Jonathan Dekel-Chen

An Unlikely Source of Hope at the Abyss

Anti-Government demonstration at City Hall, Beer Sheva, February 4, 2023
Anti-government demonstration at City Hall, Beer Sheva, February 4, 2023

A lifetime in Israel, shuttling between gritty working-class realities in the Negev and the Ivory Tower at the Hebrew University, has taught me to accept Israel’s many contradictions.

Until the formation of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new radical right-wing government, I believed in a fundamental solidarity among our Jewish citizens despite Israel’s flaws and injustices. No matter the growing gaps between “haves” and “have-nots”, despite the widening political chasm between left and right and in full awareness of the daily hurt we needlessly inflict on one another, I still believed that nearly all of us held fast around the sanctity of Israel’s democratic institutions and the apolitical, bonding character of the IDF.

The anti-democratic policy blitz pushed by this new government in its first weeks in office, invoking the supposed “will of the people,” has been a bitter pill to swallow. While the current ruling coalition occupies 64 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, it represents just over 50% of the electorate. The anti-democratic policy blitz is horrifying, but not surprising, given the array of proto-fascist, anti-civil society, theocratic parties in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition and his own legal predicaments. The policy proposals put forth by Netanyahu’s ministers have a common denominator: (a) unilateral destruction of the country’s remarkable, if imperfect, independent judicial system; (b) empowering the darkest corners in the Israeli body politic in all matters concerning the West Bank and Israel’s (mis)treatment of Palestinians through politicization of the IDF and police forces; and, (c) providing unfettered power to politicians – none of whom are accountable to a specific constituency due to Israel’s party-based electoral system – with which they can strip away academic freedom from the country’s universities and colleges and to heavily restrict the right to protest or strike.

As a historian and son of Holocaust survivors, I am appalled by these legislative abominations. Throughout the 250-year global experiment with democracy, restrictions imposed on its institutions by power-hungry politicians inevitably result in severe human rights violations. In Israel’s case, the denial of human rights will undoubtedly begin with Palestinians under Israeli occupation and Israel’s Arab citizens. Injustice will almost certainly spread to our other minority groups, including but not restricted to Ethiopian Jews and the LBGTQ community. We may be the “Chosen People” but Israel’s democracy is just as vulnerable to strongman takeover as Hungary and Poland today and other democracies in the 20th century.

As the Israeli press has reported, in recent weeks myriad professional groups, civil society organizations, student unions, prominent personalities and mass public protests have stated loudly and clearly their opposition to the cynical deconstruction of Israeli democracy. These mobilizations encourage me; they reflect the spectrum of Israelis who – despite our internal inequities, suspicions and hatreds – are uniting in defense of core democratic principles on which the State of Israel was founded and without which we have no place among the enlightened nations of the world.  As could be expected, Jewish scholars from around the world have also mobilized opposition to the government’s efforts to disempower Israel’s democratic institutions.

As an Israeli hardened by the cynicism that we employ to shelter ourselves from everyday slights and frustrations, it seemed natural that strong voices of protest are coming forth from Israel’s liberal cities. But, I wondered, what about people in the much more conservative cities and towns outside of the coastal strip?

Last Saturday night I got an answer. On a cold night in Beer Sheva, the capital of Israel’s south, hundreds of like-minded citizens gathered in protest of Netanyahu’s anti-democratic coup. Here, in a city far from the cosmopolitan streets of Tel Aviv and possessing a political conservatism typical of more religious, economically marginalized communities, these hundreds of protestors enthusiastically cheered speakers from women’s rights’ groups, Bedouin legal defense activists, LBGTQ coalitions and a progressive rabbi.  These hundreds came from the local (Ben Gurion) University, from kibbutzim in the area and, yes, from Beer Sheva’s neighborhoods.  In fact, this is the first time Beer Sheva has hosted a major political rally in years. Why? It seems that Netanyahu and his political allies have touched a nerve among everyday Israelis. The ruling coalition may have seriously underestimated the power of Civil Society in Israel.

Saturday night’s protest demonstration in Beer Sheva suggests that I too have underestimated the degree to which Israelis can come together to resist the darkest impulses in our political system. Maybe the country’s neglected periphery will provide the public force and spiritual backbone to bring Israel back from the abyss of authoritarianism and toward better, more just, days.

Anti-Government demonstration at City Hall, Beer Sheva, February 4, 2023
About the Author
Professor Jonathan Dekel-Chen is Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is a member of the History Department and the Department of Jewish History & Contemporary Jewry. His current research and publications deal with transnational philanthropy and advocacy, non-state diplomacy, agrarian history and migration. In 2014 Dekel-Chen co-founded the Bikurim Youth Village for the Performing Arts in Eshkol (relocated at Kibbutz Ein Gedi in 2021), which provides world-class artistic training for under-served high school students from throughout Israel. Dekel-Chen is a member of Kibbutz Nir Oz.
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