What Many Americans Misunderstand About Israel’s Unrest

Yair Rosenberg on how the country got to this moment, and what coverage of the issue can miss

An aerial view of people protesting in Tel Aviv on March 25
An aerial view of people protesting in Tel Aviv on March 25 (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP via Getty)

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On Sunday, news broke that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had abruptly fired the country’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, after Gallant pleaded for a delay in the judiciary-overhaul plan put forward by Netanyahu’s government. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis rolled out of bed and hit the streets, “believing their country’s democracy to be in peril,” my colleague Yair Rosenberg wrote yesterday in The Atlantic. I chatted with Yair about what led to this moment, and what some coverage of the issue can miss.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Right-Wing Wish List

Kelli María Korducki: Can you walk us through the Netanyahu government’s plans for judicial reform and why they were so controversial?

Yair Rosenberg: Shortly after Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition was sworn in, it proposed an ambitious suite of legislation to reform Israel’s judiciary. In Israel and beyond, there’s expert and political consensus that Israel’s Supreme Court is one of the most powerful in the world, and that it ideally should be reformed to better balance power between the judiciary and elected officials. But the reform that the Netanyahu government put forward was more like a right-wing wish list. It hobbled the court in almost every way, from giving the government near-total control over judicial appointments to ending judicial review. This was less a reform than a revolution. In Israel, a country without a written constitution, it would remove the sole check on the government’s power.

There were no attempts to build national consensus around what was a fundamental reform to the democratic order of Israel. And you have to keep in mind that the members of Netanyahu’s coalition got 48.4 percent of the vote in the last election. They ended up with the majority of seats in Parliament due to the quirks of the Israeli electoral system, but they don’t actually represent a majority of the votes. So they’re trying to enact this dramatic overhaul of Israel’s judiciary and its democratic system without any real popular mandate or buy-in.

Kelli: Netanyahu’s coalition first proposed its judiciary overhaul in January, two months before the mass protests that caught the world’s attention earlier this week. What happened in between?

Yair: More protests! They started in January, with tens of thousands of people in more liberal areas, and grew to hundreds of thousands of people across the country. And the movement kept picking up steam. Business and tech leaders began expressing concern that the judicial overhaul would harm the Israeli economy. Civil servants who normally don’t make political statements warned that it would weaken Israel’s institutions and international standing. And, most unusually, members of Israel’s elite army units began coming out and saying that the plan would undermine Israeli democracy as they see it, and that they would not serve in the Israeli army if it passed.

Kelli: So, in a state where military service is mandatory for citizens, service members said they would no longer comply.

Yair: Which brings us to Saturday night, when Netanyahu’s own defense minister, Yoav Gallant, saw this happening and essentially said, We need to pause this legislation. We need to negotiate and do something different, because it is threatening national cohesion. In response, Netanyahu fired Gallant on Sunday night—essentially, for saying what many, many people in the country had been saying.

Israel, for understandable historical reasons, is a very security-focused country. We’re approaching the period of the calendar when Ramadan and Passover intersect, which in the past has seen outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Iran is still moving toward a nuclear weapon. And yet, in the midst of this, Netanyahu decided to fire the country’s top security official over a political dispute.

This frightened a lot of Israelis. And so, after midnight, protests unfolded across the country. By Monday morning, this culminated in a national strike. Businesses and schools closed, flights were grounded, and the country came to a halt. One hundred thousand protesters converged on the Israeli Knesset, where the government was set to vote on the legislation. That leads to the dramatic moment where Netanyahu finally comes down and says, I’m going to pause the process. He claimed he was doing so to enable all sides to work out an agreeable compromise, but many suspect he simply hopes the break will take the wind out of the protest movement’s sails so that he and his coalition can push through their original plan.

Kelli: You’ve noted in passing that there are elements of this story that U.S. media narratives don’t always capture. Can you summarize what they are?

Yair: Sometimes, people from outside of Israel think that the ongoing unrest boils down to a controversy over whether or not Israel should have an empowered judiciary. But actually, there is broad consensus in Israel that there should be some level of reform, because many agree that the country’s Supreme Court has evolved over time to become a bit too powerful. It’s just that Israelis vehemently disagree on how to do this fairly.

I would also say that people who follow Israeli affairs from afar tend to view the country through a binary political prism: pro or anti, for or against. But this event complicates that approach. Many people who are normally very supportive of Israel are also very supportive of these protests, because they see the attempt to completely overhaul the judiciary as attacking what they believe Israel should be. And on the other side, you have people who normally are sharply critical of Israel finding themselves sympathetic with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets protesting Netanyahu and his government. These critics and supporters of Israel are suddenly in this weird position of being on the same side. And I actually think this is healthy! We should not be viewing whole countries through an ideological lens.


Today’s News

  1. A federal judge ruled that former Vice President Mike Pence must appear in front of a grand jury that is investigating January 6 and Trump’s attempts to interfere in the 2020 election.
  2. A Maryland appellate court reinstated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, who was the subject of the Serial podcast.
  3. Russia fired supersonic missiles off the coast of Japan in a training exercise.

Evening Read

Narcissus looking into a screen with a pixellated reflection
Illustration by Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Universal History Archive / Getty

ChatGPT Has Imposter Syndrome

By Ross Andersen

Young people catch heat for being overly focused on personal identity, but they’ve got nothing on ChatGPT. Toy with the bot long enough, and you’ll notice that it has an awkward, self-regarding tic: “As an AI language model,” it often says, before getting to the heart of the matter. This tendency is especially pronounced when you query ChatGPT about its own strengths and weaknesses. Ask the bot about its capabilities, and it will almost always reply with something like:

“As an AI language model, my primary function is …”

“As an AI language model, my ability to …”

“As an AI language model, I cannot …”

The workings of AI language models are by nature mysterious, but one can guess why ChatGPT responds this way. The bot smashes our questions into pieces and evaluates each for significance, looking for the crucial first bit that shapes the logical order of its response. It starts with a few letters or an entire word and barrel-rolls forward, predicting one word after another until eventually, it predicts that its answer should end. When asked about its abilities, ChatGPT seems to be keying in on its identity as the essential idea from which its ensuing chain of reasoning must flow. I am an AI language model, it says, and this is what AI language models do.

Read the full article.

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Yair adds, “Next week is the Jewish holiday of Passover—or so you may have heard. But what if I told you that ‘Passover’ might be a mistranslation from the original Hebrew, and that many classical Jewish commentators understood the holiday’s name very differently, with different moral lessons? You can learn all about it in my Atlantic newsletter, Deep Shtetl.”

— Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.