July 24, 2023 may be remembered by most Israelis as the darkest day in the country’s history, with the passage of the current coalition’s first overhaul bill inviting catastrophe. But it may also prove to be the birth pangs of an unstoppable civic movement that could reconstruct a democracy stronger and more far-reaching than it was before this coalition took over.
Many have watched with horror as Israel’s own elected government has lead an eyes wide-open, full-throated frontal attack on the country’s legal system, economy, security and social fabric. On women, Arabs, Jews who are not their kind of Jews, the LGBTQ community, journalists and on the bodies of its citizens. On critical alliances with the US, Europe, and in the Middle East, both longstanding and newly-developing. The coalition’s leaders have advanced their extreme agenda with vile rhetoric, violence and glee. The costs are already astronomical, and still greater risks loom large.
But something extraordinary has also taken place. I, like so many Israelis, have joined week after week of protests. We’ve watched with bated breath as a wide range of actors tried multiple tactics to persuade the key players to change course before it’s too late. And we have been catapulted between moments of despair and disbelief, sometimes on an hourly basis, as we’ve watched what for many was previously unimaginable become reality.
But as I joined the protests which exploded yesterday evening after the bill’s approval my own despair was banished. Absolute determination rose up in its place. Over the course of these 29 weeks of protesting, the foundations have been laid for the long-term struggle that lies ahead. We may have lost the battle over the reasonableness bill – for now – at extraordinary cost. But we also enter this next stage with significant strengths and assets.
Energy: Words, photos and video clips provide only an inkling of the extraordinary power that has gathered within the protest movement, which increasingly functions like a well-oiled machine. Sure enough, as news went out that the bill had become law, people began streaming toward the Knesset until all the streets in the area were packed tight with protestors chanting, singing and beating their drums. Passionate speakers on at least two different stages and multiple screens energized the crowd. People passed out sandwiches, water and sunscreen to fend off the brutal heat. Rosemary sprigs helped ward off the noxious fumes of the skunk spray that had been used to disperse earlier crowds.
The hours passed, darkness fell, and the crowds only grew in numbers and intensity. As expected, police and water tanks arrived in full force. But when the water tanks began to shoot their powerful streams into the dead center of the crowd, protestors only chanted louder, raised their arms and stood taller, conveying one loud ringing message: we will not give up.
Massive mobilization: The protests on the street are of course only one piece of a massive mobilization. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have taken part regularly in these seven months of continual protests. Leaders of major institutions and community groups as well as widespread grassroots efforts from across the country have leveraged the powers of collective action. Buoyed by the public response, the parliamentary opposition has fought back hard, with various types of wins even if some of them were only to hinder the coalition’s efforts and force them to shift into a salami approach. Hopefully they’ve learned lessons which will help them in the next stage as well. And allies from outside of Israel have also played an important role in conveying the urgency of the situation. The efforts of any given actor alone would not be sufficient. But the efforts of all of these actors, persistently implemented, over time are essential for success.
Diversity: Protestors ran the gamut. Young, old and everything in between. The casually secular and tattooed hipsters. Religious men with kippot of all types and sizes, some with tsitsit, and religious women with a range of modest dress and head-coverings. Grizzled army veterans and anti-occupation activists. Academics and kindergarten teachers, technicians and techees, medical professionals and haircutters. These protests aren’t the domain of just one or two sub-sectors.
(It’s true that the Arab community has been the least engaged, despite the fact they will be among the most negatively impacted. But there is ample reason, both pragmatic as well as moral, for Israel’s Jewish majority and Palestinian minority to embark on genuine partnership efforts, though this requires more analysis than space allows in this piece).
Cross-communal: The country may be increasingly polarized by populations and communities, but it is a mistake to over-simplify the divides as absolutely right-left, religious-secular, Ashkenazi-Mizrachi or Jewish-Arab. Those elements are present, in ways both real and manipulated. But anyone who has paid attention to the crowds at Jerusalem’s protests and across different communities and forums has witnessed that it is more complex than that. The binary thinking only serves the agenda of this coalition. For all the very real reasons for the divisions, there is also common ground with largely untapped potential.
Dialogue: It’s true that shouting matches and hateful rhetoric have overwhelmed the Knesset, social media and public attention. But at the same time, often without any fanfare, the country’s precarious situation has also catalyzed extraordinary dialogue efforts literally everywhere. When I left Monday night’s post-bill protests and walked through Jerusalem’s Sacher park where a protest tent camp has been set up, I saw multiple groups of mostly Haredi and religious men standing around in discussion with protestors – not screaming matches on the brink of fisticuffs, but real discussions. A friend who facilitates staff development workshops for corporations tells me there is enormous demand to mediate staff discussions so people can air their concerns and differences and still be able to work together. And I’ve heard of conferences, intimate living room gatherings and WhatsApp group discussions, between Orthodox and progressive religious leaders; settlers and those opposed to settlements; religious and secular; reservists declaring their intent to refuse and those who condemn that and on and on.
The coalition leaders don’t seem to be listening, and plenty of people within both camps are unwilling to even try to talk or trust each other. But you don’t need everyone to be engaged in dialogue for that to achieve a meaningful impact over time.
Shared fate: There is a growing comprehension that a hardball zero-sum game will make losers of us all. Like it or not, we are inextricably linked and inter-dependent. Realizing that our destiny is shared does not guarantee that we will successfully extricate ourselves from this mess. But it is essential to forging the broader sense of community and common ground necessary to do so.
We have also lucked out on some other critical factors:
Explicit extremes and greed: The coalition has been quite explicit about their vision, agenda, strategy and tactics. This has provided a wake-up call for many. But the truth is that today’s coalition key players have been laying the groundwork for everything we are now witnessing for over a decade. They have been transparent and consistent about their intentions this entire time. A combination of apathy, despair, self-focus, fear and ideological factors have contributed to their growing strength and undermined the would-be opposition.
So what made the difference now? The coalition’s big electoral win made them greedy and supremely confident that they are unstoppable. Their unabashed and voracious power grab awakened many of even the most indifferent and self-focused. It has turned a portion of their own voters against them, either because they never supported the coalition’s full agenda, or because people have understood that the price is too high. This has been crucial to the groundswell of staunch sustained opposition.
Self-interest: There has been a growing understanding of just how much is at stake writ large, but also the ways in which losses will be felt personally by many, jeopardizing people’s rights, jobs, savings, etc. The struggle for democracy is about core values, and it’s also about core interests. That’s a powerful coupling.
Lessons learned: While the rise of Israel’s extreme far-right is due to some factors unique to this country’s reality (key among them being Israel’s occupation and military control over the Palestinians, though the taboo on discussing this still holds too much sway), it is also part of a worldwide trend even among democratic stalwarts. Far-right leaders from different countries are learning from each other, but so are opposition leaders. Israel’s protest movement is tremendously fortunate to benefit from those hard-earned insights.
What will come of all of this? That’s impossible to predict. It will depend on countless milestones large and small along the way, each of which will be fought over and trigger new actions and reactions. What’s clear is the following:
We’re in this for the long-haul. The coalition has much more planned for us. But the opposition has also gained ground, organizing itself; developing its infrastructure, messaging, and practices; mobilizing allies near and far. Democracies are most at risk when the gaps between their aspirations and reality become too great. The fault lines run in parallel to those gaps. Addressing the underlying issues is critical to fixing and strengthening areas where Israeli democracy is weakest. Some of the efforts undertaken so far are doing this; more has to be done.
What we need next goes beyond passionate chants and just saying no to the coalition’s moves. Effectively opposing this coalition requires a powerful alternative built upon a clear vision and strategy; grounded in shared commitment to fairness, respect for differences, and rule of law; and mobilizing supporters across communal lines.
The only guarantee that this coalition will win is if we give up.
The passage of this bill may only be a pyrrhic victory.