Jeff Seidel

Israel’s Protests: A Test of Democracy

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Israel, known as the only successful democracy in the Middle East with a complex political landscape, is currently witnessing a revolutionary moment in history. The much-discussed judicial reforms, aiming to dramatically shift the balance of power within the government, have sparked widespread protests. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are taking to the streets, igniting more than just a disagreement of policy perspectives or political partisanship, but a larger conversation about the nature and limits of democracy itself.

For months, demonstrations have become a common sighting in Israel’s major cities. Protesters are disrupting public services, blocking main roads and highways, preventing access to airport terminals, and even refusing to show up to reservist duty, forcing the nation to a complete halt. While the police have expressed their commitment to allowing “freedom of expression and protest within the limits of the law,” they also have shared concern over the violation of public order and disruption of traffic regulations.

This article isn’t about whether the judicial reform is good or bad – you can tune into any news channel for that debate. Instead, this is about asking an important question as we watch these protests unfold: what is democracy? 

At its heart, democracy is a system where the people have the power, either directly or through their elected representatives. But democracy isn’t just about voting or making laws. It’s also about the checks and balances that protect everyone’s rights, the freedom to speak out, and the right to disagree.

So, is what’s happening in Israel democracy-in-action? Watching the thousands of Israeli citizens protesting across the country every weekend certainly shows a strong democratic spirit. However, the potential impact of the judicial reforms is causing debates about how much power the government should have and what rights individuals should have, both of which are key parts of a democratic society.

But there’s another layer to this discussion: Is it okay to infringe on people’s daily lives or violate public order in the name of democracy? Disruption has always been a tool in the arms of civil disobedience, a way to make the ‘unheard’ voices echo throughout society. The daily inconveniences faced by many might seem like a small price to pay for the long-term protection of their rights and freedoms.

Nevertheless, the question raises legitimate concerns about the potential harm to those uninvolved, and whether there’s a line that should not be crossed. Young people specifically, who are often the catalysts of change, must consider these ethical dilemmas when fighting for their beliefs. After all, it’s their future, and the future of this nation, that they’re fighting for. 

Should these protests be allowed? In a democratic society, peaceful protests are a critical instrument for expressing public dissent and driving change. However, the responsibility lies in ensuring these protests remain within the bounds of law and order, and do not endanger others or infringe on their rights. It seems that many protesters have resorted to lawbreaking, damaging property, and creating disruptions that impact people’s everyday lives. These actions go against the principles of peaceful protest, challenging the basic ideals of democracy and making us question what the right methods of expression are.

So, is there a better way? We may not have a definitive answer. Protests, debates, negotiations, and legislative battles are all part of the democratic process. It’s a messy, frustrating, yet beautiful way of navigating our collective decision-making. Each approach has its time and place, and none can be dismissed outright.

As we live through this exciting and monumental moment in Israel’s history, let’s take a moment to reflect on what it means to be a democracy. In an uncertain world, it’s important now more than ever for young people to question, to listen, to learn, and to participate actively in shaping their nation’s future. Remember, democracy is not just a system of government – it’s a continuous conversation about who we are, what we believe in, and how we want to live together. It’s about seeking balance between the collective good and individual rights, finding unity in diversity, and continuously striving towards a better future.

About the Author
Since 1982, Jeff Seidel has introduced thousands of Jewish college students to their first Shabbat experience as well as offered free tours and classes through his Jewish Student Centers at Hebrew U in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, and IDC in Herzliya. He has lived in Jerusalem’s Old City for over thirty years and connected tens of thousands to the Land of Israel. He has also authored “The Jewish Traveler's Resource Guide,” which lists Shabbat placement programs around the world.
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