The Israeli right’s arrogance has made a new struggle possible

The mass protests have opened the possibility, however slight, that Israelis will begin to demand fundamental changes we haven't seen since 1948.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote in Knesset, Jerusalem, March 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote in Knesset, Jerusalem, March 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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One of the fascinating questions that future historians of Israel will ask is what caused hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews, the majority of the Jewish middle class, to protest against the far-right government’s judicial overhaul. What made them feel like the legislation is not a set of “reforms,” as Justice Minister Yariv Levin would have it, but rather a “coup” that directly threatens their identity, freedom, and way of life? What caused them to go out to the streets on a daily, even hourly, basis — sometimes without more than a few minutes’ notice — to carry out one of the most effective struggles in Israeli history?

The question is even more complex because it is almost impossible to point to a single factor, party, or personality that is leading these decentralized protests. And while there is no lack of funds behind them — whether through crowdfunding or donations — it is not money that has motivated hundreds of thousands to take to the streets so spontaneously because they believe that they are doing the right thing. 

Despite the lack of a clear guiding hand and the relatively diverse background of the protesters (even among the middle and upper classes there are many shades, including age, occupation, income, place of residence, and ethnic origin), the sentiment has been nearly uniform: this government wants to turn Israel into a full-blown dictatorship, and we want democracy. The fact that such a consensus was formed among such extensive sections of the Israeli public cannot be taken for granted, despite how baffling it may appear to onlookers. 

It is true that the measures promoted by Levin and Simcha Rothman, the latter of whom is working overtime to pass the judicial overhaul legislation as head of the Knesset’s Constitution Committee, were intended to give the government almost unbridled power, yet this is not a sufficient explanation for what we have been seeing. This is because the right has for years been building its case among large swaths of the public against the Supreme Court and the Israel judicial system writ large. Furthermore, not everyone understands the real meaning of the different aspects of the reform, from the “override clause” to the system of appointing judges. 

Police fire a water cannon at protesters during a demonstration against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul, Tel Aviv, March 27, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Police fire a water cannon at protesters during a demonstration against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul, Tel Aviv, March 27, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

What built this consensus, then, was the government itself. Even before Levin announced his reform, members of the coalition created an atmosphere of a coup in the making. From threats to cancel Pride parades to imposing prison sentences on women who dress immodestly at the Western Wall, to the dissolution of the Public Broadcasting Corporation, to laws tailored to allow specific coalition members to remain in office despite past legal transgressions, the dozens of legal initiatives created a sense of immediate threat and a state of emergency among large sections of the secular-liberal public.

Meanwhile, the transfer of the Civil Administration, which governs the lives of millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and the police to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir have understandably raised concerns not only among Palestinians and the Jewish radical left, but also among members of the security establishment. Levin’s “reform,” and the brutality with which it is being rammed through the Knesset, forms the edifice of the government’s anti-democratic and anti-secular revolution.

You do not have to go back very far to understand the origins of the right’s grievance-based revenge fantasies. The government is made up of three central groups: those who oppose the rule of law for personal-criminal reasons such as Benjamin Netanyahu and Aryeh Deri; outright racists who want a second mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians such as Smotrich and Ben Gvir; and the Haredim who want to maintain and expand their state-funded autonomy. There are many differences between these groups, but what unites them is the fundamental agreement not only over the essence of the State of Israel, which is to grant special privileges to Jews, but that they have the ultimate authority to determine who can and cannot be deemed Jewish. Radical leftists in solidarity with Palestinians, defenders of liberal values, feminists, those who don’t keep kosher, or LGBTQ members are all seen as hindrances to the fullest realization Jewish supremacy between the river and the sea.

This group approached the first elections of 2019 with full confidence that they are the majority. Demographically, this sounds reasonable: the Haredim, the national-religious, and masorti Mizrahim should have enough votes to secure 61 Knesset seats. But over the course of four election campaigns, the right failed to achieve this majority, while Palestinian citizens, a group that until then had been politically marginalized, began forming alliances with center-left Jewish parties, with the Islamic Ra’am party even joining the “government of change.” Smotrich understood this danger in real time. If the Arabs enter the political game as real contenders, as he wrote in a Facebook post two years ago, the right will forever remain a minority.

Palestinian MKs Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh seen during a vote in the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Palestinian MKs Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh seen during a vote in the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This is, essentially, what lies behind the current coalition’s desire for revenge and behind Levin’s reform: an attempt to guarantee that what happened in the last four election cycles, from 2019 to 2022, will not happen again, to guarantee right-wing rule, and to enable the right to enact its agenda: starting with the establishment of full apartheid in the West Bank, then expelling Arab parties from the Knesset along the way, and, finally, utterly crushing secular-liberal power in Jewish Israeli society. All this would only be possible if the Supreme Court is neutered. In other words, the right-wing coalition decided to officially pit “Jewish” against “democratic,” with “Jewish” coming out on top. If the state also happens to be democratic, that’s fine — but certainly not necessary.  

This is what gave birth to the fear among many Jewish Israelis. This is what gave birth to the slogan “democracy” and has caused it to take center stage in the protests. The idea of “democracy” can be quite fuzzy. In this case, the term expresses the view of those who oppose the coup because it gives the “state” — that is, the current coalition — too much power at the expense of Israel’s reigning elites. 

This sentiment was and remains very strong in the demonstrations. The resolve of both Chief Justice Esther Hayut and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to oppose the reforms is rooted in this sentiment, as is the participation of the high-tech sector in the protests and the warning by economic elites of how the coup will shatter the Israeli economy. The protest by reservists is obviously rooted in it as well. The spark that ignited the fierce and spontaneous protest on Sunday night was Netanyahu’s firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for his loyalty to the military elite that totally opposes the reform, and who was accused of protecting thousands — pilots and others — who said they “refuse to serve under a dictatorship.”

But the protest has created its own dynamic. It grew and spread at a speed that no one predicted, creating a sense of possibility for a public that had felt politically irrelevant for years and a sense of “internal exile,” as author David Grossman said in a speech at one of the first demonstrations. Moreover, the protest served as a huge lesson in active citizenship for hundreds of thousands of people. In cafes and on the streets, people have begun to speak about “the tyranny of the majority” and the rights of minorities.

The protests have also brought many to the conclusion that Netanyahu’s corruption trial is not the only issue, but that the right, which views equality as dangerous and subversive, must be opposed. It is no coincidence that the most popular battle cry of the demonstrators taking over Ayalon highway this week was: “Without equality, we’ll block Ayalon! You’ve crossed the wrong generation!”

This development has made clear that the protests have, for the past few weeks, not just been about the judicial overhaul, which Netanyahu “froze” on Monday. Large segments of the protest movement are looking beyond the overhaul. Many demonstrators are now demanding a constitution and the passage of a Basic Law that would protect civil rights. This vision is most cohesively presented in a constitutional proposal published by President Isaac Herzog that includes a demand “to enshrine in  ‘Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty’ the right of equality, a prohibition on discrimination, and the freedoms of expression, opinion, protest, and assembly,” a move Israel has never been able to make because of its commitment to Jewish supremacy and the fear felt by Haredim that equality would undermine their unique status in Israeli political life. 

Shikma Bressler, one of the most prominent figures in the protest, has expressed a similar vision of the protest and its potential. “There is a democratic camp, which believes in freedom and civil rights and supports equality,” she said in an interview with Haaretz two weeks ago. “Facing it is the other camp, which advocates a conception of its own absolute supremacy over others: that camp and its adherents vs. all the rest. Jewish supremacy, if you will. That is the division between the camps, and every other division is nonsense.” That is, Bressler, who by her own description is not a leftist, is framing “Jewish supremacy” — which until just recently was only discussed by the radical left — as her enemy.

Protest leader Shikma Bressler delivers a speech during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, Tel Aviv, March 25, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Protest leader Shikma Bressler delivers a speech during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, Tel Aviv, March 25, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is trying to buy himself time, promising that the coup is only “on hold” and will start up again after Independence Day on April 25. The likelihood that the prime minister can resume the coup is not very high, but it is clear that in the first battle between the far-right government and civil protest, the protest won an overwhelming victory. But the big question is what will happen the moment right after victory is achieved and the judicial coup finally crumbles. Or, perhaps more accurately, whether victory is the mere elimination of Levin’s reform, or something far bigger. 

One possibility is that everything will return to where it began: the pilots will go back to bombing Gaza, the economically privileged will resume their positions in the neoliberal order, and the Supreme Court will continue to fail to represent the entire population in Israel: Palestinians, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, and more. 

But there is another possibility, perhaps a hope, that the hundreds of thousands of people who poured into the streets have learned a new language. Perhaps they are not prepared to return to the status quo of Jan. 3, 2023, the day before Levin announced the reform. Over the course of three months they have chanted “democracy or revolt,” and it doesn’t seem like they are willing to stop simply because Netanyahu is looking for more rabbits to pull out of his hat. They may well join the project of creating a true “democracy,” becoming actual agents of democratization. The demands for a constitution or meaningful Basic Laws can be used as the basis for change. It is difficult to see a leader from the center-left returning to power and ignoring the demands for equality and civil rights in Herzog’s proposal, among others. 

Israeli protesters rally against the government's judicial overhaul bills, Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Israeli protesters rally against the government’s judicial overhaul bills, Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

It must be said openly and honestly: this fight for “democracy” hardly dealt with the occupation or the oppressive rule over Palestinians. I say “hardly,” because anyone who participated in the anti-occupation bloc in the Kaplan protests or elsewhere saw this dynamic change over the weeks. When the demonstrations began, there was hostility and even violence against those carrying Palestinian flags. But the response from non-apartheid-focused demonstrators became much more accepting, even sympathetic. The pogrom in Huwara, and Smotrich’s monstrous statements calling to wipe out the Palestinian town, have built a direct connection between West Bank settlers and those responsible for the coup. Some reservists even presented Huwara as a reason for their refusal. Turning refusal into a legitimate political tool may also mark a shift in the struggle against the occupation. 

Anyone who tries to turn Israel “democratic” instead of “Jewish,” anyone who tries to draft a constitution or enshrine equality in the Basic Laws, will soon run into the massive elephant in the room: the rights and privileges enjoyed only by Jews and the regime of occupation and apartheid over Palestinians. We are still far from actualizing full democracy. But these days, we should allow ourselves a bit of optimism. The racist right, in its arrogance, mobilized opposition forces that no one — even the center and left — knew existed. The failure of the right has opened the possibility that this opposition will demand a fundamental change, a change Israel hasn’t seen since 1948.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.