Sarah Bernstein

From Me Myself I to All of Us

President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial overhaul negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Times of Israel)
President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial overhaul negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Times of Israel)

In between another outbreak of war and the impending tensions over Jerusalem Day, and even after weeks of protests with hundreds of thousands of participants from Kiryat Shmonah to Eilat, the compromise talks now being renewed under the auspices of the President will not and cannot be the answer. They’re not even conducting the right conversation.

One of my favourite whatsapp groups is called Me Myself I. It’s a group with only one member – me. I use it to save links and documents I want to be able to access at will. I’m unlikely to provoke conflict or be forced into difficult conversations. I don’t have to word things carefully or worry about offending anyone – in a way it’s the ultimate safe space. It has obvious advantages – but it’s not much good as a means of communication or building consensus with anyone other than myself.

One step up from my own private whatsapp group is my immediate family group. There too I can express myself pretty freely, though sometimes I have to tread lightly and be aware of different sensibilities amongst family members. But (perhaps we are lucky) there are rarely deep disagreements and it’s an effective and useful channel of communication – and for taking decisions as a family.

The compromise negotiations are too close to these private groups for comfort. There are obvious differences. The negotiations are taking place between representatives of the government coalition and representatives of a couple of opposition parties. But even given the deep divisions between the coalition on the one hand, and the National Unity party and Yesh Atid on the other, the discussion remains within the family.

More importantly, they’re also missing the point. Whoever frames the debate has already won the argument. The opposition parties should not allow the legislative changes to be the basis of the discussion. The conversation should be about the future of Israel’s democracy – not just the specific but outrageous legislation proposed by the most extreme government in Israel’s history.

And as I watch all this unfold, the question I keep asking myself is: how can it be acceptable to discuss the future of Israel’s democracy when only immediate family members are in the room? Leaving aside for a moment the 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (as indeed they have been left aside for decades), over 20% of the citizens of Israel are Arabs. How can we discuss the future of Israel’s democracy without including 20% of the population?

As yet, Palestinian citizens of Israel do not see the mass demonstrations against the judicial reform as particularly relevant to them. Even when Mansour Abbas and the Ra’am party joined the last government, little changed for the day-to-day reality of Palestinian citizens of the country. They are also underrepresented on the Supreme Court – but no one is making a fuss about that. It is perhaps little wonder that such an upsurge in violence has taken place in the Arab community. With little access to decision-making forums, ignored, overlooked and actively discriminated against by the authorities, frustration and despair threaten to engulf all of us in an outbreak of violence the likes of which we have not yet seen. It may indeed be triggered by the nationalist flag march through Jerusalem this week.

The future of this country will not be good if Jews continue to insist on being the only people in the room. It will also not be good if the only thing that unites us is our opposition to another group. It is time to open the door and invite all citizens of Israel to be part of the conversation. We will then need to lower the drawbridge and seek ways to include Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza in the conversation as well – since there is no real possibility of democracy in Israel without coming to an agreed solution with the Palestinian people. Only once everyone has a voice will we be able to begin the process of building a new basis for a shared society, one that will stretch way beyond Me, Myself I to All of Us.

About the Author
Dr. Sarah Bernstein is the Director of the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. With a background as a lawyer and mediator, for over twenty years Sarah has been working in Jerusalem in the field of peace-building and shared society, specializing in interreligious dialogue and education. She was awarded her Phd in Peace and Reconciliation Studies by Coventry University in England. Sarah sat on the Alliance for Peacebuilding Global Advisory Council on Effective Interreligious Peacebuilding Evaluation, and was a founding Board member of the International Association of Spiritual Care.
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