a Palestinian flag. This has led some observers to claim that the rallies neglect the concerns of the Palestinian people, both in Israel and the territories it occupies.

But although the demonstrations have naturally centered on the judicial overhaul, anti-occupation protesters have been a constant and growing presence at the marches from the beginning, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and elsewhere. A Passover Haggadah recently released by activists in the movement, featuring contributions from many of Israel’s cultural luminaries, includes a section opposing Israel’s presence in the West Bank, alongside a photo of a protester brandishing a sign that says There is no occupation without resistance and another wearing a T-shirt with the words Democracy for all in Hebrew and Arabic. At rally after rally, Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid has linked the government’s attack on the judiciary with its supporters’ attacks on Palestinians. The coalition’s small electoral victory, Lapid declared, “does not entitle it to inflict pogroms in Huwara,” the West Bank village repeatedly assaulted by settlers, “and does not entitle it to erase the Supreme Court.”

More important, the elected leaders of both Arab parties in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset—the secular Hadash-Ta’al and the Islamist Ra’am—are publicly supporting the protests. Ayman Odeh, the head of the Hadash-Ta’al alliance, himself protested in the streets in the early hours of the morning after Netanyahu fired his defense minister for questioning the judicial overhaul. In February, 14 percent of the country’s Arabs told pollsters that they had joined a demonstration—not far from the 19 percent of Jews who said the same—complicating reports suggesting that Israel’s “grim potential future hasn’t been enough to draw them into the protests.”

It’s not that Israel’s Arabs idealize the Supreme Court. Some have significant issues with its rulings. But they recognize that unshackling the most extreme government in Israeli history from the only check on its power would be disastrous for Palestinians. A survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that a whopping 87 percent of Israel’s Arabs worried that the overhaul would curtail their rights, and 71 feared that it would lead to restrictions on freedom of expression.

“Arab society is in the minority, and to this point, the primary protection for this society has been the judicial system,” Mansour Abbas, the head of Ra’am, said in a media appearance. “A reform that hurts the judicial system’s independence, its ability to balance the bulldozing of the Knesset and government, will definitely hurt the standing, rights, and the future of Arab society.”

The basis for this prediction can be seen quite clearly if one looks at the other side of this story. At a March rally in support of the reforms, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party riled up the crowd with a pointed call-and-response:

“If I want to demolish terrorists’ houses, who’s in my way?”

“The Supreme Court!”

“Who lets terrorists file suit against the state?”

“The Supreme Court!”

“Who is preventing me from stripping terrorists’ families of their rights?”

“The Supreme Court!”

In the face of such ambitions, the stakes for Palestinians—both inside and outside Israel—are profound, and it is unsurprising that Israel’s Arab community has become invested in this debate.