The phenomenon of mass public protest to government reform is not unique to Israel. Regional examples include protests in Iran against forcing women to wear the hijab in 2019 and during the Arab Spring in 2010 when people across the Arab world were demanding human rights. In both instances the protests were eventually stopped ruthlessly and in which hundreds to thousands of protesters were killed.
In Iran, the government wanted to limit women’s freedom of dress, while in the Arab world the various Arab government were adamant about repressing individual freedom. In both cases, the policies forcibly pursued were not in the public’s interest but rather were self-serving for the government and ideologically based. In Iran the driving force also had a religious component with radical Shia clerics aligned with the government.
How does Israel fit into this pattern with its continuing pursuit of its judicial reform package? Will it really serve the public interest, or will it only be self-serving for the government to expedite advancing their (religious) ideology? How will the Netanyahu government continue to handle the protests if they do not recede?
To the hundreds of thousands of protesters who come from almost all Israeli walks of life and to most outsiders including the American government, the reform package which will enfeeble the courts does not in any way serve the public interest and will have detrimental effects on Israel’s economy, security, foreign policy, and legal system. The central core of the protest participants are mainstream establishment people who heretofore have never publicly participated in protests. The government has not been able to refute the concerns raised by the protesters, preferring to try to discredit the opposition and disparagingly referring to the protesters as a small nidus of leftists (a derogatory term in today’s right leaning political atmosphere) and anarchists.
I have yet to witness a moment when even one government officials publicly paused and genuinely reflected on the motivations behind the 180-degree change for pilots from willingly risking their lives for years, even decades, in service to their country to abruptly stopping their volunteering. Rather, the government’s response has been to express furor at their decision.
I am not a pilot. However, in my younger years, before emigrating to Israel, I participated in numerous protests on behalf of Israel. Later during my service in the Israeli armed forces, although I didn’t always see eye to eye with government policies, the differences were never significant enough to shake my commitment. I never thought that the day would come when I would find myself protesting publicly against the government of Israel. Like the pilots, for me, the ramifications of the government’s direction are so appalling that I feel compelled to speak out.
It is true that the government is not acting alone. It enjoys support from various groups. One main group of backers is the religious Haredim. Their support remains steadfast due to the disproportionate financial benefits they receive, the permanent exemption from compulsory army service, and the increasing imposition of religious laws on the broader public. In addition, they stand to benefit from the proposed legal changes which will further entrench their privileged status and exacerbate existing inequalities.
Another backer group, the settler faction, aligns with government because of the government’s willingness to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They too will benefit from a weakened justice system because of the questionable legality of present and future settlements.
Another group are those who support a harder line vis-à-vis Palestinian terrorism. While Israelis agree that curbing wanton Palestinian violence is necessary, there is also a consensus that an excessively hard line approach might backfire, potentially radicalizing moderate Palestinians thereby making the situation worse. Presently, Minister Ben Gvir’s internal security policy represents the most stringent approach Israel has ever adopted. However, so far, his efforts have been counterproductive. During his tenure, there has been an increase, rather than a decrease in successful Palestinian violence against Israelis.
A further disadvantage of having a weak court is that it fosters cronyism, which can lead to a degree of corruption never seen before. The implications of cronyism are far-reaching: It involves favoring individuals based on personal connections rather than their competence. As a result, accountability for performance becomes less important, and lack of court enforced accountability may lead to public resources being diverted to serve private interests.
Many of the supporters have strong religious affiliations, particularly among the settlers and Haredim. Their rabbis and leaders are vocal in their support for the government package. While the modern State of Israel has undoubtedly been shaped by drawing on our Jewish heritage and religion in a positive manner, the present religious players are not embodying the higher principles of Judaism’s illustrious history. For instance, the Haredim policy of insisting on subsidies instead of productive work stands in contrast to the example of Rabbi Akiva, one of Judaism’s most famous erudite rabbis, who made a living by cutting wood from the forest while also dedicating his life to study. Similarly, their refusal to perform compulsory military service contrasts with the example of the religious leader Bar Kokhba along with his family, who led a revolt against the Romans from 132-136 C.E. (A.D.). Moreover, pursuing radical policies goes against the wisdom of figures like Maimonides, one of Judaism’s greatest scholars, who promoted moderation over extremism. Finally, the implications of expanding Jewish settlements without addressing the future status of the approximately two million Palestinians living in the West Bank raises questions about their rights and whether they will be treated equally. Subjugation of another people is not part of Judaism’s DNA. We can take the example of Solomon, considered one of the wisest Kings who promoted trade relationships with Israel’s neighbors, leading to prosperity rather than pursuing a policy of subjugation.
One notes that the alignment between the Israeli government and its religious clerics promoting a narrow ideology while disregarding public opinion bears an eye-opening parallel to what is occurring with the Iranian government, Israel’s arch enemy.
The lack of protest from the moderate religious establishment is disturbing, to say the least. While there are pious Israelis who object to the government’s unreasonable actions, unlike secular based grouping such as pilots and physicians who protest even at risk and threats of government retaliation, the lack of protest from the moderate religious establishment and its leaders is disappointing and disturbing. Religions, all western religions at least, have had their high period in which moral probity and a religious lifestyle overlap, but they have also had periods of deterioration, when self-interest and a holier-than-thou attitude dominate their conduct. Unfortunately, in my view we are at a low ebb in terms of religious Jewish probity. The radical messianic and Haredi factions are vocal, while the other ones are resoundingly silent. What will it take for the religious moderates who may be sympathetic to the government’s political platform but oppose the manner or extremity in which policy is being pursued to begin to speak up and protest?
Support for judicial reforms by special interest groups does not inherently justify their pursuit. Even authoritarian governments have their supporters such as those connected with the ruling party, the wealthy and privileged individuals with vested interests in maintaining the government’s power, and at times, the clergy benefiting from government policies.
One distinction between Israel and totalitarian governments, is that the current Israeli government is a product of free and fair elections. Another difference is evident in the conduct of the Israeli police during numerous demonstrations, where they have displayed magnanimity and restraint in their use of force, even amidst gatherings involving hundreds of thousands of protesters. It is equally important to acknowledge the consistent self-disciplined and restrained behavior exhibited by the protesters themselves.
I recently experienced a representative example of this situation on a smaller scale when I encountered difficulties finding a parking spot at a protest. I chose a safe location that unfortunately the police had been told to close off. However, instead of approaching me forcefully, the officer who came over treated me with respect and politeness, ensuring the encounter did not escalate into violence. His composed and credible approach convinced me to willingly comply with his request to move my car.
However, Ben Gvir, and other ministers are calling on the government to repress the protests forcibly.
In terms of future political action while Netanyahu may at times appear vague, other Israeli government leaders such as Smotrich do not deny their intent to forcibly pursue their ideological platform to completeness.
One apparent frustration of the present government with democracies is the cumbersome process of promoting policies. Proponents must navigate political opposition, public opinion, and judicial scrutiny. In contrast, authoritarian leaders find it easier to establish and implement policies behind closed doors without such hindrances. While this streamlined approach may seem appealing, it is essential to recognize that the lack of checks and balances can lead to detrimental consequences. The ongoing war waged by Russia on Ukraine serves as a poignant example of the potential dangers. For instance, had the authoritarian leader Putin been required to seek approval from a democratically elected parliament or face challenges in an independent court before initiating the war, he might have been dissuaded or prevented from making horrific decision to invade the Ukraine. In the same vein, democratic countries that bypass open discussions about repercussions can also make decisions with catastrophic results. For instance, a more independent debate about how to respond to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 might have prevented the US from becoming embroiled in the Vietnam War, which caused immense casualties and suffering.
The proponents of the Israeli policy package, who believe that weakening the courts and opposition will lead to better governance, have been proven wrong by historical examples time and again. Particularly in cases of majority governments where the opposition’s influence is diminished, the courts play a crucial role in being the last obstacle preventing the pursuit of irresponsible policies. Furthermore, over-powerful governments can foster corruption when the risk of court prosecution is diminished.
In reflecting on the challenges of governance, Churchill’s famous quote comes to mind: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
A serious weakness of democracies is that they can be democratically turned into authoritarian regimes. This worry resonates strongly with many protesters and even the non-protesting public. It serves as a crucial reminder that Hitler rose to power democratically. After his appointment as chancellor, Hitler’s unchecked authority enabled him to swiftly pass a decree that undermined all guarantees of freedom. This historical example underscores the potential vulnerability of democracies to slide into authoritarian rule. Could that process happen in Israel?
Netanyahu’s ability to act as an honest broker in this imbroglio is compromised due to his own pending legal challenges, which creates a vested interest in weakening the courts. Moreover, he faces a significant obstacle in that none of the political leaders closest to him ideologically including Lapid, Ganz, Liberman, or Sa’ar, are willing to serve under his leadership. In a display of personal sacrifice for the greater good of the country, each of these leaders chose not to accept the perks and status of ministerial positions to avoid working under Netanyahu. As a result, Netanyahu can only retain his position as prime minister by acceding to the demands of his diverse group of extremist coalition partners, regardless of whether their demands align with the best interests of the country or not.
Since neither the government nor the protesting public are backing down, democratic Israel is at a pivotal point. I suspect that government leaders from other countries are observing events closely to see how future developments will unfold. Hopefully, the Israeli government will come to its senses, halt its judicial reform, and begin prioritizing governing the country properly. Otherwise, even more difficult times will lie ahead.