If you’re reading this and you’re not Israeli, let me assure you – it’s not simply as bad as you’ve heard, it’s potentially much worse. Every day, as we Israelis doomscroll down our phone screens, we read dire new warnings, frightening signs of the abyss above which our government’s judicial overhaul has us teetering. On a single day a week or so ago, we saw new reports from inside the IDF that military readiness has already been harmed by the principled absence of many reservist soldiers; anxious quotes from the head of the air force that “instead of preparing for war, I’m dealing only with this;” ominous promises that the country’s already-battered economy will be brought to a standstill if looming Supreme Court judgements are not heeded. That’s just one, random day. After eight months of this nightmare, Israel is not a happy place to live in – our democracy, and consequently our economy, military, diplomatic place in the world, and the very fabric of our society, are under serious threat. As someone who chose to move his life here from the UK, this is not what I expected. This is not, I’ll wager, what many of us ‘olim’ thought we were signing up for. Yet the single most important thing I can say to my fellow immigrants, is this. Don’t. Go. Anywhere. Not yet.
Many months ago, on the (excellent) Keshet podcast Unholy the British political commentator Jonathan Friedland asked his co-host, Israeli news anchor Yonit Levy, what she would say to anyone thinking of leaving for less stressful environs. The usually-composed Levy seemed momentarily shocked, and blurted out, “Don’t!” Times change, and a question that might have seemed surprising as well as alarming back then, is even more alarming now, but no longer a surprise. Recent opinion polls have shown that around a quarter of Israel’s population is considering emigrating. A WhatsApp group opened for doctors wanting to relocate, quickly amassed 3,000 members (in a country that already has a shortage of medics). Several friends of mine, and not only olim, have already taken concrete steps – acquiring foreign passports, scoping out possible homes, buying properties abroad, and even buying one-way tickets (meanwhile a report this week shows a huge drop in immigration to Israel). It’s happening.
The danger this poses cannot be overestimated. After the decimation of Hungary’s democracy (a process Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to be precisely emulating), many of that country’s best and brightest quickly left, so civic services, including the healthcare and education systems, all but collapsed. I won’t delve deeply into the myriad dangers that face Israel if the same happens here – we already see the denuding of the start-up and high-tech industries on which we rely for our economy, the thinning of our military on which we rely for our safety. Suffice to say that Israel is less secure than Hungary.
Look. I completely understand why anyone would want to leave Israel right now. I get it. Let’s be clear – this judicial overhaul would effectively comprise the destruction of Israel’s democracy. Since we have no independent, enforceable checks and balances on government power – a necessary part of any democracy – other than the judiciary, if this goes through this or any subsequent government would be able to do almost anything they like. They could even manipulate elections by, say, allowing themselves far more campaign advertising, as Turkey’s President Erdogan just did, simply ban rivals from running, or imprison them, Putin-style. That’s all absolutely miserable to contemplate, as is the bigotry of many of their already-announced post-overhaul plans.
There’s a poignant song they sing here at the protests – “Ein li eretz acheret”. It means, “I have no other country”. I join in, but it’s not strictly true. I have another passport. I could move back to Blighty, and the rest of the 26 percent of Israelis who are immigrants could do likewise. Not just that – greedy for Israeli know-how, countries like Greece have created highly favorable conditions to tempt Israeli sabras to move there.
Yet it’s the last thing we should do. Yes, life here just now is grim. But who said it would easy? Israel’s history is a history of wars and struggle – and at this moment the struggle is in the Knesset, and in the streets, and in hearts and minds. If all of us who find things difficult simply flee, there will not be enough left to oppose this extreme, ruinous government (remembering that at the last election, the factions were about equal) that threatens Israel’s very existence.
The game is not lost. Thanks to the massive protests, Netanyahu’s announced huge raft of ‘reforms’ was reduced, so far, to just one, which still might be suspended by the court. Just one in eight months. And though an election is still probably far off, the Israeli public, right and left, is not with this government; their poll numbers have been pitiful for months, even among their own voters. Then there is the question of how much pressure they can take – how long can they really withstand the country’s decline?
Here’s the optimistic outcome – all of this pressure from both sides eventually leads to the establishment of a Bill Of Rights and other newly-established checks and balances, creating the constitutional framework Israel always needed. One that will protect the rights of all sectors of Israeli society for generations to come, and can enable us to heal our divisions. We may not know how any of this plays out for another three or four years. But one thing’s for sure. It took centuries for the Jews to return to Israel. If we abandon the struggle now – after only eight months – we abandon the Zionist Dream.