Defending Israeli democracy: Can the coalition hold?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street, London, for talks with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street, London, for talks with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Whatever their perspective on Israeli politics, British Jews can agree that today’s protests against Netanyahu’s visit to Downing Street are like nothing we have seen before.
While plenty of British Jews have demonstrated against Israel, its politics and politicians, they have not done so waving Israeli flags. And while today’s protests have included a more radical bloc who are disinclined to join in with the flag-waving, the bulk of the crowd is likely to have been made up of first-time protestors.
For some years I have been tracking and writing about the growing tensions in Diaspora Jewish communities in general and the British Jewish community in particular.
In my book Uncivil War I argued that the once-normative position, that Diaspora Jews should never criticise Israel publicly, gave way to a plurality of positions. Recent rounds of conflict in Israel have seen some community leaders express a guarded ambivalence about Israel’s use of force. Organisations such as UJIA and the Board have, at times, acknowledged that we need to create a ‘big tent’ in the Jewish community to allow for at least some criticism of Israel, as a reflection of the fact that the normative consensus no longer holds.
Of course, this big tent was never designed to include Jews who reject Zionism or went ‘too far’.
In this context, what is the significance of today’s protests against the Israeli government? On one level, it might be read as a sign of rupture in the UK Jewish community. The calls for unity by Chief Rabbi Mirvis and other community leaders demonstrate an anxiety about such a possible rupture. They are part and parcel of wider concerns about the fracturing of (Jewish-)Israel and talk of civil war.
Certainly, there has been vociferous opposition to demonstrating against Israel from some quarters of the UK Jewish community. Stephen Pollard’s recent article arguing that, while he had some sympathy for the protestors, he could not join what he (dubiously) saw as a protest led by Yachad and the New Israel Fund, is a sign that pre-existing communal tensions may be exacerbated.
Yet, at the same time, the protests are less of a radical break from mainstream communal norms than they might seem. Divisions in the Jewish community over Israel are divisions over the security situation and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Even when there was a broad consensus that UK Jews should not publicly criticise Israel, that consensus did not preclude criticism over intra-Jewish issues in Israeli society and politics.
Defend Israeli Democracy protest outside Downing Street

Reform and Liberal Jews, for example, have often spoken up about the Israeli orthodox monopoly on conversion, marriage and divorce. And I have yet to find a British Jew outside the Haredi community who would be prepared to defend Israel’s electoral system. True, opposition to such aspects of Israel did not lead to public protests of the sort we are seeing today, but it did provide precedents for at least some kinds of public criticism of Israel.

It is that precedent that means that today’s protests, while extraordinary, may represent less of a sea change of opinion than they might seem. Right now, it is possible to mobilise a fairly broad coalition that extends across from centrist liberals to more radical left groups (at least those who do not reject Zionism or who do not reject it too explicitly).
Building such a coalition would be much more difficult over an issue that concerns Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, even if Israel starts formal annexation in the West Bank. Further, the current coalition also contains those who would find it more difficult to demonstrate publicly over threats to Israeli democracy, should they see Israel as being under existential military threat.
I wonder, watching today’s protests in the UK and the ongoing protests in Israel, what would happen should Hamas unleash a serious and sustain barrage of rockets from Gaza. While attacks on Israelis both within and beyond the green line have continued during the current crisis, they are not at a level at which the whole country feels under attack.
Inevitably there would be calls for unity if such an attack were to happen, and even if such calls were cynically exploited by Netanyahu, I suspect that at least some would heed them. In the UK, even if protests against threats to Israeli democracy might continue in such circumstances, they would almost certainly be smaller in number and would face bitter opposition and outrage from some sections of the community.
There are fundamental challenges, then, in building a broad coalition against threats to Israeli democracy. It is possible, even likely, that differences over the occupation and treatment of the Palestinians can only be temporarily transcended at times of relative ‘quiet’ on the security front. In addition, broad coalitions against the occupation are similarly hard to achieve given the profoundly different visions of liberal two-staters and anti-Zionist radicals.
In my more pessimistic moments I worry that Netanyahu, and the Israeli right in general, are likely to prevail both in gutting Israeli democracy and in permanently closing off the possibility of Palestinian sovereignty. The tensions between and within the protesting coalitions over the occupation and over threats to Israeli democracy can be manipulated to ensure that their energy is dissipated. The result will be fragmentation and in-fighting.
In the UK, it remains to be seen what kind of legacy today’s protests will leave. As long as the Palestinian issue remains parked, the show will probably stay on the road. Currently, even those who oppose the protests are not displaying the same level of anger they express at Jews who ‘undermine’ Israel’s security. But the wider issues of the occupation will not stay parked forever.
The assault on Israeli democracy is part of a much broader agenda. It is when the government starts making serious moves towards annexation that the real test will come.
About the Author
Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and writer, based in London.
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