‘Two Israels’: What’s Really Behind the Judicial Reform Protests

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Andrew Silow-Carroll

Andrew Silow-Carroll

When Benjamin Netanyahu put his controversial calls for judicial reform on pause two weeks ago, many thought the protesters in Israel and abroad might declare victory and take a break.

And yet on April 1, some 200,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv, and pro-democracy protests continued among Diaspora Jews andIsraeli expats.


On its face, the weeks of protest have been about proposed legislation that critics said would sap power from the Israeli Supreme Court and give legislators — in this case, led by Netanyahu’s recently elected far-right coalition — unchecked and unprecedented power. Protesters said that, in the absence of an Israeli constitution establishing basic rights and norms, they were fighting for democracy. The government too says the changes are about democracy, claiming that unelected judges too often overrule elected lawmakers and the will of Israel’s diverse electorate.

But the political dynamics in Israel are complex, and the proposals and the backlash are also about deeper cracks in Israeli society. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, recently said in a podcast that the crisis in Israel represents “six linked but separate stories unfolding at the same time.” Beyond the judicial reform itself, these stories include the Palestinians and the occupation, a resurgent patriotism among the center and the left, chaos within Netanyahu’s camp, a Diaspora emboldened to weigh in on the future of Zionism and the rejection on the part of the public of a reform that failed the “reasonableness test.”

I recently asked observers, here and in Israel, what they feel is really mobilizing the electorate, and what kind of Israel will emerge as a result of the showdown. The respondents included organizers of the protests, supporters of their aims and those skeptical of the protesters’ motivations.

Conservatives insist that Israeli “elites” — the highly educated, the tech sector, the military leadership, for starters — don’t respect the will of the majority who brought Netanyahu and his coalition partners to power.

Here are the emerging themes:

Defending democracy
Whatever their long-term concerns about Israel’s future, the protests are being held under the banner of “democracy.”

For Alon-Lee Green, one of the organizers of the protests, the issues are equality and fairness. “People in Israel,” said Green, national co-director of Standing Together, a grassroots movement in Israel, “hundreds of thousands of them, are going out to the streets for months now not only because of the judicial reform but also — and mainly — because of the fundamental question of what is the society we want to live in.”

Shany Granot-Lubaton, who has organized pro-democracy rallies among Israelis living in New York City, says Netanyahu, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and the coalition’s haredi Orthodox parties “are waging a war against democracy and the freedoms of citizens.”

“They seek to exert control over the Knesset and the judicial system, appoint judges in their favor and legalize corruption,” she said. “If this legal coup is allowed to proceed, minorities will be in serious danger, and democracy itself will be threatened.”

A struggle between two Israels
Other commentators said the protests revealed fractures within Israeli society that long predated the conflict over judicial reform. “The split is between those that believe Israel should be a more religious country, with less democracy, and see democracy as only a system of elections and not a set of values, and those who want Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state,” Tzipi Livni, who served in the cabinets of right-wing prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert before tacking to the center in recent years, recently told Haaretz.

Author and translator David Hazony called this “a struggle between two Israels” — one that sees Israel’s founding vision as a European-style, rights-based democracy, and the other that sees that vision as the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland.

“Those on the first side believe that the judiciary has always been Israel’s protector of rights and therefore of democracy, against the rapaciousness and lawlessness of politicians in general and especially those on the right. Therefore an assault on its supremacy is an assault on democracy itself. They accuse the other side of being barbaric, anti-democratic and violent,” Hazony said.

As for the other side, he said, they see an activist judiciary as an attempt by Ashkenazi elites to force their minority view on the majority. Supporters of the government think it is entirely unreasonable “for judges to think they can choose their successors, strike down constitutional legislation and rule according to ‘that which is reasonable in the eyes of the enlightened community in Israel,’” said Hazony, quoting Aharon Barak, the former president of the Supreme Court of Israel and bane of Israel’s right.

The crises behind the crisis
Although the protests were ignited by Netanyahu’s calls for judicial reform, they also represented pushback against the most right-wing government in Israeli history — which means at some level the protests were also about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of religion in Israeli society. “The unspoken motivation driving the architects and supporters of the [judicial] ‘reform,’ as well as the protest leaders, is umbilically connected to the occupation,” writes Carolina Landsmann, a Haaretz columnist. If Netanyahu has his way, she writes, “​​There will be no more two-state solution, and there will be no territorial compromises.”

Nimrod Novik, the Israel Fellow at the Israel Policy Forum, said that “once awakened, the simmering resentment of those liberal Israelis about other issues was brought to the surface.” The Palestinian issue, for example, is at an “explosive moment,” said Novik: The Palestinian Authority is weakened and ineffective, Palestinian youth lack hope for a better future, and Israeli settlers feel emboldened by supporters in the ruling coalition.

Religion and state
Novik spoke about another barely subterranean theme of the protests: the growing power of the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, parties. Secular Israelis especially resent that the haredim disproportionately seek exemption from military service and that non-haredi Israelis contribute some 90% of all taxes collected. One fear of those opposing the judicial reform legislation is that the religious parties will “forever secure state funding to the haredi Orthodox school system while exempting it from teaching the subjects required for
ever joining the workforce.”

What’s next
Predictions for the future range from warnings of a civil war to an eventual compromise on Netanyahu’s part to the emergence of a new center electorate that will reject extremists on both ends of the political spectrum.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and the managing editor for ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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