I spent much of July and early August 2023 travelling through Israel canvassing many viewpoints and opinions for my podcast.
Making sure to spend time with Israel’s loudest voice in the Arab world, Dr. Edy Cohen, I also met a serving member of the Likud government in their Knesset meeting room, a retired Mossad veteran, an IDF major in the shadow of an Iron Dome battery, talking with unsettling certainty about the next conflict coming from Lebanon and many people of every stripe in Israel’s biggest cities.
Despite what you’ve read or viewed, the routines of national life, both frivolous and serious aren’t breaking down.
The army isn’t patrolling in place of the cops.
There’s no curfews.
Families aren’t looking across Shabbat tables from each other with hatred in their eyes. I sat among about a hundred groups in our hotel amid the timeless rituals of homely chaos!
In fact midsummer, the bustling streets are full in Israel’s major cities.
Despite the hysteria, the nation is not “entering a state of Civil War”.
Because the rhythms of Israeli – and by extension Jewish life – continue.
Those daily, weekly and annual reminders of our calendar preserve us.
Yet the media highlights extremes on both sides while the rest of the country looks on.
And if the camera panned out from the procession of protest flags, you’d see the rest of Israel getting on with itself.
That’s not to say the political, even journalistic battlefield of judicial reform isn’t serious.
It is the proverbial fork in the road, a reset of how Jewish democracy will look. Either way.
Democracy isn’t perfect and both sides are proving it in their wilful shortcomings as they fight each other.
And their entrenched positions conceal the reality – even a majority understanding – that Israel needs to reshape its political settlement. The first 75 years will look nothing like the next 75, G-d willing, Baruch Hashem, Inshallah.
Israel’s place in the region and in an increasingly multipolar world has also shifted. America’s retreat from the region’s emboldened the Gulf’s regional policies and left a vacuum for China to continue its insatiable Belt and Road investment trail.
For Israel, there are faultlines in a society which has achieved so much based on unity, if not uniformity.
But just as the western country you live in, social mobility is a growing concern in Israel.
It isn’t spreading through the population as it used to.
The unrestrained hysteria, almost gleeful demogoguery of the protest side is fanned by hungry, often hostile media.
The chorus of unsympathy invites senior Israeli figures screaming such platitudes to get their clickbait.
Ehud Olmert, ex-convict but former prime minister, with nothing left to lose, having lost pretty much everything in politics – was seen delighting the hum of anti Zionism of the UK’s Channel 4 News who happily gave him a soapbox.
Senior reservists are refusing to report for national service.
The IDF, the unifying force which was always above it all – is being politicised.
Serving well into their 50s and 60s voluntarily, long past any legal requirement or obligation, some are saying, “no more! We agreed to serve a liberal democracy. And we will not risk our lives at the behest of an autocracy, or, worse, dictatorship”.
Placing such conditions on national service stores up future problems. What if the “other side” refused to do the same with an opposition government in time?
And frankly, fighting for a liberal democracy doesn’t come into it.
The Declaration of Independence describes Israel as a Jewish state, without liberal democracy bolted on to it.
So Hezbollah and Hamas are ramping up the war rhetoric smelling weakness.
Moody’s, the credit ratings agency is living upto its billing. Inward investment is cooling.
Actually, after a bumper 2021, the investment correction started before the Netanyahu government won power.
And so it’s time for some introspection. Both sides must work together for solution to suit more people. If only they took a moment to reflect on their own limitations rather than the others.
Netanyahu’s Knesset superiority, though elected by the people, embraces minority extremists as a tail wagging the dog. The proposed reforms would magnify winners and losers in Israeli society.
Did Bibi expect to score such divisions when he proposed this in his election manifesto? I doubt it.
Meanwhile, who’ll tell the protesters their 15-strong unelected clique of Ashkenazim including one Israeli Arab represents the people?
They have the power to dismiss the prime minister!
Liberal tears come to Israel.
Since the election of Donald Trump, Brexit in the UK, here’s the meltdown of the liberal establishment in Israel.
The startup nation’s engine room looks outward in everyone of its multimillion dollar pitches. A few slides in, each one identifies Israel as a “zero market place”.
As part of an Elnet UK mission of British journalists, we visited Startup Nation Central, a smart office block on Lilienblum St in Tel Aviv. Seven-figure apartments are going up in a tower right across the street. Who’s buying those? No one hurrying past them late for their restaurant shift or the middle manager in the Azrieli Tower, that’s for sure.
The startup class say they want to leave.
Sure, 28% talk a good game but there’s no figure within that who’d actually commit to it if the chips were down.
And for Israeli aspirationals, ‘twas ever thus.
Their PowerPoints are a wish list to dream big, an imaginary somewhere else to dream of leaving Israel for.
All around the West, there’s a class of people pulling up the drawbridge to protect their own.
Identifying with each other in a giant echo chamber, their interests are the only national interest in their eyes. You might admit to being one.
Yet Israel’s long-term survival in the Middle East does need to maintain the modernist elite.
After all, hi-tech is the melody of normalisation. Israel’s industries help solve problems in the wider region, to strengthen and underpin regional governments, including countering the common threat of Iran.
But the startup nation is elitist. Much of society is closed to this economic engine, entry points are narrow indeed.
Because none of these crie de coeurs from the liberal influencers like Yossi Klein Halevi and Thomas L Friedman, account for the millions of Israelis, the majority who have nowhere to go.
The everyday blue collar people of Holon and other towns further north, the mixed cities of Haifa and Lod and the big Israeli Arab cities you’ve never heard of, economically disconnected from Israel’s scale ups aren’t leaving.
And rather inconveniently for those who wish to keep the narrow band of unelected judges as Israel’s check and balance, it’s they who voted for Bibi over a million times – and who wouldn’t countenance for a minute not serving as their fathers and mothers did before them.
And like the binary schism going on near you, it’s not just working class Israelis. Well-to-dos, born into ideals which put the IDF and national unity above politics aren’t joining the protests either.
Protestors claim Israel’s looking increasingly like its autocratic neighbours who ignore their citizens with police getting stuck into the protestors.
But no one’s died, no rubber bullets, no curfews.
Still, the Basic Law framework threatens to be abused. “If one side wins, Israel will lose”, says President Isaac Herzog.
Israel can only survive with consensus and unity to keep punching above its weight.
And there is merit on both sides and in such splits, good people coalesce alongside those you’d rather give a wide berth to.
But what strikes me is the faithlessness in the protests, the worst case scenario, the language which gets practiced in boycotts, roadblocks, strikes and rhetoric which crosses a line.
When will more respect be shown to the Charedim, whose Torah values are a component of the nation? They’re the point of difference between Israel and every nation in the world.
But there are determinedly secular Israelis, who hate the religious. They have the luxury of living in Israel to do that.
My latest podcast guest insists the term, “civil war” being used so freely is an attempt to bang intransigent heads together!
Edy grew up in Beirut, but in 1991, his Arab society became too hostile, so Edy and his family were forced to flee for their lives.
As a native speaker and tweeter in Arabic, Edy crosses media divides, communicating directly with Arab audiences, tweeting them with perspectives on Israel and Jewish people and our religion they’d never get.
Edy’s a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern History from Bar-Ilan University.
His book, The Holocaust in the Eyes of Mahmoud Abbas in 2017 spotlights his holocaust denial.
And The Mufti and the Jews: his connections to the Nazis reveals brand new evidence of a 1943 plan to assist the extermination of the Jews in mandate Palestine if they won World War II.
The allies won the Battle of El Alamein and so the Holocaust didn’t spread in any meaningful sense into the Middle East and the Maghreb where a million more Jews would have suffered the same fate as their brothers and sisters in Europe.
This is the third time Dr Edy Cohen’s joined me – but the first time we met face to face in Israel.
We talk about judicial reform, of course, but Israel being Israel, there’s so much more swirling around right now.
The collision of events which may lead to the end of the Arab Israeli conflict, the horrible burning of holy books in Sweden, and what on Earth does Israel have to do with Morocco’s territorial ambitions in the Western Sahara?
Despite the turmoil, it’s always a good time to go to Israel! Don’t let them tell you otherwise.