Sam Shepherd

Uniting for democracy in a divided society

A pro-democracy demonstration in downtown Tel Aviv on Saturday, February 4, 2023. Photo by the author.
A pro-democracy demonstration in downtown Tel Aviv on Saturday, February 4, 2023. Photo by the author.

Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of Israelis have been taking to the streets in downtown Tel Aviv to protest proposed reforms to the country’s judiciary system. As a young Canadian volunteering in Israel for the year, I joined the past few protests to learn more about the state of democracy in Israeli society today.

Throughout January and early February, I saw Israelis – men and women, young and old – holding red candles as they marched through the streets of Tel Aviv together. Men in yarmulkes and tzitzit marched alongside LGBTQ+ and transgender flags. Signs with the term “equality” and “human rights” were printed in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. And, while not in harmony on every issue, Israelis of different backgrounds and ideologies came together on Saturday nights to unite under a common goal: upholding democracy in the Israeli state.

Since arriving here in September, I have witnessed an Israel under duress and division. A decades-old conflict has fractured society in ways that I will never truly understand. More recently, the election of a recent, far-right coalition has exposed a dark underbelly in Israel that now sits at the driver’s seat of decision-making. Questions about religion and state, Palestinian sovereignty, and minority rights continue to quiver and clash under this fragile slice of earth.

The more I immersed myself in Israeli politics, the more I began to question what a “Jewish democracy” truly means. On the one hand, I have been consistently impressed by how a country can maintain a open, democratic character in a region of the world threatened by religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism. While I recognize that freedom of expression is not distributed evenly in Israeli society, I have never once felt unsafe in Israel to speak my mind about something that I find unjust: an impressive feat for such a volatile place.

Nevertheless, questions about democracy collide underneath the ground here, often erupting into fiery, explosive confrontations. How can a country insist upon the safeguarding of one ethnicity and still live up to the ideals of a democracy, which necessitates equal rights for all people in its borders?  How can leaders reconcile the fact that in the Jewish people’s exile of nearly 2 000 years, other groups have established a home and identity here, whose generational ties to this land are also legitimate? And how can I, as someone who has not grown up here and has not witnessed these attacks firsthand, ever comprehend how patterns of brutal terror and violence have hardened the psyche of everyone living on this land?

At times it feels unclear to me if Israel is intended as a state to preserve the Jewish religion, or if it is a state that aims to safeguard Jews as a people, regardless of how they practice their faith. Even then, it is unclear how protecting Jewish people from an ambivalent outer world can occur without infringing upon the autonomy of Palestinians whose presence predates our waves of return. And, in recognizing the presence of cynical actors in the conflict who genuinely wish harm upon innocent people, how do we Jewish people achieve our deserved sense of security without becoming tyrannical Pharaohs ourselves?

The protests in Tel Aviv showed me that Israelis are ready to answer some of these questions. On the streets, I met a middle-aged woman holding a sign that said, “End the occupation.” I also saw a young, Orthodox man with a sign that read “We do not approve of a government of criminals.” Yet, while I witnessed an impressive mobilization of religious Jews advocating for equality, there was still a notable absence of Arab-Israelis or Palestinian citizens of Israel in the crowds: only a handful of Tel Aviv activists advocating on their behalf.

These Israelis were willing to defend the checks and balances of their democracy, even if some of the larger, more existential questions about the country’s identity remained unanswered. The Saturday protests showed an Israeli society struggling and striving to find a shared language of resistance.

Most importantly, the Israel I spoke to on Saturday night presented a version of the country that no one from home could prepare me for. This was not the rosy land of heroic Kibbutzniks and brilliant tech innovators described in Hebrew school classes. Nor were these citizens the bloodthirsty, settler-colonial invaders described in social justice circles at university. Instead, reality sat somewhere in the middle.

I met Israelis who are, above all else, people making sense of extraordinary circumstances. They are beholden to the mistakes of their leaders, short-sighted, and vulnerable. They are tribal and deeply concerned about the safety of their families, but they also care about equality and fairness. Most want peace, but few have concrete plans on how to achieve it. Even more want to live in a democracy, and they are willing to take to the streets to defend it.

Walking back to the train station after one of the demonstrations, I witnessed a small counter-protest hurling slurs on the side of the freeway. While I am still learning Hebrew, a word I recognized was “Bog-Deem.” Traitors.

After an hour in the rain surrounded by over a thousand Israeli flags, I could not take this accusation seriously. I had spent my Saturday night with people so in love with their country that they were willing to talk to a stranger from Canada about their deepest anxieties about its future. Israelis were willing to stand outside in public days after a terror attack killed several of their people, all because they believed that principles of democracy and justice cannot be swayed by pathetic acts of extremism.

I wish I had stopped and talked with the man at the counter-protest, but I had to catch my train ride home. I wanted to tell him that an Israel constantly wrestling with itself is more “Israeli” than any form of blind allegiance to an elected government. In fact, the word “wrestling” is in the country’s name!

I do not know what the future holds for this country, and I am eager to speak to more protestors and listen to more perspectives as these marches crescendo forward. Yet, after these first few Saturdays, I am positive that Israelis will defend their democracy for as long as they are able to. The only “Bog-deem” I met in Tel Aviv were the leaders exploiting the public’s fear to undermine democracy, not the proud Israeli citizens marching to defend it.

About the Author
Sam Shepherd (he/him) is a recent graduate of McGill University, where he studied history, literature, and Jewish Studies. He is currently volunteering in Lod as part of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, in which he works as an English-language teacher and community volunteer. Sam is also an intern at the Abraham Initiatives for 2022-2023.
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