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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

What Protest Does (and Doesn’t) Accomplish

With Israel’s massive, protest demonstrations and other actions already in their third month of intense activity against the government’s “Judicial Reform” program, it’s worth asking what such protest realistically can accomplish.

Back in the early 1990s I published the first ever book on Israeli protest (Stiff-Necked People, Bottle-Necked System; Indiana University Press, 1990), based on my research from 1949 through the late 1980s. Among the startling findings (at least “startling” to me) was the fact that at the time Israel led the world (!) in per capita protest participation: 11% – compared to other scholars’ studies that found American and European democracies ranging around 6-8%. I am not aware of similar follow-up studies in other countries, but the latest numbers based on polling surveys of the Israel Democracy Institute show that Israel’s protest participation numbers recently have virtually doubled (https://www.idi.org.il/articles/48227 – in Hebrew). We might no longer be first, but we’re certainly up there near the top of the democratic pile.

Will this massive protest campaign succeed? Who precisely does it influence? The past offers some interesting answers although there is no guarantee that history will repeat itself.

First, the word “success” is ambiguous from several standpoints: Achieving all or part of its goals? Over what period of time – the present, near-term future, or down the road? Leading to a change of policy, or also a change of government? A couple of examples highlights the fact that one has to wait for a good period of time – sometimes years – to determine whether it was successful.

In 1971, Israel was taken aback by an outbreak of riotous protests by the “Black Panthers” – Jews from Arab countries who had their fill of being treated as second-class citizens through governmental “benign neglect”. PM Golda Meir called them “not nice boys” and most Israelis were decidedly unsympathetic with their protest – which died out within two years with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. A failure? Not so fast. Research several years later found that the government’s financial outlays on Social Welfare increased significantly during the 1970s! Moreover, one can make the case that ethnic discrimination (against those Edot Ha’Miztrakh) was one of the main – and perhaps the central – factor behind the rise to power of the Likud in 1977.

The 2011 “Rothschild Street tent” protests against the high cost of living (the “cottage cheese” revolt) also  seemed to peter out without much success, but looks are deceiving. A special Commission (“Trachtenberg”) was eventually established to recommend policy changes – and these ultimately led to the elimination of regulations that had kept prices high. Moreover, the ensuing years also saw the collapse of several “tycoon”, vertical corporations, further encouraging competition. Israelis today complain about rising prices, but the fact is that for close to a decade there was virtually no inflation whatsoever in the country – until the Ukraine War that led to inflation the world over. Again, no change in government ensued from the 2011 protests, but significant policy change did occur.

Based on these examples (and several more; space is too limited to detail them here), one should not expect that the present protests will lead to the collapse of the government. On the other hand, they have a good chance of changing government policy – in this case, moderating the extreme elements of the Judicial reform plan.

However, there is a different, more subtle impact of such large-scale protest: it does tend to influence public opinion – “public” in two meanings of the term. First, it can change voting patterns over the ensuing years (not necessarily immediately), a la 1977 in wake of 1971 and 1974 (the latter was witness to widespread protests after the Yom Kippur War near disaster). The latest polls show the Likud already losing several seats in the Knesset, and this could be the first round of a growing snowball further along. Second, and even more subterranean is protest influence on the top echelons of policymakers and civil servants. In other words, when that “public” sees hundreds of thousands of mainstream citizens taking the time week after week to protest the issue, that provides moral support for those within the “Establishment” (mayors, army and police officers, professors, etc. etc.) to stand firm against what the Opposition perceives as governmental overreach. A prime example is the Chief of Police Shabtai standing up to his “boss” Minister Ben-Gvir regarding Shabtai’s removing and almost immediate reinstating the Tel Aviv District Chief of Police (Ami Eshed) – not to mention Shabtai’s ordering his subordinates not to accept calls from the Minister who was trying to bypass the accepted line of communication between the political and professional spheres of duty.

Such “spine-boosting” as a result of public (protest) support could possibly have huge ramifications in a month or so. Despite President Herzog’s sincere efforts, the government and the judiciary seem to be headed for a constitutional clash the likes of which Israel has never encountered (few other democracies either). If as expected the Supreme Court overturns several of the Judicial Reform laws as being “unconstitutional”, the police, military, and other institutions of government could be faced with a diabolical choice: do they obey the Government (backed by Knesset legislation) or the Law (as interpreted by the Court)?

This is where massive protest can (theoretically) have the greatest influence, providing heavy moral support (and pressure) on public servants to answer that impossible question by accepting “The Law” above all else. Thus, Israel’s massive protest campaign could well lose the legislative “battle” but still win the constitutional “war.”

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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