Wendy Singer

The crie de coeur in Israel’s streets

When I look at the aerial images of the Tel Aviv protests, I see hundreds of thousands of points of light
An aerial drone shot of anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv on February 25, 2023. (social media)
An aerial drone shot of anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv on February 25, 2023. (social media)

On the second Saturday night of the anti-judicial reform protests, my 84-year-old mother called to say she’d like to join us as we gather outside the President’s House in Jerusalem. My mother, a Holocaust survivor, is one of the least political people I know. Some ten weeks ago, the numbers attending protests in Jerusalem were modest. The initial 1,500 people would swell to over 15,000 on recent Saturday nights.

My mother’s explanation: she had read Yossi Klein Halevi’s column on this very news site, was persuaded by his dire analysis, and above all, felt his crie de coeur (cry from the heart). From then on, my mother, Helen Senor, has not missed a one, even struggling with mobility issues, and even on rainy nights.

In the weeks that ensued, we’ve organized our lives around the rhythm of protests, and watched with heavy hearts as the government steamrolled a key element of the sweeping judicial overhaul package to the final stages in the legislative process, with a crescendo vote expected in the coming hours/days. Even as I write this piece, tens of thousands of Israeli citizens are demonstrating desperately at intersections from north to south – compelled to make one last push at keeping our set of checks and balances in place.

Watching this story unfold in our streets, and in endless WhatsApp groups, has created an excruciating and inspiring range of emotions. My starkest observations are three-fold. First, the right-left axis is gone. The territorial compromise issue that has framed Israeli politics for 56 years is absent from this slice of history. The seeds of today’s protest movement may have been planted by center-left opponents of the reform underway. But the legislative package that has evolved, if it becomes the law of the land, takes Israel from a thriving, if messy, democracy to a country with an emasculated judicial branch and strips a front line of defense for her minority communities.

One after the next, figures from the center-right (Natan Sharansky, Yaakov Amidror), and from above politics altogether (Elyakim Rubinstein, Eugene Kandel) have joined the call to stop this madness. They are careful to note what many in the protest movement claim as well: changes in the judicial system are needed, and its setup is far from flawless. Meaningful reform can be done in a meaningful process that would bring different corners of Israeli society to the table. When influential voices such as these, and many more, joined the protest ranks, we understood that this is a value-laden crossroad rather than a political one: The right-left parts of the spectrum have unified since there’s a value even higher than democracy at this point – that of preserving Israel’s fragile social mosaic.

Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead captured the mosaic image well in a recent column where he reminded us that David Ben-Gurion made generous concessions to religious Jews that infuriated many of his strongest supporters. Ben-Gurion wasn’t a religious man, and his political base was from the secular, socialist majority. Against the wishes of that base, he insisted on offering the Orthodox community substantial concessions in the new state. As Mead put it, “Those concessions were made to a small minority of Jewish citizens of the new state and continue to annoy secular Israelis, but Ben-Gurion believed that national unity was well worth the price.

Second observation: Every imaginable corner and sector of Israeli society has risen up with its own crie de coeur. When the high-tech community organized and raised its influential voices, sincere warning letters were sent to the prime minister. This sector of the economy represents 15% of the GDP and well over half of our exports, a legitimate pain point if threatened. Indeed, the leading credit rating agencies, Fitch and Moody’s, warned of a downgrade in Israel’s credit rating if this overhaul is achieved. When this was quickly followed by equally distressed letters of concern from the leading law firms, the top economists, nearly two hundred former Treasury officials, teachers, medical professionals, artists, musicians, and others, it was clear that no strata of non-Haredi Israeli society is willing to stand by and let this country slide into a system of government that erases the critical balance of power between its branches.

The most piercing point of the protest emerged when the army reservists and Air Force pilots conditioned their service, now and in the future, on this country remaining a democracy with an independent judiciary.

In the blur of endless anguished op-eds, letters and social media posts, and swelling protests, there are two moments that framed for me the desperate and profound angst of society and the actual fraught moment we are in: one was the announcement by the respected former Air Force Commander, Eliezer Shkedi, who asked us to imagine a time when Air Force commanders would have to choose between obeying Israel’s political leadership or its judicial leaders. The images of security chaos flashed through all our minds.

The second was the courageous announcement on Saturday night by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who called for a several-week halt in the legislative process. Gallant, a former general with an impeccable lifelong commitment to Israel’s security, cited the long list of security threats the country is facing, as well as his conversations with military officers who are deeply worried about the overhaul plans. Gallant said that he will not “lend his hand to the erosion of Israel’s strength that is penetrating the IDF and security agencies” as a result of the growing rift in our society. The popular former general reminded the Israeli public, “I have risked my life dozens of times for the State of Israel, and at this time…I am willing to take any risk and pay any price.” Hearing Yoav Gallant step forward – perhaps soon to be a chapter in “Profiles in Courage” – that choked me up. As we know, Netanyahu fired him from the defense ministry several hours later.

Third point. Finally, there is also beauty in this story. We may be in the fateful hours before this resolves one way or another. One can’t deny the beauty of 600,000 Israeli citizens stepping peacefully into our streets, from north to south, with cries of Demokratia, and clutching large Israeli flags. The author Micah Goodman commented on a podcast that we’re seeing patriotic Israelis uniting from across so many spectrums, to fight against this extreme government, for the country’s future.

When I look at the aerial images of the Tel Aviv protests, I see hundreds of thousands of points of light. I think of each and every dot on the screen as an individual person who sees meaning in what he or she is doing; who organized their schedule that day or night, their work, their childcare, to be one more light in this mosaic of battle for Israel’s civil future.

The very same aerial drone images remind me that all this light is really a country on fire. There is anger, fear, rage, disbelief that on the eve of 75 years of independence, the carefully built mosaic of Israel’s democracy could be in genuine peril, not in a few weeks or months, but now, so soon before we sit down for Passover seders next week.

While I don’t pretend to carry the correct Rubik’s Cube solution to this crisis, I do pray that our prime minister also looks at the points of light, and can still imagine another path forward. Talented Israeli non-politicians have been pecking away at numerous back-channel efforts to open up a process aimed at reaching a compromise. President Herzog has twice used the neutrality of his presidential perch to find a path toward dialogue.

Dear leaders. We pray every shabbat for your safety and wise judgment. Please hear the crie de coeur in our streets.

About the Author
Wendy Singer made aliya in 1994 and lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three daughters.