Ethan Felder

Democracy or Death: On Israel’s Political Crisis

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrate weekly on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv

“The next 75 days will determine the next 75 years for Israel,” said Dan Yagudin, an activist in the pro-democracy protest movement, in a recent conversation with me in Tel Aviv. The connection to Israel inspired Dan to build a life here after growing up in Boston and graduating from university. His story is like that of many Israelis. He served eight years in the Israel Defense Forces rising to the rank of Captain. After being called a traitor for protesting the current government’s actions, he became profoundly concerned with the state of the country’s democracy and decided to fight for his country’s political future. How did we get here?

Following the election of far-right parties and politicians on November 15, 2022, like Dan, many Israelis legitimately fear the country is rapidly falling into a corrupt theocratic dictatorship. The fear has deepened following the July 24th Parliamentary vote to end the Supreme Court’s longstanding power to review and overturn unreasonable laws, policies, and actions from the executive and legislative branches – a core function of an independent judiciary in a democratic society.

In response to the current government’s moves, a citizen-led pro-democracy movement emerged in March captivating the minds and hearts of large swaths of Israeli society across the ideological and demographic spectrum. The signs and symbols of this movement “democracy or death” now permeate the streets of Tel Aviv. So do the booming chants “democracy” and “shame” from the hundreds of thousands of people assembled for the last thirty-four weeks on Kaplan Street carrying the national flag with passion and intensity. Among the protesters, military veterans display their patriotism with tanks from the 1973 Yom Kippur War owing to concern that the current government is endangering the nation’s security.

The ex-soldier, Nimrod Novik, an advisor to Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, now works for the organization Commanders for Israel’s Security. In his view, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant know full well the serious harm taking place to the country’s national security, noting the hundreds of pilots refusing to show up for volunteer reserve duty in protest of the government’s actions.

The current political crisis threatens the treasured cohesion and achievements of the Israeli people. On May 14, Israel celebrated 75 years of existence marked by extraordinary economic success and survival amid regional conflicts. The country ranks 13th in GDP per capita and has the highest investment in research and development in the world. Its military is the strongest in the Middle East. Such success emanates from Israelis’ commitment to a national project fostered through compulsory military service and a strong national ethos passed down from generation to generation: determination to move from the subject of victimhood to a self-determined people actively engaged in building the country.

Avital Shapira’s father survived the Holocaust by jumping from a Nazi train en route to a death camp. After the war, he worked as a carpenter in a German camp for displaced people. He then made his way to Palestine, quickly learned Hebrew, and fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. He inculcated in his children the value of work and not to hold resentment for Germany. He lived a full life as a proud Israeli. Today, his daughter is the Director of International Relations of the Histadrut, the country’s largest labor federation founded in 1920. Histadrut was core to founding the state, serving as an employer and Union to the workers who constructed the country’s basic infrastructure.

Israeli democracy and national ethos have shown time and again its ability to integrate people in this land. In the first five years of its existence (1948 -1953), the country’s population doubled as a result of the arrival of Holocaust survivors and Jews fleeing persecution from across the Middle East and North Africa.

Today, Israeli society is changing, and its secular Jewish majority is expected to no longer be a majority by 2030. It is estimated that the country is comprised of 80% Jews and 20% Arabs.

Roughly 48% of Israeli children are enrolled in either an ultra-Orthodox or Arab school. These groups by and large have not been fully integrated into the mainstream economy. 60% of Israeli-Arab women and 52% percent of ultra-Orthodox men, for example, do not work. There are historical and socio-political reasons for this reality, which also inflame the fissures we see playing out in the demonstrations. For Israel, the next 75 years may hinge on whether the country can thread this foundational needle and further integrate the segments of its society that need to enter the mainstream.

Israelis like Sam Shube, CEO of Hagar, the Jewish Arab Education for Equality, are working to strengthen integration by enhancing Jewish and Arab relationships within society. For the last fifteen years, he has operated the only bilingual, Arab-Jewish school, in southern Israel. Sam was born and raised in New York before building his life in Israel. He insists the antidote to polarization is “cultural dialogue – the glue that turns neighbors into a community.”

Several hundred years ago, Haya’s family came to Palestine from Iraq and settled in the north of the country in Haifa and Rosh Hanikra. Haya identifies as an Israeli Bedouin. She was raised in the modest Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheufat. She speaks fluent Hebrew, Arabic and English and works in real estate. She elected to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. In her words, “why wouldn’t I want to join the People’s Army?” She spoke with pride about her service, the important relationships formed and her desire for her daughter to serve after matriculating from a coveted high school.

The solutions to divisions in society are many. But whatever solution comes must be through democracy. The current government is continuing its march towards an unstable, backward, and illiberal future counter to the values the state of Israel was predicated upon in its Declaration of Independence. An Israel where dissent is being threatened with imprisonment.

Traditionally, Americans who care deeply about Israel and its future have been expected to visit and express political support for the government’s security needs. Today the most serious threat to Israel’s security lies from within its own government. Americans should therefore focus support on 1) providing financial assistance to the pro-democracy protest movement including groups like Brothers and Sisters in Arms—Warriors Journeying to Save Democracy 2) advocating for community leaders not to meet with or normalize relations with politicians behind the current measures and 3) raise awareness through social media and community gatherings on the emergency political situation Israel finds itself in.

About the Author
Ethan Felder is a union-side labor lawyer in New York City.
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