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Naomi Chazan
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Critical questions for traumatic times

The government's assault on Israel's checks, balances and civil rights is fueling a civil war. Is there no turning back?
Israelis protest against the plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Israelis protest against the plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

There is no longer any doubt: Israel is in the midst of the most monumental upheaval in its history. What started as a reaction to the anti-democratic revolution initiated by the present Netanyahu-led coalition has now expanded far beyond the issue of judicial change. It touches on every single aspect of Israel’s being: on its physical boundaries, its economic resilience, its societal cohesion, its institutional structures, its international standing, its driving values, and, indeed, its very identity.

Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, a growing number of Israelis of all ages, walks of life, ethnic groups, national origin, genders, professions, religious backgrounds, and political preferences are now engaged in a sweeping struggle against the tyranny of the majority in power (who represent at most 48.5% of all the votes cast in the November elections). In these days of malignant discourse, vengeful actions, salacious rumors, serial misrepresentations, unspeakable threats, innate corruption, rising violence, and sheer voyeurism, the fate of the country and all its residents lies in their determination and in their capacity to keep their eyes focused on bringing about that change which is necessary to heal the land and all its inhabitants.

The current crisis is the culmination of years of two intertwining processes. The first, and most immediate, derives from the growing polarization between the requirements of the nation and those of the state which — compounded by decades of increased national, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and normative schisms and inequities — have congealed in recent years into two political blocs at loggerheads with each other over control of the public sphere and its direction. The second, and much more profound, relates to Israel’s longstanding inability — despite impressive gains in a variety of spheres — to come to terms with some of the inherent contradictions in its makeup — and hence in its highly emotionally-charged development — since its inception. Today, these two strands have combined into an all-embracing maelstrom that requires simultaneous short-term and long-term correctives.

What distinguishes these past few months from their predecessors is both the determination and the intensity of those in power. The stated objective of all the members of the new governing coalition (regardless of the very real differences in motives and purposes among its ultra-Orthodox, religious-nationalist, messianic, and right-wing components) is to institutionalize Israeli control — either directly or indirectly — between the river and the sea, and to assert Jewish supremacy in the area. Anyone opposed to this worldview, individually and collectively, is seen as disloyal, if not utterly anarchistic.

The present coalition came to power with a clearly-defined strategy to achieve its declared goals. Its immediate — and broadly consensual — aim is to execute a regime change, or, in the eyes of Yariv Levin, Betzalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, and their allies, to “assert the will of the people.” To this end, the new government set in motion a rapid flood of changes (through legislation, policy edicts, structural alterations, and actions) designed to centralize power in the hands of the executive and undermine not only the independence of the judiciary, but also weaken the system’s guardians and watchdogs (including the opposition, the media, and independent civil society).

The backlash has been quicker and more embracing than these leaders anticipated. Various groups gathered to protest these initiatives, to query their reasons, and to warn against their ramifications. Their scope and diversity have expanded exponentially in the few short weeks since the coalition was sworn in. Now the clamor is coming to a head, and calls for dialogue and compromise are increasing.

Those opposed to the moves of the government cannot acquiesce to this demand for dialogue. If they do, they play directly into the hands of the ruling coalition. In the first instance, if their original aim was to halt or delay regime transformation, then they are already too late. Some changes were made on the eve of the installation of the new government and even more have been set in motion since. To stop now means not only aceding to existing alterations, but also bolstering the dismemberment of Israel’s democratic trappings. Second, accepting the softening of government moves at this stage comes with adherence to their substance and agreement to the instatement of a denuded status quo ante. This will resolve nothing. And third, on the most fundamental level, such a move forfeits the prospects for any significant change that addresses the root causes of the current crisis, thereby dooming the country to multiple waves of chaos and disjuncture. Justice Minister Levin made this issue moot just yesterday when he pronounced, in response to President’s Herzog request for a two-week hiatus, that he had no intention of halting “for even one moment.”

If it is not possible to stop the public outcry without surrendering to its patently populist message, which conflates the desires of an elected majority with the rights of all the citizens of the state and the population under its control, then what more can be done now to begin a longer process of substantive political change?

The first answer is to keep up the pressure on all fronts, using an even broader range of non-violent tools. Domestically, these include, but are not limited to:

  • ongoing protests in widening locations;
  • more petitions by ever-growing circles of concerned citizens;
  • strike actions by professionals, performers, local communities, and many more;
  • careful monitoring and pointed responses to the multiplicity of government actions;
  • continual litigation;
  • symbolic protests (such as darkening the lights in homes this coming Thursday at 20:00 for 10 minutes and going into the streets to light the way forward);
  • and, yes, civil disobedience (blocking roads and thoroughfares or refusing to sustain the occupation).

Externally, mobilizing pressure from democratic leaders is important, as that is the unerring bedrock of Israel’s relations with the free world. So too is calling for Jewish involvement in salvaging Israel’s foundational values (for many Jews throughout the world, these define who they are and how they view themselves).

These steps may cause confusion in the ruling coalition and perhaps even bring about its demise, given mounting reservations regarding the onslaught in certain circles and strong reactions among government voters to measures involving religious coercion and gender exclusion by ultra-Orthodox and radical religious groups. Although they will raise the barometer in the public sphere (hopefully without causing outright incitement), they will not fuel a civil war. The government’s assault on the foundations of Israel’s checks and balances and civil rights has already done so. And, perhaps, along with other necessary moves, they may offer a chance for something different.

The second answer involves beginning to build up joint spaces of equality and interaction based on tolerance and mutual respect. This kind of work has been taking place for some years, mostly on the civil society level. Many small initiatives are seeking ways to acknowledge differences without undermining equity or depressing hopes for collective freedom (recently, Jerusalem has become a veritable incubator for such endeavors).

Educational programs stressing the principles of a shared society embracing Arabs, Jews, Ashkenzim and Mizrahim, young and old, veterans and newcomers, are in full swing. Now, these intersectional conversations are gaining traction in the workplace, in professional associations, in women and LGTBQV+ groups, in urban neighborhoods, in key industries, in hi-tech start-ups, in government offices, and in the periphery, as well as the center. They are often intense and exceedingly painful — as they involve the admission of indifference, ignorance, wrong-doing, and insensitivity and demand a commitment to real change. But they all have in common a genuine effort to lower the toxicity in the public domain and promote viable alternatives. Over time, they have been proven — here and elsewhere — to have a positive cumulative impact.

None of these moves alone, however, will assuage the combustible combination of fear, anger, and sheer hatred that have overtaken common spaces, nor will they significantly alter the present climate of widening suspicion and mistrust. For that, it is necessary to go in a third direction: to begin to come to terms with the past in order to secure the future. This means embarking on a new exploration: to undertake a more comprehensive overhaul of conventional assumptions, reigning narratives, collective aspirations, and, most importantly, existing power relations. This is a tall order in a traumatic and traumatizing context. It is also, at this conjuncture, the key path to ensuring the survival and dignity for all the residents of the land.

These are not mere words: they entail a tremendous amount of hard work now. This process demands soul-searching, admission of past mistakes, and a willingness to adjust needs, desires, and aspirations to accommodate those of other groups. It also involves a great deal of creativity in the quest for solutions. Inevitably, stock formulae (the standard two-state solution, Jewish hegemony, the elimination of Israel) will have to be abandoned in favor of more complex arrangements that have yet to be charted — drawing on historical and comparative experiences both in the democratic world and the global south. At their heart is the growing understanding that both Israeli and Palestinian society will completely unravel if they fail to treat each other and themselves with the respect, fairness, and equality they deserve. Those who are not currently plotting how to disengage physically or mentally from an increasingly impossible situation — leaving the field in the hands of the impoverished and the extremist victims of its torturous history — should start the very bumpy and long road to pursuing these options before it is too late.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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