What are the protests in Israel (really) about? What is the ‘freedom’ takeaway?

May 04, 2023

It is two days before Passover, the Jewish celebration of freedom, and I am moved to write about the current demonstrations for freedom taking place in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and wider Israel, and inside Israel’s most important institutions, the Knesset (parliament), the IDF (army), the Histadrut (trade union association), and the Universities.

Pomegranate is not a political organization, nor a NGO. We are a for-profit travel company.  However, our vision lies in providing experiences which enable clients to grapple with Israel’s complexity and diversity. Never before has that vision appeared more important.

The facts:  what is happening in Israel now?

Israel’s current government, headed by Netanyahu, is the most right-wing and religious the country has ever had.  It has introduced a series of bills which aim to weaken the power of the Supreme Court. The most important elements are (i) changing the make-up of the committee which appoints Supreme Court judges to automatically give government representatives a controlling majority, and (ii) limiting the ability of the Court to strike down legislation it finds to be unconstitutional.

Unlike in the USA and the UK, Israel does not have a second chamber whose role is to check and balance the otherwise absolute power of the legislative chamber. In Israel, until now, this vital function has been undertaken by the Courts. Moreover, Israel does not have a written Constitution which inscribes fundamental rights to its citizens or the responsibilities and limitations of its government.

The current coalition has a majority in the Knesset, under usual circumstances it can expect to pass legislation it brings. However, these are not usual circumstances. The reaction against the proposed legislation has seen hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens repeatedly demonstrating to decry the proposed legislation’s threat to Israel as a democracy. Protests have taken place throughout the country and abroad as Netanyahu has travelled.  Army reservists from highly trained elite units (pilots, officers and non-officers) have said they will no longer volunteer for service. Fearing the implications of this, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called for a halt to the legislation and was summarily fired by Netanyahu. Universities stated they will indefinitely close their doors should the proposals become statute. On 27th March Trade Unions, together with representatives of banks and private enterprise, called Israel’s first ever general strike effectively closing the country down, demanding that Netanyahu agree to pause the proposed legislation in favour of cross-party negotiations.

As a result, Netanyahu agreed to a temporary pause and to hold talks to try to reach a consensus. The strikes have ended, but protests continue. Following Netanyahu’s climb down supporters of the legislation have begun organising counter protests.

Why is this happening?

Israel is a purpose driven, social and communally orientated society, all important characteristics making it the fourth happiest country in the world (UN World Happiness Report 2023). Many Jews in Israel find purpose in living in the world’s only Jewish country. Self-determination and responsibility for security have been achieved after two thousand years of exile and persecution. Ancient traditions shape the weekly and annual national calendar, inform the fabric of society, and support a profound awareness of living as a historic being, a link in the chain of generations, reaching back to pre-exile times.

However, important social and ideological divides exist. Judaism has always been both an ethnicity and a religion, capturing a full spectrum of ways in which to identify and worship, of outlooks and lifestyles. The full gamut includes the ideological descendants of the founders of the modern State of Israel – highly Western secular Jews who acknowledge the historical significance of the Land of Israel, but primarily value it as a post-diaspora safe haven; religious Zionists who believe God gifted the Jewish people the Land of Israel, including the contested West Bank areas, a gift it would be sacrilege to reject; and ultra-Orthodox groups, some of whom do not believe a Jewish State should exist at all until Messianic times. In addition to these Jewish groups, Israel is home to a significant minority of Arabs who are themselves divided into Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Bahai, and by their various relationships with the State. For example, many Bedouin and Druze hold full Israeli citizenship and serve in the army, whereas many East Jerusalem Arabs refuse to recognize the existence of the State and wholly reject citizenship.

Within the current context, what’s important to understand is that broadly speaking religious Jewish groups align with right wing politics, and secular Jewish groups with left wing politics, though I must stress the many exceptions.

Right wing proponents of the proposals say the Supreme Court is dominated by left leaning secular types; is not representative of the diversity within Israeli society; over time has arrogated to itself powers which were never intended for it; and uses those powers to strike down laws passed by a democratically elected government.  Importantly, many of the laws struck down by the Supreme Court have touched on rights within the West Bank, and the relationship between state and religion, topics of keen interest to the right. Additionally, many in this camp harbour resentment comparing the impact of today’s protests, with the unsuccessful right wing protests of 2005 against Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and certain West Bank areas – the right-wing camp feel ignored, their beliefs trampled on.

Those against the proposals maintain that the guarantee of their freedom is at stake; that Israel is and must remain both a Jewish and democratic state; a free and fair refuge. For them, generations of Israelis, have not given their lives for a State free of external persecution, only to find their freedom limited by their own government. As above, they note the central role the Israeli Supreme Court plays in guarding individual rights as Israel lacks other checks and balances such as a written constitution, or a second legislative house with an oversight or veto function. As the Israeli intellectual Yuval Noah Harari has written, for thousands of years Jews were the minority in lands which were not their own, and their treatment was the litmus test for the abuse of state power. They maintain the State must have institutions which guarantee the rights of minorities, it is utterly lacking for the government to say, ‘trust us, we won’t pass any crazy discriminatory laws’. Adding to the fuel is a high degree of scepticism as regards Netanyahu’s tinkering with the judicial system for personal gain – he is currently facing several lawsuits alleging corruption.

 A Passover Message

Passover is the time the Jewish people remember and celebrate their freedom from an extreme abuse of power whose ultimate shape was slavery at the hands of a dictator Pharoah. The obvious parallel is that today’s fight is to guarantee individual and political freedom, to prevent the government claiming unfettered powers, and vouchsafe the Supreme Court as protector of rights.

As a lawyer by training I strongly believe in the pivotal role of independent courts within a democracy, and that the right to a free, fair and impartial trial is sacred. I also believe that independent courts should have a role in calling out government legislation if found to be unreasonable or undemocratic in the wider sense of the word. None of which is inconsistent with the need for some form of constitutional reform in Israel, which should be examined and promoted on a broad consensus basis.

I am proud of the sensitivity towards these rights which people in Israel have shown. I am proud of the fact that people got off their backsides, and came out into the streets, in a way that notably did not happen in Poland, Hungary or Turkey as their democracies were eroded. As my Israeli husband says, ‘Israelis just don’t take shit. They call it out.’ Beyond this, I am proud of the non-violent nature of the protests – it is absolutely remarkable and a case study for democracies around the world – that mass protests have been held on this scale (proportionally the equivalent of millions of people in America) without a descent into looting or violence. I am proud that these demonstrations have been about what people believe in, and stand for, and not about hatred or rejection of the other. As the journalist and academic Daniel Gordis recently wrote, ‘You saw no guns. You saw virtually no police violence … You saw no gallows. You heard no “lock him up!” This was never about hate—this was about love.’

There is a second and more nuanced Passover message. I have previously written at this time of year about Isaiah Berlin’s negative and positive freedoms: negative freedom is the freedom from obstacles and tyranny; positive freedom is the freedom to realise purpose in your life.

Superficially, the current constitutional crisis in Israel is a fight for negative freedom – freedom from excessive government power. However, it is also a fight on all sides for positive freedom; it is a fight for meaning. One of the things I love about Israel is that it is a developed country where people still believe in things. Apathy and ‘affluenza’ have not taken hold here. As reflected in the Happiness Index, Israelis are full of love not only for their families and their communities, but for their country, their identity, their right to self-determination and self-protection, their connection with thousands of years of tradition, and, in some cases, for their God. These are passionately held ideological attachments which for the most part hold the country together, but as we are now seeing, also risk driving it apart. Where there is passion, there is room for passionate disagreement.

The true Passover message of positive freedom, is that in order to preserve the shared and uniting dream of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, ideological differences must be carefully navigated and negotiated. Each side must mindfully listen to, and seek to understand, not only the specific demands, but the worldview of the other side. Israel is a complex and diverse society, and perhaps uniquely, the Israeli government is tasked with tending a society where constituents claim specific attachments to the Land. Let us hope (and pray if you are in the habit of doing so), for the success of the current talks, and a more widespread openness to the Weltanschauung of others.

 How Does this affect my Israel tour?

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Pomegranate now offers the same thoughtful approach in Jordan and Egypt, and we encourage you to extend your travels and thoughts across the region.

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