A nation divided by a crusading vanguard promising a gloriously rupturing democratic liberation, and a horrified opposition camp outraged at the victory of reaction and terrified by the coming end of national life as we know it. Accusations of lies, despotism, and intimidation against the revolutionaries, and of elitist anti-democratic bad-loserdom against the protesting “establishment.” Brits will recognize the general atmosphere, if not the specifics, of the Israeli moment. Brexit and the Israeli judicial “reform”: two revolutions that have torn two countries for whom I care deeply broadly in two.
Political scientists will no doubt balk at the comparison; no two civil wars are ever the same, I’m sure. I also want to acknowledge early that the stakes are even higher for Israel; and they were pretty damn high for us. But I do feel a slight kinship in the emotional currents. In Israeli friends I see the same pain and anger I saw in my darling late father the morning after the Brexit vote and in the years after. His sense of national self was vitiated, overnight, and I think he no longer recognized his own country. (Though in alignment with him in substance, it touched me on nothing like so primal and emotive a level. I felt the election of Trump as a more viscerally traumatizing experience – not even my country; go figure.) I also see the same bewildered widows of the erstwhile liberal right wondering, aloud: what happened? This isn’t what I signed up for.
Cynical Brits will also nod along empathetically when they hear Israelis bemoan that their own grand democratic folly is ultimately in service solely of the resolution of the personal problems of one man. Bibi, a giant, should not be flattered by comparison with a lightweight like Cameron.
But on Brexit, at least, I don’t hold to this explanation. Much to the chagrin of nearly all my friends, I consider Brexit an idea whose time had come. For good or for ill the epoch was ripe for it and it was, in my view, the culmination of an organic national process. Grumble what you will about shadowy manufactured consent, but the vote proved that a separation from Europe held wide, variously motivated, and long-brewing appeal. I disagree with it, still and passionately. But I don’t consider it illegitimate, nor do I think Brexiteers were gulled either by Putin or by a right-wing media. Brexit was, in 2016, and with a callous neoliberal orthodoxy having long hollowed out its communal heart, where my country was at.
What we are seeing in Israel is, in my opinion, a government gambling on a similarly epochal moment having been reached. And losing. A significant portion of the country – predominantly the centre and left but not exclusively (10,000 protesters in coalition heartland Beersheva?!); predominantly the secular but not exclusively – is loudly saying no, not like this. And doing so, in my view, with far more impact than remainers did.
I suspect (and no more) that one explanation is that you can just about push through a legislative revolution dividing a nation roughly 50-50 when the half opposing the rupture is met just as passionately by the half embracing it. Such was the Brexit case. Both the appetite for, and the ability to, “put the bodies upon the gears, and upon the wheels, and upon the levers” in opposition is significantly reduced in such a case, short of actual civil conflict.
My assessment is that the opponents of judicial reform have – by the breadth of their coalition and the discipline of their message hitherto – achieved a government-threatening critical mass where remainers did not. And, crucially, they are not being met in return on the popular level by anything like so broad and passionate a popular movement in support of the reforms. Polls even indicate a substantial portion of coalition voters opposed to them, and the balance of Herzog’s compromise is, I think, a clever politician’s understanding of who it’s currently more dangerous and divisive to most disappoint. Unlike Brexit, the judicial reforms as floated by Levin and Rothman, are not where Israel is at.
I’ve read the haughty dismissals of the Tel Aviv protestors – Handmaids Tale outfits and all – the knock being that these are vacuous millennial protest tourists; that this will burn out; that Levin and Rothman can just wait it out. They aren’t; it won’t; and they can’t. This faux-confident arrogance is the hubris of the soon-to-be disappointed. It is happening; Likudniks are balking. Not in significant numbers yet, but the fire is gone from the eyes of some; in others, it was never that truly gimlet in the first place.
And it really is hard to remain steely-jawed when met with such varied and nationally integral opposition; when soldiers from an army that has for seven and a half decades shown a collective capacity for self-sacrifice the envy of commanders-in-chief the world over are saying in their thousands “we will not die for this Israel.”
And it’s hard to keep repeating the scripted cry of anarchists! traitors! terrorists! when it’s not working, for the perfectly logical reason that it’s clearly ridiculous. Such a patently patriotic melange cannot long and effectively be smeared in this way; floating Israelis and – perhaps just as crucially – international observers won’t buy it. Aren’t buying it.
The entire hi-tech industry? Anarchists!
The army and air force reservists? Leftists!
The veterans of Entebbe? Traitors!
High-ranking veterans and decorated retired intelligence officers? Terrorists!
Several former governors of the Bank of Israel? Wreckers!
Rivlin, Meridor, Kochavi, Yaalon, Barak, Begin? Anarchists all!
Alan Dershowitz? Anarchist!
It’s not flying. The British Supreme Court, hardly a beloved or even recognizable national institution, was far easier to tag as “enemies of the people.”
They’ve had a good go, to be fair to them. The Likud, Religious Zionism, and Jewish Power attack dogs have borrowed the Johnson-Gove “fuck business” and screw the “experts” mantra and then raised it with “go to hell soldiers!” They’ve even had a stab at “down with the USA”!
I’m not saying the reforms won’t pass; I am saying that Levin and Rothman will not emerge from this process, when the end finally comes, with anything like the revolution they intended. Which must count as a victory of sorts for the protesters far in excess of any concessions achieved by British remainers.
A shared destiny
So then what? When the fudgy compromise ends up the last reform standing? I don’t want to dilute the protesters’ zeal one bit, nor to downplay the import of their fight; quite the reverse. I think the stakes have justified the division, that so profound is the threat to Israeli democracy that the rending of the national fabric witnessed over the last few months is necessary and inevitable. Of what use national consensus if it is not to be housed by a democracy worthy of the name? But I do want to ask: “and then what?”
Unlike with Brexit (although not so much, actually) the Israel imbroglio is unlikely to result in a clearly delineated victor and vanquished – only two groups neither of whom has the country they want and who are united only in mutual antipathy. Israel must surely then begin to heal. It may take generations, for whenever this ends, Israelis will have spent so long speaking of one another in the language of enmity that thinking of one another once again in the language of compatriots will take some doing.
Nor will it only be the side that feels it has lost most that brings toxic resentment to the aftermath. How empty a victory does it seem to many Brexiters I meet who seem, if anything, even more Euro-resentful, and feel even more painfully scorned and patronized by compatriots, than when we were “in”?
If they emerge with any kind of victory, and if it is not ultimately to be pyrrhic, then I urge the anti-reformers to avoid the British trap. Israelis must talk and, crucially, listen. Talk and listen, as brothers and sisters, and not because it’s pleasant but because it’s necessary. And as we’ve not done here, much to my regret; I wish we had. I’m prepared to cede nothing in Europhilia to any unforgiving remainer, but nor am I prepared to mutilate the remainder of my life to a deformed national recrimination and division. We’re seven years on and as divided, embittered, and mutually resentful as ever. Fail to do better and Israel’s fall and ignominy will be as inevitable and self-inflicted as ours.
My sympathies are largely on one side of this, for sure, as they were over Brexit. And so, comrades, by all means, while battle is raging give no quarter; judicial reform is red in tooth and claw, I know. But ignore neither the inevitability of a negotiated truce nor the necessity of post-war reconstruction. You think your opponents’ act out of folly, even of willfull national self-mutilation? Hey, me too! But you share a country with them, a destiny if you’re so mystically minded. You cannot, ethically or pragmatically, pass an entire population on the other side of the street. No pasaran is an imperative; no-platforming vast masses of a nation risks the end of that nation.
Not that the reformers have shown an ounce of conciliation themselves, nor ventured so much as a yard to meet the critics. This truly has been a battle with no quarter, with poor Bougie Herzog stuck out alone in no-man’s land urging restraint.
And there are those who fear that Israel’s delicate covenant may not withstand even a cold civil war of the kind which still bedevils us post-Brexit. It is so fragile. Britain may not flourish if it fails to heal the wounds and banish the ghosts; I take seriously those who argue fearfully that Israel may not survive if it fails to. It is often said that Israel’s neighbors can afford to lose all wars with it but one, while it cannot afford to lose a single one. It’s no less true of this war.
Think I exaggerate the stakes (few Israeli readers will)? Then you haven’t been paying close enough attention: to the venom, the incitement, to the sense of one half of the nation that the other holds it in contempt and undemocratically thwarts its majority will. And from the other that its opponents seek nothing less than a dictatorship which it will use to destroy every last semblance of civilized decency the country has painstakingly built over 75 arduous and besieged years.
Bloody civil wars have erupted over less. I have had a half-written book on Israel and the Palestinians gathering dust these last months. In it I quote the great American Republican Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying that “Between two groups of people who want to make inconsistent kinds of worlds, I see no remedy but force.” It truly did not occur to me, a reasonable knowledge of the Oslo years notwithstanding, that I would be forced to fear its aptness for the Israeli domestic moment rather than as standing neatly for the Israeli-Palestinian eternity.
And it really is as existential as the Holmesian line would imply. To be prepared seemingly to watch your country burn over a Judicial Selection Committee appears quixotic to outsiders who don’t understand what’s really represented by it – a battle not only over political and religious difference, but on the very question of whether the nation should or even can accommodate such difference. It’s profound stuff, and seemingly zero-sum. Deep fissures have been exposed in the Israeli body politic which have been long-forming and will take a Herculean effort to mend. For its friends, this is only the beginning of what will prove a grimly fascinating Israel watch. Can the start-up nation re-start? Can Israel re-forge a compromise nation – the ideal of none but with which all can live? Time will tell.
There is a liberal-left tendency – of which I’m as guilty as any – of failing to speak to the needs of the majority and then blaming them for that failure; it is to be resisted by Israelis as it has not been resisted in Britain. All fared well in neither land at the status quo ante, and the opponents of reform just as much as Brexit must bear some share of the responsibility for not providing circumstances conducive to the good life for too many people; for ignoring their voices, discordant though they may be at times; and, in the Israeli case, for using courts to clear up messes which truly belong at the door of politics and wider national debate.
This revolution, although its precise form was no one’s priority other than its political and academic promoters, did not emanate from a vacuum. It emanated, as did Brexit, from the mandate given a political class by a plurality of voters motivated by a variety of hopes and grievances – some just, some understandable, some odious; some understandable and odious. Little will be gained from either side treating the other as a contemptible blob.
There are sound and weighty counter-arguments to this, of course. As the ever-brilliant Yossi Klein Halevi argued persuasively in a recent podcast, secular Israel, in particular, has already made huge concessions to religious Israel. I get that in Israel, competing visions of the national good may be so divergent between, say, sections of the Haredim and sections of the non-ultra-Orthodox as to be ultimately truly incompatible. And it is right and natural that there are ideas and forces so odious to one as to prohibit compromise or consensus. I get that in enthroning Smotrich and Ben Gvir, Bibi has unleashed and legitimized a dybbuk which, to many Israelis, can be met neither with reason nor toleration.
But what is the alternative to messy, fudgy, imperfect compromise? The total defeat of the other side? Not going to happen. I know of no other than the masochistic insistence on not surrendering the pursuit of the elusive central ground of passable but imperfect consensus. My own country hasn’t even started its process of national reconciliation. If anything, I see the gaps widening, not narrowing; and our divisions and antipathies, though acute, are less existential then yours. Good luck Israel.