When your parents or grandparents dreamt of Israel, what did they dream of? Did they dream of a totalitarian state where one leader decides how everyone should live? Did they dream of a fascist government passing laws to benefit a fringe minority at the expense of the majority? Did they dream of a religious fundamentalist state where everyone was required to follow strict orthodox law? If not, you should be out in the streets today, marching with us.
You may have heard Netanyahu’s party line: “We represent the majority of the country. We are passing laws designed to protect the rights of all Israelis. We won the election. The vast majority of the people voted for us. Majority, majority, majority.” But here’s the thing, Mr. Netanyahu. Majority? Not so much!
Background facts: In November 2022, Netanyahu’s Likud party won 32 mandates out of the 120 seats in parliament. Not an overwhelming majority. The opposition party, Yesh Atid, won 24 mandates – not that far from Likud’s number. So the two parties were not far apart in numbers. It was then up to each of the party leaders to try to form a coalition. Here’s where Netanyahu’s political prowess comes in. Netanyahu is the most political animal we have ever seen in this country. He is the ultimate deal-maker. And deal he did.
In order to gain the required majority, Netanyahu needed coalition partners. He recruited a fascist, ultra-nationalist party along with a few other dubious partners. That’s how we got to where we are today. Where is that, you ask? CHAOS: the Dark Void of ancient mythology is where we are today. The streets of Israel are literally on fire. Up until yesterday, the massive protests were all about trying to get Netanyahu to stop his relentless march against democracy. Yesterday, after parliament passed the law limiting the Standard of Reasonableness, the tone of the protests turned from anger to rage.
Last night bonfires were lit in the streets, not for the first time. But last night the fires were bigger and hotter. I do not exaggerate. I was there, as I have been since the beginning of the protests. I marched and chanted and sang in front of the bonfires in March and a few times since then. But last night the fires were piled high with wooden pallets. We were engulfed by black smoke. Sparks flew – again, literally – not figuratively. I danced around the fire, along with hundreds of others until the smoke filled my lungs. I took a break to breathe and drink some water. It was then I discovered my face was covered in ash. How symbolic – a few days before Tisha Be’ Av – the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the temple. One of the ancient mourning traditions of our people is to dress in sackcloth and cover ourselves in ash. I may not have been wearing sackcloth, but I was certainly covered in ash. Yesterday we took to the streets in rage, mourning the beginning of the end of our democracy.
I am not a religious person, but I am a proud Israeli. I am proud of my people, but not my government. These days I am very ashamed of my government and its leader – whose own self-serving goals have led him off the rails. In Netanyahu’s frantic drive to keep himself out of jail, he has made a deal with the devil. And the devil is a 3-headed monster named Levin-BenGvir-Smotrich. In order to avoid prison, Netanyahu needs to weaken the Supreme Court – the only resort to true justice in a nation without a constitution. The threat of a Supreme Court decision looms in front of him, blinding him to everything else, including his own love for his country and its people.
I fell in love with Israel the moment I arrived here, 55 years ago. That summer, I was one of hundreds of American teenagers who came as kibbutz volunteers, one year after the 6-Day War. As we strolled through Tel Aviv that first day, I heard sounds I had never dreamt of: People were walking around town casually speaking Hebrew. Actual, practical, everyday Hebrew. This was not the Hebrew of the prayerbooks and Torah readings I had heard at my synagogue, Rodeph Sholom, in Bridgeport, CT. On the streets of Tel Aviv, people were buying falafel in Hebrew. They were chatting with each other about who knows what. They were laughing and yelling – well, at least I thought they were yelling. Turns out that’s just the normal volume level for Israeli conversation. I didn’t understand a word, but I was enchanted. I was instantly enamored of this language I had resisted learning all those years in Hebrew School. Modern Hebrew sounded so beautiful, even when shouted at full volume! On that first day in July 1968, I decided that I wanted to be an Israeli. And so I am. I made Aliyah. I built my life here. And through all the hardships and challenges I’ve faced in the years since, it has never occurred to me to leave. This is my home. This is my country.
Sadly, this is not the same country I fell in love with all those years ago. Back then Israel was a socialist democracy. Imperfect, sometimes corrupt, often unfair… But everyone had healthcare. Everyone had food to eat. No one went homeless. And everyone was free to live and worship or not as they saw fit. At the moment all of this is still true. But that could change in a heartbeat – and the heart that has the power to change it is not beating properly. It’s running on a pacemaker, and we are running out of time.
What is the Standard of Reasonableness at the center of yesterday’s crisis? You can learn about it here: https://youtu.be/4m5uWiPHDP4 Why is it important? Because this is the first step in weakening the Supreme Court. This is the first of over 180 laws being proposed by Netanyahu’s government which could turn us from a social democracy into a totalitarian dictatorship. This is not hyperbole. This is the sad fact of Israel’s very fragile democratic system. Our governmental system was slapped together overnight in 1948. It was not built on an age-old tradition of democratic thinking and culture. It was hastily constructed from bits and pieces – some British law here, Ottoman bureaucracy there, and then throw in a bit of Talmudic wisdom. A recipe for disaster.
The result is a precarious system, dependent on the whims of a few key players who come together to vote on new laws. They do not all agree with each other. They certainly do not love one another. But no matter. They vote as a bloc. It’s a system of pure deal-making, quid pro quo. That’s the Israeli parliament in a nutshell. And at the moment, that nutshell is filled with a bunch of nuts.
The light at the end of the tunnel is being lit by bonfires on the Ayalon Highway. I see the light in the determined faces of my fellow protesters. We will not surrender. We are not afraid – not afraid of flying sparks, not afraid of water cannons, not afraid of the long hot summer ahead of us. We are the backbone of Israel. We secular, liberal Israelis are the ones who maintain the economy. We pay the taxes[i]. We hold the power: the power to cripple the standing army, the power to withhold taxes, the power to move our foreign currency out of the country. We have the power and now is the time to use it. Don’t want to live in a totalitarian state? Come march with us!
[i] According to the Central Bureau of Statistics just about 90 percent of all tax payments were made by non-Orthodox Israeli Jews while members of the Haredi community only contributed 2 percent of all income tax payments – despite comprising 7 percent of Israeli households.