Daniel Orenstein

The year we defended our values and ourselves

"A little bit of light disperses a lot of darkness"
"A little bit of light disperses a lot of darkness"

I’m not a big flag-waver. Nor do I like marching. And I’m not particularly good at demonstrating. I don’t like large crowds shouting slogans in unison – regardless of what they are shouting. For me, something about those activities resonated with ‘conformity’ at best, and ‘fascism’ at worst. But I have never marched, paraded, and waved so many flags as I did in 2023.

When events demand it, like when my core values are threatened, I march, I demonstrate, and I wave the flag. Furiously. This year was a year of unprecedented crisis in Israel – from within and without – my core values and my personal safety were threatened this year like no year since I moved to Israel 30 years ago. So I waved the flag, not for blind nationalism or to cry out ‘my country right or wrong’, but as a symbol representing the best of Israel’s Jewish, liberal, and democratic traditions.

From January to October 2023, I paraded with my flags up and down Haifa’s main Carmel thoroughfare. I brought my flag to Jerusalem to wave in front of the Knesset (though the crowds were so huge that I never got close). I waved the flag at the entrance to Kfar Tavor, where I had the opportunity to take the stage (which was the back of a small utility vehicle) and explain to other flag wavers why our government’s policies were destroying our country’s resilience and potential for sustainability.

Marching for democracy in Haifa. May, 2023

My flag-waving was an expression of outrage and opposition to the emerging threat to Israel’s democratic institutions coming from the government itself, starting with Prime minister Netanyahu’s attempt to neuter the power of Israel’s courts and make them subservient to his political interests. These government attempts to secure political control reached across all components of Israel’s civil society, including its defense establishment, law-enforcement agencies, government offices, media, and universities and the rest of the educational system. So the flags came out.

Thanks to a brilliant tactical decision by the newly emerging leadership of Israel’s protest movement, our outrage was reconfigured into patriotism. We were reclaiming the national symbols, and foremost among them, the flag, in our fight to protect Israel’s democratic institutions. We were not protestors. We were patriots.

Due to these demonstrations – the largest and most sustained in Israel’s history – I was feeling optimistic and proud to be an Israeli in a way that I hadn’t felt in decades. Speakers at demonstrations would remind me and the other tens of thousands of attendees, week after week, about all that we have to be proud of and all that we were there to defend: A strong and independent media; A strong and independent court system; World-class research, high-tech, higher education, defense, and health services. All of which were sustained by liberal values underlying personal freedoms. These are the fundamental qualities that brought Israel to the point where we could claim our place among the most affluent, happiest, and most democratic countries (however imperfect, but that’s for a different post) on the planet, and we were committed to the fight to protect them.

The spirit of the pro-democracy movement in Israel managed to withstand and resist ten months of political threat. And then came 7 October, 3000 Hamas terrorists, and the bloodiest assault on Israel in its history.

Overnight, that same flag-waving democracy movement morphed into a movement of resilience in the face of external assault. While our government’s ineptitude in responding to the crisis was on full display, the protest movement mobilized to provide equipment for poorly equipped soldiers, working hands for abandoned farmers, support for families of the hostages, and supplies for evacuated families. Now I combined flag waving with raising funds for soldiers and evacuees, demonstrating for return of our hostages, and working in pepper hothouses.

Thanks to the pro-democracy movement, thousands of us had flags ready to hang in support of our soldiers and – later – in defiance of anti-Israeli demonstrators across the world. The assault by Hamas was bad enough. But the secondary assault by American college students and professors, journalists, actors and actresses, politicians, and even the UN, some of whom celebrated the Hamas assault as ‘exhilarating’, was insufferable. We on the Israeli left watched in dismay as so-called ‘progressives’ abroad joined in common cause with one of the vilest, racist, misogynistic fundamentalist organizations on the planet. In response to them, I unfurled two flags on my balcony.

There is a lot of speculation in the Israeli and international press as to whether – in light of the shock of extremity of Hamas violence and the betrayal of the global progressive movement – the Israeli left is now going to shift rightward. And whether the resurgent patriotism reflects abandonment of left-wing values.

My answer is an absolute ‘no’. If polling is correct (and based on conversations with my friends, colleagues, neighbors, and family), the judicial coup and the Hamas war have strengthened the center, while support for the Israeli left, the one that continues to support equality, individual rights, environmental protection, coexistence, and democracy, and opposes religious coercion, occupation, militancy, corruption, and fascism – remains stable if not strengthened.

We may be a little more cynical regarding who are friends abroad are, and more realistic (and fearful) regarding the threats we face from Hamas and Hezbollah – but those threats do not challenge our foundational values. Rather, they highlight the difference between societies based on progressive values and those based on fundamentalism and extremism. As for the ‘Progressives’ abroad marching in support of Hamas, they have betrayed their own purported values – they don’t cause us to call our values into question.

Memorial service for peace activist Vivian Silver, z”l, murdered by Hamas on October 7 2023.

Our war with Hamas is not only to assure our physical security, but also to defend the values on which our country was founded, the values that make our country so starkly different than the Middle East envisioned by Hamas and Hezbollah. Unfortunately and ironically, the legislative actions of Netanyahu government will weaken those same values that made us strong.

In 2024, we will continue to wave our flags because the future of our country as a democratic and Jewish state is not secure. As the events of 2023 show us, those are two values worth fighting for.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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