Yedidia Stern

A miraculous display of civil heroism

The political center is taking to the streets to fight for values and interests that transcend identity group politics
Israelis protest outside the Knesset government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023 (Erik Marmor/ Flash90)
Israelis protest outside the Knesset government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023 (Erik Marmor/ Flash90)

The throat chokes up with a mix of anxiety and pride. We’ve heard a lot about the anxiety. Here I’d like to emphasize the pride: a people arose from its peaceful and relaxed day-to-day life and went out to fight for its spirit and its future. Without political organization, without personal interests, without qualms, crowds rallied to restore to the people what belongs to them: the ability to defend their freedom against a potentially predatory majority rule.

In view of the danger that the Leviathan – the executive branch – will take over the judicial branch, Israeli citizens are forging an impenetrable defensive wall with their own bodies. The Israeli center understands that only it – you and I and every Israeli patriot – can get the state and our society out of the emergency room into which it was thrown, battered and bloody.

How much power there is in nonviolent civil disobedience! Hundreds of thousands have taken to our streets in the spirit of Gandhi and King, their only weapons flags, signs, megaphones, and a general strike. Facing them is a responsible, mature, controlled police force that knows that its role in the national drama is limited and marginal. Not government-dispatched thugs, but rather keepers of the public order, with good intentions. Even more reason to be proud.

The transfer of Israeli society from the emergency room to a regular ward, and later to rehab, should be measured. A halt to the aggressive legislative effort must not be construed as the victory of half the people over the other half. Nor should it be regarded as a capitulation to military service refusal – even “gray refusal.” The protest movement must rise above a Rothman-Levin maneuver that seeks to aggressively vanquish the other side. It must confine itself to its original purpose: protecting the independence of the justice system against the intrusion of the government.

A miracle has occurred: the labor unions joined the effort to defend democracy in full force, the economy’s big employers stood ready to close the shopping malls, the universities stopped teaching, and the doctors suspended their mission in non-life-threatening situations – despite the fact that half of Israel’s workers, consumers, students, and physicians voted for the coalition parties only five months ago. There is a mature civil sobriety here that transcends political considerations.

And this is indeed a constitutional moment, different from any other moment we have experienced before. In regular times, politicians and voters use their power and their democratic right to promote the values and interests that are important to them and to their identity groups. But at this constitutional moment, we are prepared to act on behalf of values and interests greater than those specific to each of us.

We Israelis are accustomed to the nobility of heroism in battle. This time we are experiencing a different, equally important form of valor, civil heroism. Heroism in battle grants us life and political independence; civil heroism ensures our freedom and infuses life and political independence with appropriate meaning.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a professor of law (emeritus) at Bar-Ilan University.