Daniel Orenstein

We have pro-democracy allies – they should roar

"We need allies". Tel Aviv. Photo by Guy Shachar.
"HELP! WE NEED Allies". Tel Aviv, 2023. With permission of the photographer.

Early last May, I wrote to a prominent US-based historian whose daily political updates are read by more than a million readers each day, with a plea to write about the protest movement in Israel and our struggle to protect our democratic institutions from our own government. This historian is particularly concerned about the rise of anti-democratic political movements throughout the world, and she often elucidates the connections between these movements in various countries.

My plea was inspired by a photograph posted by a friend. The picture shows two female demonstrators with Israeli flags and a sign explicitly calling: “HELP! WE NEED Allies”. The demonstrators are juxtaposed with a soldier or maybe a police officer. His clothes (beard, kippa, tassels, sandals) hint that he is an orthodox Jew or maybe a West Bank settler, but it is unclear who the soldier is or what he believes. Like all good art, interpretation is left to the observer. With current events heavy on my mind, the picture reminded me of persistent attempts by street thug-turned-Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir to set up a private police force that would be directly under his control, the possible demographics of this force, and the frightening consequences of putting additional policing power into this violent individual’s hands.

But it was the “We need allies” sign that resonated with me and prompted me to contact the historian. I was looking for allies.

We are now into the 26th week of protests, engaging hundreds of thousands of tenacious and committed Israeli citizens who congregate every Saturday night in Tel Aviv and across the country to prevent the judicial coup and the dozens of other policy efforts to weaken the pillars of democratic society and concentrate the power of the current government. Aside from their efforts to weaken the power of the Supreme Court and install judges more sympathetic to their ideological agenda, parallel efforts are being made to weaken and politicize the positions of government legal advisors and the Attorney General, and to politicize administrative bureaucrats, who should be selected according to professional considerations and not political loyalty. Parallel attacks are being waged on the educational system, the media, and the planning system – all to align the activities of those bodies with the political ideology of the current government.

The anti-democracy movement is global and networked

The analogy between these efforts and those of the former Trump administration in the US is strong. In fact, the anti-democratic forces in the US and in Israel are tightly aligned, just as they are with similar political movements that are turning Hungary and Poland into illiberal democracies (or what Polish political scientist Edit Zgut-Przybylska calls “hybrid authoritarian regimes”). China has already eliminated democratic civil society in Hong Kong, and the Taiwanese know that their independent democracy is next on China’s list.

Screenshot of Yair Netanyahu’s Twitter post – with Hungarian President Victor Orban.

Anti-democratic authoritarians abroad – from Trump, to Modi, to Orban – are the allies of our current government. In April this year, Republican presidential candidate and “anti-woke” warrior Ron DeSantis and Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy both visited Israel to herald the strong relations between the US and Israel, to reiterate their commitment to Israel and its current government, and to badmouth the Biden administration. A godfather of the US populist, alt-right, Steve Bannon, is an admirer of Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu and Hungary’s Orban have expressed their mutual admiration.

Even the intellectual antagonists of our current anti-democratic saga, the Libertarian Kohelet Forum, who wrote the proposals for judicial “reform” now being advanced by right-wing lawmakers, is funded by two US billionaires.

In addition to their warm relations with global anti-democratic forces, members of the Israeli right have no qualms about accepting significant funding from Jews and Christians abroad to support their political activities. Australian millionaire Joseph Gutnick funded Netanyahu’s 1996 political campaign that “Bibi is good for the Jews”. American businessman Sheldon Adelson, who was one of Trump’s largest donors, has also been a Netanyahu benefactor, directly and through his funding of the pro-Netanyahu “Israel Hayom” newspaper. Donors from across the right-wing Jewish and Evangelical world are proud financial supporters of settlement projects in the West Bank.

So it is somewhat ironic that, having received millions of dollars from abroad to support their political movement, right-wing Knesset members and the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu, accuse the pro-democracy protestors of being funded by foreign entities. While we would welcome the support (indeed, please send your money!), our opposition has thus far been entirely local and homegrown. We are artists and authors, actors and musicians, politicians and professors, air force pilots and high-tech entrepreneurs. We are feminists and environmentalists. Peace activists and combat veterans. Nobel laureates and school children. Pensioners and students. Religious and secular. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Druze. And, if polls are correct, we are also the majority of the country.

Nonetheless, we need allies. Just as the Israeli authoritarians have common cause with other anti-democratic forces across the globe, so must the Israeli protest movement align with like-minded citizens abroad. The assault on democratic governance and the rise of 21st century authoritarianism is a global phenomenon, so fighting everywhere, from Hungary to Russia to Israel, requires global cooperation.

We have allies, too. And they need to be vocal.

We have allies. The Biden administration has expressed explicit “concern” regarding our government’s planned judicial coup, as have other staunch Israel supporters in the US congress, academia, and the business community. The Jewish communities in the US and Europe have articulated their dismay regarding the dark path Israel’s government is following. Our Knesset members and Netanyahu himself cannot visit Europe or the US without an entourage of our allies reminding them of the shame they have brought upon Israel in the eyes of the democratic world. Dozens of Jewish leaders are speaking out in defense of Israeli democracy and against the judicial coup.

We also have allies in countries like Hungary and Poland, where civil society has already been severely degraded. In the academic community, we have been in close contact with our Hungarian and Polish allies who share their experiences and remind us of what to expect if the government “reforms” should be implemented. The new organization “USA for Israeli Democracy” is taking on the challenge of advocating for protection of Israel’s democratic institutions. Our allies make us stronger.

Not only Jews, but every global citizen with an interest in preserving democratic governance against the global onslaught of authoritarianism should take an interest in what is happening in Israel today. We will keep marching. We will keep protesting. But we will be stronger with the support of like-minded individuals across the world. Write. Protest. Speak. Donate. Let your opinions be known – publicly and loudly. The aforementioned historian had already conveyed to her 1,000,000+ readers what was going on in Israel, even before my plea. And it helps provide moral, intellectual, and political support. I hope other like-minded academics, journalists, politicians, and business leaders abroad, alongside their colleagues here in Israel, will continue to publicize their concerns over the fate of Israeli democracy.

Expression of solidarity with Ukraine in Taipei, Taiwan (author’s photo).

Postscript: Last month I had the honor to give a keynote lecture at a conference in Taiwan. One evening touring Taipei, I was gratified to see the central Night Market decorated with Ukrainian flags that tied together the fates of Taiwan and Ukraine. It is logical to me that Taiwan and Ukraine need allies in the face of the mounting threat (Taiwan) and ongoing aggression (Ukraine) by anti-democratic powers. Progressive forces need to organize internationally to support one another.

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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