Israel’s domestic turmoil has escalated even more dramatically in the few days since President Herzog presented his “people’s framework” for judicial change, reflecting both the scope and the depth of the growing crisis that has enveloped Israel since the beginning of 2023. What started as a disagreement over governmental initiatives to reform the judiciary morphed into a sweeping confrontation over efforts to alter Israel’s already precarious democratic underpinnings, and is now being transformed into a full-fledged struggle over the contemporary meaning of Israel’s foundational principles.
These differences cannot be defused either by fine-tuning adjustments to the court system or by ignoring their economic, social, security, and international ramifications. They must be addressed directly, collectively, and courageously now.
The declared aim of ultra-Orthodox, settler, and certain right-wing and religious elements which form the backbone of the incoming 37th government is to carry out a structural overhaul by reducing the authority of the courts, concentrating power in the hands of the elected majority, and implementing Jewish control over the entire area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. The result of the veritable flood of government initiatives pursued via legislation, policy shifts, and decrees at a whirlwind pace is nothing short of a dramatic regime change.
The opposition to these events, focused initially on constitutional elements, quickly expanded to embrace a wide variety of individuals, groups, professions, and sectors apprehensive of the implications of these moves for the protection of their rights, wellbeing, and guiding norms. Women’s action is indicative of these dynamics.
Diverse women from a variety of geographical locations, socioeconomic positions, religious preferences, and political orientations have been especially prominent in the bourgeoning democratic counter-revolution. The February 2023 poll of the Israel Democracy Institute shows that there is a considerable gender gap in attitudes towards proposals to reduce checks and balances and concentrate power in executive hands. A full 45 percent of women oppose the introduction of an override clause that would enable the Knesset to defy a court order by a simple majority in contrast to 34.5% of men (only 19.6% of women would support such a move, as opposed to 33.5% of men).
In a similar vein, 65% of women object to the Netanyahu government’s attempt to limit the ability of the courts to strike down unreasonable laws or executive decrees, while only 23% approve of such a move (58% of men oppose this plan; 34% approve). Indeed, 63% of women believe that the changes proposed by the government would adversely affect gender equality (a mere 21% are not particularly concerned). Only 53% of men perceive a threat to gender equality, while 30% are not worried about such an eventuality.
To be sure, objections to the government proposals are evident among Palestinian citizens of Israel, in the center and the left, in the Tel Aviv area, and in certain professional circles. But why are they especially high among women? Part of the answer lies in the fact that many of the initial safeguards for women’s rights in Israel were a result of court rulings (from matters related to protection from discrimination, violence against women, representation, equality in military service, implementation of equal pay for equal work — to relief from discrimination by religious authorities). Another explanation lies in the perception that the coalition agreements — scores of which allow for gender discrimination against women in public spaces — can significantly alter their maneuverability and standing.
Perhaps most significantly is the fact that many women in the country are particularly aware of their vulnerability in the face of the systematic erosion of democratic values. Indeed, since the creation of the state in 1948, security concerns, internal divisions (mostly around religious issues), and opportunistic political considerations precluded the pursuit of full freedom and equality in the country. The main targets from the beginning have been members of Arab society in Israel and women. Mizrahi Jews, newcomers, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups have been added to the list over the years. Now adherents of the center and the left are also included in the mix. Even though many of these groups have gained greater freedom and equality as time has progressed, they are particularly sensitive to the adverse effects of present coalition measures and their accompanying vitriolic discourse.
That is why women’s voices are so salient in the protest movement. Their political coming of age is important not only because it is reflective of the awakening of many other groups, but also because their particular struggles may offer an alternative to the inevitable clash between the increasingly acrimonious camps dividing Israel today.
The announcement of the new government’s agenda quickly mobilized many individual women and organizations (ranging from mainstream groups to a multiplicity of feminist bodies), which have banded together in a broad overarching coalition. The immediate focus of concern has centered on several issues: fear of a spike in violence against women, growing discrimination against women in the public sphere, further limitations on women in particular sectors, a regression in the number of women in decision-making positions, and a general climate of misogyny, racism, and homophobia. The symbolic adoption of the red dress and white caps of the Handmaid’s Tale has given graphic articulation to these sentiments and become a mainstay of the democratic pushback as the deteriorating status of women in Israel mirrors the rapid erosion of Israel’s democratic trappings.
As the protests have expanded and permeated the country (along with gender-based violence, prejudice, and rhetoric), many women activists have begun to comprehend that the root problems facing Israeli society are even more profound. This perception has been expedited by the rising dominance of security personnel and the defense establishment in opposition to government actions. The capacity of most women to play a major role in this discourse is constrained by their limited expertise, poor representation in the military, their own perspectives on these matters, and an understanding that decisions in this area have a differential gender impact. This situation sidelines the gender equality agenda (vide: the alarming rise in the number of femicides, the reluctance to release funds for dealing with gender violence, the delay of critical legislation such electronic bracelets for sexual offenders) and severely constrains women’s influence on outcomes.
More to the point, by highlighting security considerations, the expansion of the pro-democracy camp has created a hierarchy which threaten to detach the interconnected threads that compose the ongoing crisis. The current effort to reach some accommodation on judicial matters in an effort to achieve at least the appearance of some stability resolves nothing. Moreover, it belittles the inherent link between judicial autonomy, the ongoing assault on the media, the perpetuation of inequality and personal liberties, and the less than subtle attempts to control elections. Put together, the dominance of religious and military strongholds works to undermine the normative base of Israel’s existence.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence rests on four essential values, drawing on both Jewish and universal sources that together provide the normative vision of the country: freedom, equality, justice, and peace. The most important, freedom, alluded to several times in this brief document, denotes not only self-determination and liberation from the shackles of tradition and subjugation, but also, as Professor Eyal Chowers so articulately puts it, celebrates the freedom of every individual to shape his or her being and to define how they will be loyal to themselves without impinging on the freedom of others. Equality, which does not imply that all people are identical, suggests that every group and individual has, in the words of Israel’s founding proclamation, the right to “full and equal citizenship and due representation” despite political, cultural, and material divergences.
Implicit in this conceptualization is not only recognition, but also respect, for differences. The necessary adjustments inherent in equality are the key to justice. And together with a great deal of goodwill, these can offer a common ground for peace (openly advocated three times in the Declaration of Independence). These essential principles cannot be maintained without a careful set of checks and balances and — given continual debates on substance — adherence to agreed rules of the game.
To achieve these objectives, no mere haggling over one or another constitutional issue can suffice. A new and updated civic pact — as President Herzog so correctly emphasized in his proposals — depends on a clear grasp of citizenship in the multi-faceted environment of what is Israel today, rooted in a Bill of Rights applicable to all the country’s residents. The experience and insights of Israeli women over the years and their amplification in recent months provides the groundwork for such an updated and relevant version of foundational norms for dealing with the numerous challenges in the years ahead.