Two weeks ago, I attended one of the Saturday night protests that have been taking the Israeli media by storm in opposition to the judicial overhaul. I thought I had a lot to say about the experience but now that I sit down and try to type out something coherent from notes I’ve written about it, I realize that there are so many new things on the Israel topic to discuss that feel like new additions to the current geopolitical situation (while being simultaneously not-new phenomena). I feel like I didn’t have enough time to process all my thoughts in regard to one topic before being bombarded by the realities of the next. Maybe that’s what living in this country is like.
I haven’t even opened the notes I’d written about the last protest I attended since writing them, but part of me feels like they no longer feel relevant to discuss on their own. This past week, a barrage of rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria. Two major terrorist attacks in one day took the lives of four innocent civilians, including two sisters, their mother, and an Italian tourist, and injured many more. More unrest at the Temple Mount, the protests continue, Passover starts, and winter floods kill two Israelis in Southern Israel. While it feels like we’re nearing a milchemet achim (“civil war,” literally translating to “war of brothers”), we’re reminded that we have an enemy greater (?) than each other: the rest of the world. We’re reminded why we have this country. Because terrorism is this current chapter’s variation of our age-old struggle to simply be.
Division among the Jewish people is an equally age-old theme, one we will surely continue to struggle with and confront. But how do you unite such conflicting ideological camps? Many argue that when we are most divided, the biggest plights plague our people. Whether its divine punishment for tribal division or strategic enemy intervention at a crucial time, the theme has been noted.
My view of the protests was, and still ultimately my current view is, that the Israeli people are coming out to show their support for a democratic Jewish state. The protestors of all ages waved Israeli flags that symbolized their devotion to a Jewish state that is, although potentially an oxymoron, democratic and Jewish. Jewish to fulfill the purpose of this country, to fulfill our ancient yearnings to return home and live freely in our own land. Jewish to allow us to live here honestly in a way that history has proven the Diaspora can’t allow Jews, not just to guarantee us a tiny bomb-shelter state. I thought protesting would show my love for Israel and my love for all the Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau stuff I learned about in school when we talked about the Enlightenment. My vision of an Israel where all people exercise the same rights and freedoms and protest when those rights and freedoms are violated because their social contract between ruler and ruled has been violated.
The majority of people present definitely felt like they shared the same vision of Israel, or at least a similar one. Or, at least, an opinion guided by the same ahavat hamoldet. I know I don’t have to prove it, but I truly love this country. I left my family and everything I knew in the US to make Aliyah, and drafted to the army post-college to stomach two years in the IDF solely because I love this country and see it as privilege to sacrifice my time and freedom to serve it (don’t get me wrong- a formative experience and incredibly important for my case study on Israelis and why they are the way they are, but very difficult in the day-to-day for me). I could continue to knock off my Israel advocacy resume, but take my word for it, okay?
In this country’s split over who the baby’s real mother is, I think it is essential that we first make it clear that we do love this country because I don’t see this communal conversation/ turning point/ schism? going anywhere if we don’t have at least that in common.
Back to the protests: Israelis young and old, children on the shoulders of their parents, Holocaust survivors waving flags, I saw it all and felt in awe. But I couldn’t help but feel distracted by a large group of people present that seemed to not have the same goal as me.
This was something that was made clear to me by the very large array of political posters at the protest. I came out to be part of the liberal Zionist crowd and was thrown off by the Palestinian flags, the End the Occupation slogans. These people were protesting way before this current government, not without reason, but with nothing to do with the current legislation (this could be argued against, but- to me- it felt like a different conversation). It was very surreal to see the left’s political map spread out in front of me, but I was initially perplexed. Most people chanted “Democracy!” and held posters ridiculing dictatorships. I thought the current attempt at judicial overhaul is what brought us out, but a lot of these people had already been protesting something else long before.
This is where democracy becomes an ironic thing- 150,000 people are protesting in favor of a system of government in which power is vested in the people and exercised by them through a system of representatives, usually involving periodically-held free elections. This is in order for the voices of even people they don’t agree with to be heard. So why was I uncomfortable at the sight of opinions that weren’t mine, despite protesting for their right to be heard?
While being pro-democracy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a leftist, of course there’s a correlation. Most protestors are not in favor of the current government and instead identify with the Israeli Left. I’m not either, but the reason I came out to protest is because of the legislation that would take away the democratic standing ground that, for me, is a central part of Israel’s identity. But I guess that’s the distinction. Unlike Bibi’s biblical baby analogy (in a speech a couple weeks ago, Bibi warned against a milchemet achim and compared the current situation with the story of the women fighting over the baby from the Book of Kings, each woman testifying to King Solomon that the baby is hers. When he proposes that the baby be split in half, the real mother is revealed by her unwillingness to split the child.), we are not fighting over Israel, we are fighting over what Israel is and should be. It is a larger ideological conflict that is both polarizing and overwhelmingly segmented. Some people at the protests already had an issue with what Israel is and has been for quite some time and potentially prefer a country with no Zionist identity. Not exactly the united-on-this-front crowd I envisioned.
Are the protests a form of a coalition? Are we supposed to align with those we don’t agree with in order to pass things we do agree with? Is that the game of democracy? If you’re not a Zionist but you believe in the Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes Enlightenment stuff that democracy is based on, should we hold hands because something feels a little bit wrong to me about putting Zionism aside and acting like Israel is just any other Western country. And I can’t really turn to them and say “Hey, go home- this protest is for Zionists only.”
Other Western countries don’t have to deal with threats from various borders, and terrorism and unrest from within, like we did this week. If Israel was just another country founded on universalist democratic values, I wouldn’t feel such a strong urge to become a part of it. Acting like it is is an injustice to what makes this place special.
I’m not sure what will happen in the near future or if I would rather be standing with the Zionist right or the anti-Zionist factions of the left, but I do know that there is something rallying and riling going on in the country. There is a larger question about the Israeli identity being asked, a deeply troubling existential question that is beautifully inevitable because big questions and hard conversations are necessary for self-actualization and realization for this country. That’s in the macro.
But in the micro- I know I’m willing to fight for the democratic tenets that would force me to hear out the sides I don’t want to necessarily stand with- to both extremes. Maybe it seems like the riskier choice for Israel under the current conditions, to give all people equal say, a sort-of opening of Pandora’s Box, but how could we live with ourselves if we don’t? Has our own history taught us nothing?
Many things at the protests were incredibly moving. People organizing because they care, giving out shirts and wristbands, waving their flags around to show they have just as much of a claim to this country as the politicians on TV. The posters that had me sure I was in the right place at the right time read: lihiot am chofshi beartzenu (quoting HaTikva, the national anthem, “to be a free people in our land”), en li eretz acheret (“I have no other land/country”), and other references to our communal Zionist longing and deep devotion to this land, an unconditional love that prevents you from quitting when things get tough and it feels harder than ever to find common ground with other Israelis.
The day Yoav Gallent was fired as Minister of Defense and the protests reached a new level, it was a Sunday night and I was on base, incredibly frustrated. While I turned on the news to watch the protests suddenly popping up across Israel with a group of girls complaining about the news being on, I was reminded that most 18-year old Bibi voters have no idea why they are Bibi voters, just that the leftists are traitors and a whole bunch of other words I try to keep as far away as possible from my lexicon.
The political division is a hard gap to navigate when divides are painted with large strokes, and summed up with derogatory words meant to portray a whole big chunk of the population as one thing or another. I know I shouldn’t take the ignorance of others personally, but seeing the ideological gap do its thing, push people into ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup,’ I do find it upsetting to be surrounded by the simplistic language of ‘leftist traitors’ and ‘loyal right-wingers.’ There’s more to it than that.
Surrounded by this population of Israelis in the army makes me feel like I’m the biggest leftist there is. Maybe that’s why I found the protest so frustrating. I had forgotten that antizionsm exists within the country and that the Left alone is split into many factions. It hurt me to see Israelis, albeit a minority, act like this is a mini-US, a country founded with no goal other than to be a free country. No connection to Zionism whatsoever.
I had perceived myself as part of one, more Western, Zionist camp against the “other” Zionist camp, the Israelis with less Western sensitivity. I took it for granted that we all had the same common denominator: belief in Israel as the Jewish State. And then I was reminded that there are way more camps to count, much less understand, and, while I do think that’s better than political polarization, it’s a setup with its own issues.
This is a sensitive situation because opposing opinions can feel like an affront to our personal aspirations for this country, our own interpretations of what our ancestors would have hoped for in this land. It’s hard, but Passover came, and went, just in time to remind us of something important. As I sat in the dining hall on base for Passover Seder, a soldier stood up and said “I know most of us would rather be home right now, but in some sense, we’re sitting here with our family too.” We all looked around. Faces so familiar to us, soldiers that are our coworkers and roommates, fellow Israelis. Not my ideal chag dinner, sure, but he had a point. “On Passover, we’re reminded of when we were freed from slavery in Egypt. I know we don’t feel so free being here on base, but we have our own country, our own army. And that’s a type of freedom.” It’s easy to forget, get trapped in the day-to-day, feel suffocated by the issues of the now, and miss the bigger picture.
History class, along with Passover, teaches us that freedom doesn’t come free. To live as an organized society, we are essentially in a contract with the government. The power lies in the people, who elect and give consent to those elected to rule over them. We are then promised protection and freedom in a civil society in exchange for… precisely giving up full independence and autonomy. English philosopher and political theorist John Locke said that humans are obliged to respect each other’s right to life, liberty, and property. So freedom has a price, and our rights are conditional on our own following of the rules in the contract. Just like I gave up my current freedom to be part of a free Jewish State and its army, we, living at the intersection of Judaism and democracy, need not overlook the meaning and complexity of where we stand.
For Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the caveat is that when the government is no longer doing its job as we see fit, usurping the power of the people, the contract breaks and citizens have an obligation to rebel. And rebel we should, where we see fit. Gather and organize, chant and be heard, but let’s just not forget why we’re here and what we went through to get here.