David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

I’ll let you know if we reach the tipping point

"Right and Left Against the Destruction" Protest against the judicial overhaul transcends political and religious sectarianism
"Right and Left Against the Destruction" Protest against the judicial overhaul transcends political and religious sectarianism

An appeal to all those wavering on the edge of despair

Tipping point: the critical stage in a situation beyond which a significant and often unstoppable change takes place.

Déjà vu. Only this time it’s worse.

That sickening feeling I had back in 1977 when it became clear that Menachem Begin would become Israel’s next prime minister. It was anathema to me that someone with his record of intransigence, anti-Arab rhetoric and hard-line nationalism could be handed the reins of the Zionist enterprise. I had moved to Israel only three years earlier and was already thinking that perhaps the time had come to pack up and leave.

Yet whatever despondency I felt that morning is no match for what I am feeling today in face of the brutal putsch we are experiencing against democracy, civil liberties, and enlightened Judaism.

So, have we reached the tipping point? Is it time to surrender to the demographic reality that the sectors of society who elected those now in power will keep them there forever?

Indeed, I would be pleasantly surprised when only six months after assuming office, Begin the statesman would welcome President Sadat to Jerusalem. So why then, still here nearly half a century later, do I find no comfort in the Hebrew phrase meant for just such occasions? “We survived pharaoh; we’ll survive this as well.”

Because Binyamin Netanyahu and his cohorts, recklessly trampling every lofty value and noble principle embodied in the Zionist idea show no sign of changing course. Their arrogant triumphalism knows no bounds.

So, I ask myself, have we reached the tipping point? Is it time to surrender to the demographic reality that the sectors of society who elected those now in power will keep them there forever? To concede that more than 50 years of occupation on the one hand and an intransigent enemy on the other have bred a generation tired of the notion that we must always tread the moral high ground?  To recognize that the exhaustion consequential to an outrageously high cost-of-living, ever-present internal tensions, and the never-ending threat of bodily harm to oneself and one’s children will result in an exodus of those we would most wish remain?

Even the likes of Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League and indisputably one of our staunchest allies, has his doubts. “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it,” he declared in an recent interview. Nor would I feel comfortable asking him to – not an easy confession for one who has served as deputy chair of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency executives and who has spent nearly 50 years struggling to make of Israel the exemplary Jewish and democratic society integral to the Zionist vision.

Still, five flickering sparks of light in the growing darkness to consider before admitting defeat:

1. Even Netanyahu’s base is telling him to hold back. Poll after poll has consistently shown that the majority of Israel’s citizenry does not want the judicial reform and other antidemocratic measures the government would impose upon it, despite Netanyahu’s claims to the contrary. Significantly, this opposition includes a large number even of those who voted for the prime minister. A recent survey conducted on behalf of KAN, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, revealed that only 36% of Likud supporters are in favor of continuing with the judicial reform unabated. Even more telling is the poll released just a week ago by Israel’s Channel 13, predicting that if new elections were held today, the parties constituting the current coalition would lose their parliamentary majority, dropping from the 64 of the 120 Knesset seats they presently occupy to only 56.

2. There is no sign of demonstration fatigue. It’s easy to respond to a question on a telephone survey; much more difficult is showing up at a demonstration in the cold or rain. And for hundreds of thousands to do exactly that week after week is evidence that the opposition to the government’s agenda is profoundly deep and unlikely to subside until its legislative takeover is derailed. And the numbers are growing. While some had predicted a depletion in strength after an initial outpouring of support, there has actually been an increase as the public’s disgust has intensified.

3. My barber is among the protestors. It’s one thing for Israel’s 13 Nobel laureates, leading economists, past prime ministers, prominent jurists, top military reservists, heads of security and intelligence agencies, most successful business leaders, and the academic elite to roundly condemn the violation of Israel’s democracy. It’s quite another to meet the man who cuts my hair at the protests. Our conversations while sitting in his salon have always been interesting but I wouldn’t have been able to say one way or the other whether he’d hit the streets under the present circumstances. That he did is a concrete manifestation that the grave concern over the consequences of infringing upon Israel’s democracy is exceptionally widespread. So, too, the diversity of speakers. At last night’s rally in Jerusalem they included a past supreme court justice, an Arab teacher from one of the city’s elite high schools, a Haredi rabbi, and a college student who was among the founders of the “Protecting Our Shared Home” movement. The huge banner serving as the backdrop to their speeches further emphasizes the breadth of those appalled by what is happening: “Right and Left Against the Destruction.”

4. Kikar Habimah, ground zero of the protest movement, is not Tiananmen Square. The ongoing demonstrations against the impending regime change, attended by hundreds of thousands, have all been peaceful. No one is being shot, arrested or even harassed. The large number of police present appear relaxed, even friendly – there to protect rather than molest. That’s not to say that things can’t take a turn for the worse.

[ – Stop press! They just did. A headline appearing on my phone literally as I type these words: “18 arrested as protestors block highway.”]

The flash points that might result in violence are many. Coalition members promised to introduce legislation making immodest dress at the Kotel a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. A scenario horrible to imagine against the background of the protests in Iran, sparked by the Morality Police arresting a young woman for not abiding by Islam’s strict laws regarding wear of the hijab. Nor can we turn a blind eye to the vile attempt last week to stifle free thought. Making matters worse, it occurred in what should have been upheld as the sacred sanctuary of freedom of expression. What happened is that a teacher was fired for “incitement” after inviting his students to debate the controversial legal overhaul now underway. Still, I would like to believe we are light years away from the Taliban’s Afghanistan, or Khamenei’s Iran.

5. The Zionist dream has been reclaimed. The most prominent symbol of the burgeoning protest movement is the Israeli flag. Signs opposing tyranny, championing equality, and defending democracy are present but barely necessary. The blue stripes and star carried by the assembled say it all: “This is our country, we have no other, and we will continue to struggle to ensure that those who brought it into being, who died defending it, and who will continue to fight to protect it will be proud of what it stands for.” The Zionist dream is readily referenced without apologies, and the rejuvenation of identification with it and the restoration of unabashed patriotism are not to be taken for granted. In the humdrum of day-to-day life here, many would have thought these sentiments long gone.

The hope not lost.

Along with the flag, the anthem. Each week, before the crowds disperse, the organizers announce the singing of Hatikvah. A palpable mixture of pride and anguish fills the air. As we have been reminded on the eve of Israel’s 75th Independence Day, the Second Temple was destroyed after standing a mere 80 years, a consequence of bitter internecine feuds.

No, the hope has yet to be lost, but there is a realization that the 2000-year old dream is teetering on the verge of obliteration.

I wonder, then, if by penning these words, I’m not perhaps casting myself in the role of a violinist on the Titanic, stalwartly trying to ease the agony of those around me as the craft we’re sailing on tilts ever deeper into the ocean depths.

If so, I readily understand your impulse to abandon ship. Still, I implore you not to. In the long run, if together we aren’t able to stay the course, it’s doubtful things are going to be better for us anywhere else.

Be assured, though, that If I do become convinced we’ve reached that tipping point when the Zionist dream of forging Israel as a truly democratic and pluralistic Jewish state will be beyond realization I promise to let you know. But by then, of course, it may be too late to save ourselves, never mind the Jewish state precariously descending into the depths of oblivion.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is presently engaged in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.