Francis Nataf
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Here’s what Israel’s friends can really do to help

Don’t add fuel to our fire by taking sides – seek out the voices promoting unity
Not that problem. (A protester attends a rally in Tel Aviv against the new government on January 21, 2023. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP))
Not that problem. (A protester attends a rally in Tel Aviv against the new government on January 21, 2023. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP))

I am ambivalent about what is going on in Israel these days. On the one hand, Netanyahu and Likud crossed a red line when they aligned themselves with Itamar Ben Gvir and his followers. On the other hand, what I am most worried about is not the democracy that Netanyahu’s opponents claim to defend. It is the deep division in Israeli society that their hysteria is only worsening.

Agreed, the division did not start with Bibi’s opponents, their protests or their appeals to outside parties. My own critique of Netanyahu runs beyond crossing political and moral red lines. More than anything else, he has attained and kept power by undermining potential competitors and controlling allies. It is not just that these strategies are nasty and manipulative, which they are. The bigger problem is the divisiveness that they have naturally brought in tow. And along with that, the dysfunctionality in which the two largest blocs of voters are no longer arguing about policy, but rather about what they think of Bibi. Israel must get past this, and I am convinced that eventually it will. In the meantime, the protests against the government’s far-ranging judicial reforms must be understood in the context of the dysfunction just described. 

The division that Netanyahu and most of his opponents (certainly Lapid and Lieberman) have sown is overwhelmingly demographic. As opposed to the vast majority of the protesters (and also as opposed to the writers of an earlier letter, whom I admire, but with whom I don’t always agree), my demographic is on the Netanyahu side of this division. And like its defenders – the judicial branch predictably sits on the other side of this division. In fact, there is probably no institution in Israel identified with the secular, Ashkenazi old guard as much as the courts. Hence there is also no greater flashpoint around which Israelis are likely to become tribal. 

Here I speak from personal experience. I attended a protest, albeit a very small one in front of the prime minister’s home in Jerusalem. I came not as a protester, but as a heckler of sorts. Feeling like I was a long-lost voice of reason, I engaged some of the protesters in conversation, asking them how they were advancing democracy by denying the right of a democratically elected government to preside (they wanted the Prime Minister to resign). When they started making comparisons to Hitler (who, lest we forget, was responsible for the death of tens of millions of people, just for starters), I simply walked away, hoping they might realize how inane the comparison. But if I were to be brutally honest, I would have to ask myself if noticing that all of the protesters were of a light complexion, with not a kippah in sight, egged me on ever so slightly.

Without understanding what I have just described – as most people outside of Israel will not – one should at the very least withhold judgment. I know that withholding judgment from what one doesn’t understand has fallen out of favor, but it remains the best policy nevertheless.  

There are good arguments both ways, as to whether the reforms are good for democracy in Israel or not. (And for those who think it is so obvious that it is bad for democracy, please read my friend Moshe Koppel’s recent defense of the reforms. Given that we generally disagree on everything, my recommendation should maybe carry some weight here!) My own position is that some version of the reform is long overdue, though it should not be made by a government whose leader is under review in the courts. Right or wrong, however, people unaware of the cultural and demographic nature of the split in Israeli politics today will only get a very partial – and hence distorted – picture of what is going on. 

Regardless – if you are a friend of Israel, do not add fuel to the fire by taking sides. If you want to play a constructive role, support leaders and institutions that are promoting unity. One man who has played a tremendously valuable and commendable role in this affair is the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog. Though politically and culturally aligned with the anti-Netanyahu forces, he has come under severe criticism from his base for trying to find a compromise. But he is not alone. Look for these voices. Don’t only listen to what they have to say, but how they say it. 

Ultimately, these softer voices provide the only recipe for a better future. The biggest threat in Israel is not to democracy, but to maintaining some basic societal fabric at a time of changing demographics. Most politicians have chosen to cash in and worsen the tensions that these changes naturally generate. But the future will necessarily be paved by those who have the courage to pay the price needed to overcome them and find ways of bringing us together, and not to tear us apart. If you want to help, you can help us with that.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.