Passion and Protest in Times of Trouble
“If you continue on the path you are following, you will be responsible for civil war in Israeli society.”
Benny Gantz (Times of Israel. 9 January 2023)
Israel is a place of fiery passion. It must be. A people that has stood at the brink of extinction does not have the luxury of being apathetic. Even a fairly mundane Israeli conversation, a business meeting, a family dinner, an exchange at the supermarket, can move easily to high tones which to an outsider may sound like shouting. Civility is not a foundational pillar of Israeli public life.
When Israeli public figures – like Benny Gantz; a decorated fighter and commander, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and defense minister warns the current Israeli government about the possibility of a coming civil war – the warning demands serious attention. If additional voices are added to the mix – sober civil servants and professionals from a wide swath of Israeli public life including former heads of the Israeli security services, university and academic leadership, economic and business chiefs – all warning that the Netanyahu-led government is bringing Israel to a precipice that endangers the delicate yet imperfect balance between Jewish and Democratic – it is not hyperbole or rhetorical posturing.
An enormous segment of the leadership of Israeli civil society is warning our sitting elected leadership that current plans to irredeemably alter the system of checks and balances between the executive and the legislative by performing radical surgery on the judiciary will push Israel into the political company of countries where democracy is today emaciated and gaunt. In places like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey; ruling parties under the guise of majority rule justify with no qualms running roughshod over all semblance of the basic freedoms that define liberal democratic life. A country where the ruling political party – regardless of which party – controls the appointment of judges across the system – cannot claim to possess an independent judiciary nor claim to be a democracy.
With that said, we all need to be careful what we conjure when terms like ‘civil war’ are invoked. Language both reflects and shapes reality. Threats and fears of civil war may only be adding fuel to the fire. A landmine laid is likely to explode.
Between 1861 and 1865, the United States of America participated in a civil war. The internal contradiction between the promise that ‘all men are created equal’ and the appalling reality of economic and territorial expansion based on slavery was too great to bear. By 1865, 620,000 Americans had died; a number matching the total number of fatalities in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a precursor to the Second World War, was the first war against fascism with over 200,000 fatalities. Political repression remained a cornerstone of the fascist Franco regime until its demise in 1975 and the consolidation of the Spanish constitution in 1978. Still today the ghosts of the past haunt Spain despite a daily demeanor that projects a relaxed, devil-may-care charm and swagger.
Is Israel on the brink of civil war? Is our situation like that of the United States in 1860? Or that of Spain in 1935?
A turn to a rhetoric of impending civil war does not accurately capture Israel’s current situation. Nor is it wise to wield the threat of civil war as a rhetorical device. However rhetorical caution should not be mistaken for a lack of political will in the struggle for Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state.
Israel does not need to enter a state of civil war for our situation to become seriously compromised. Even without the threat of civil war, Israel has seen political debate on issues of great consequence slide into violence. The Wadi Salib riots (1959), the attack on the Knesset during the debates on German reparations (1952), and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1995) are only some of the examples when Israel’s public debate turned violent.
Political life and fateful questions of how we ought to live demand vociferous public dispute. Raising of voices, fierce debate, and the roar of protest are to both expected and welcomed. However, all voices on all sides of the current debate need to act in a way that presents their case and position in the strongest way possible but does so while being careful not to get too close to the abyss of disparagement, dehumanization, and hatred. Disagree with the position. Even loathe the ideology. Do not forget that the person on the other side of the fence is a neighbor, a cousin, and a comrade in arms.
Aharon Barak – a leading architect of Israeli democracy and a controversial figure in the wider cultural context of the current Israeli crisis – like others mentioned above possesses an undeniable and profound history of service to the State and People of Israel. Barak’s careful, surgical use of language is widely recognized. When Aharon Barak chooses knowingly to relate to the current judicial revolution as “a chain that is strangling Israeli democracy.”– his supporters and his critics need seriously consider where we are and where we are headed.
Protest will continue. It must continue. The spirit of Israel’s Scroll of Independence is under threat. Already in n 2015, MK Motti Yogev (HaBayit Hayehudi) called for a D9 bulldozer to raze the Supreme Court. The planned dismantling of the Israeli judiciary is the implementation of that threat and the surrounding campaign to discredit the Israeli court system by the radical right. The current Netanyahu government does not seem inclined to slow their plan to revamp the basic definitions of Jewish and Democratic.
President Yitzchak Herzog implored all in a dramatic and historic call: “I feel, we all feel, that we are a moment before a confrontation, even a violent confrontation… The powder keg is about to explode.” Voices from the religious Zionist camp – many of them who support to one degree or another the need for a reform of the Israeli judiciary – have joined President Herzog in support of negotiation and mediation.
Hopefully, the rare intervention of President Yitzchak Herzog in favor of discussion and re-examination is not too little too late. These are the moments when a nation is challenged to fulfill the freedoms that lie at the heart of memory and aspiration.