A groundswell of protest emanating from divergent quarters is sweeping through Israel in the aftermath of the Knesset’s “week of shame,” during which it adopted a series of controversial laws and then recessed for the summer break 10 days ago. Arab citizens of Israel, the LGBTQ community, Reform and Conservative Jews, peace activists, Druze leaders, human rights defenders, champions of Israel-Diaspora relations — upholders of democracy all — have come out against this restrictive legislation and especially against the new basic law, “Israel: The Nation-State of the Jewish People.” At stake is their status in the country and, by extension, the nature of Israel and its viability.
The rapidly rising dissent is already undermining Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fragile coalition and may threaten his hold on power. Whether it can prevent the transformation of Israel into an ethno-authoritarian polity depends on the ability of its various components to translate their substantive civic might into game-changing political power.
The current unrest has been spurred by several key laws adopted during a legislative marathon, which saw the Knesset pass over 60 bills in less than four full days. The most egregious is “The Nation-State Law,” which squeaked through parliament with 62 votes (55 voted against and 2 members abstained). It asserts the obvious, that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people, and proceeds to specify its concrete manifestations. Without even a nod to equality or to democracy, it alters the character of the state at the expense of all its minorities, demoting 25 percent of the population (mostly Palestinian Arabs) to the status of second-class citizens. The nationalistic intent of the law has yielded a racist outcome.
This culmination of what is nothing short of a week of legislative calumny also included “The ‘Breaking the Silence’ Law” — or by its official name: “The State Education Law (Prevention of Activity in an Educational Institution of External Bodies Acting against the IDF or against the Goals of Education)” — which effectively grants the Minister of Education power to censor opinions contrary to his views and limits serious debate on critical issues; the euphemistically-titled “Administrative Affairs Courts Law (Amendment: A Decision of an Authority in the Area),” that shifts jurisdiction on matters related to planning and building beyond the Green Line, mobility to and from the West Bank and administrative restraining orders from the High Court of Justice to the Jerusalem District court, thereby further limiting Palestinian human rights and promoting creeping annexation; and the “Amendment to the Surrogacy Law,” which extends this right to single women, but denies it to men. Members of Knesset also found time to pass a law approving the politicization of appointments to the position of legal advisors to government ministries and reimbursements to the prime minister for personal expenses from state coffers.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this barrage has evoked a wave of discontent, now surpassing in volume and scope the social justice protests of the summer of 2011. Within days, protests erupted throughout the country. Demonstrations against “The Nation-State Bill” persist in a variety of locations. Petitions against the law that muzzles human rights groups and their promoter, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, have been circulated; additional ones are being disseminated on issues covered by other pieces of legislation. Op-eds appear daily on the dangers of democratic slippage and widening social rifts. Major Jewish groups abroad have issued statements distancing themselves from the latest legislation and bemoaning its implications for world Jewry and for Israel’s global standing.
Nothing symbolizes the force of present disaffection more than the strike organized last Sunday by the LGBTQ community, which gained support from major companies in the private sector, trade unions, and broad sections of the population. The 100,000 demonstrators who gathered in Rabin Square at the end of the day articulated not only their disgust with the ongoing discrimination of gays, but also a much more widespread malaise.
The depth of this indignation has been mirrored, in a very different way, by members of the Druze community, who have traditionally tied their destiny to that of Israel. They now feel betrayed, prompting government ministers Naphtali Bennett and Moshe Kahlon to promise legal correctives and Benjamin Netanyahu to offer more concrete compensation. These suggestions have not succeeded, to date, in assuaging the pain or diminishing the outrage (a mass demonstration is planned for this coming Saturday).
The criticism is simply not going away. At the forefront of the outcry are major writers and performers (including Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua), former politicians and generals (such as Shakib Shanan and Yuval Diskin), along with leading intellectuals, scholars, religious leaders and opinion-shapers (some of whom have come together to urge the entrenchment in law of the Declaration of Independence). They have been joined by a bevy of grassroots activists representing the poor, the disadvantaged, women (whose standing is constantly being eroded by religious dictates), the disabled and new immigrants from Russia as well as from Ethiopia.
These activists do not belong to any one distinct sociological category, nor do they necessarily conform to one partisan outlook. In many respects, they are a reflection of the diversity that is Israel. They are joined to each other by their common yearning for equality and recognition as full-fledged citizens in a democratic country. They represent many — if not most — of today’s Israelis.
Some of the effects of these actions are already evident. The weekend polls showed a drop in support for the Likud (a majority of whose supporters disagreed with the exclusion of gay men from the Surrogacy Bill). Unrest is everywhere apparent. The main opposition party, already under assault for being either weak or non-patriotic (or both), received a boost with the appointment of Tzipi Livni as opposition leaders by party head Avi Gabbay. The highly publicized resignation of its Arab MK, Zuheir Bahloul, has unleashed a new round of debate.
Now Netanyahu — the master of simultaneously coopting and discrediting the formal opposition — has come out again just yesterday against “the attacks of the left camp that defines itself as Zionist,” dubbing them “nonsense.” He called on his coalition partners to rally around the nation-state law: “Do not be apologetic; fight for the truth.” Clearly, with his renewed emphasis on political skirmishes in partisan political terms, Netanyahu is laying the groundwork for the forthcoming election campaign, which he hopes to build around his nationalist leadership.
This may, however, be the greatest political miscalculation of his career. Just as he underestimated the impact of his about-face on male surrogacy and may be belittling the ripple effects of Druze discontent, he may also be misreading the power and the passion of current civil society alienation. Many more people than he imagines are appalled by his assertion that the Jewish nation-state bill is a watershed, viewing it instead as one of the lowest points in Israel’s history. Too many are impatient with the constant disregard for those who are different (the gay community being emblematic of a wider trend). The majority, even in his coalition, cannot abide the retrogressive stranglehold imposed by the ultra-orthodox. They are looking for a way to revive and update the foundational values of Israel which Netanyahu has so summarily dismissed. Their image of Israel, simply put, is light years away from the one he insists on peddling through the laws he has backed and the policies he promotes.
These sentiments do not fall neatly into left-right categories. The prime minister may yet discover that the rules of political engagement are changing and that the next elections may be fought on new terms.
The prime minister also assumes that he has no competition: that democratic Israelis are unable to rally behind any individual capable of defeating him at the polls. The translation, however, of the extensive dissatisfaction permeating the country — compounded by the constant insecurity on the northern and southeastern fronts — may not be dependent on any one person, but rather on the agreement of a group of leaders (secular and observant, sociologically and geographically diverse, Jews and Arabs) to work together in a broad democratic electoral alliance to change a trajectory that threatens to destroy who they believe they are and what they want Israel to be.
This is not beyond the realm of the possible. Ironically, the latest laws may actually provide the impetus (as well as the tools and the will) to bring about this change.