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SUZANNE RUTLAND: ‘Israel faces an existential threat from its own government’

Suzanne Rutland
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SUZANNE RUTLAND: ‘Israel faces an existential threat from its own government’

Published: 28 July 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

I am not one to attend protests but this is different. The reforms will erode the Supreme Court’s power to act as a check and balance. It's the beginning of the end of democracy.

As many people know, I live between Sydney and Jerusalem. I have just returned from Israel where I participated in several protests. I have always believed in the importance of collective action and as a high school teacher and later university lecturer, I have gone on strike in support of my union’s positions, but I have never joined a picket line. As a committed Zionist, I have attended many rallies in support of Israel but never any rallies opposing Israeli government policies.

Like many Israelis, I am not one to go to political protests. I have felt my task was to work for Jewish education, and that my political opinions were my own personal views.

So, why is now different? I feel that Israel and world Jewry, including our own community, are facing an existential threat with the current government. Its judicial reforms, the first of which has now been passed, will have corrosive repercussions for Israel politically, economically, socially and from a security perspective. But most fundamental of all, they will strip the power of the Supreme Court to act as a genuine counterbalance to the Executive – which spells the beginning of the end of democracy.

The events of the last six months, as all commentators note, are unprecedented. Israelis are coming out week after week to protest, now in its 29th week and I share their concerns.

For someone who has not been active in political protests, attending my first protest in Jerusalem was challenging. I called my friend, Peta Pellach, and asked if I could join her. She has been a regular since the start of the protests, going every Moitze Shabbat to the rally outside the president’s residence in Jerusalem.

As the sun set and darkness fell after the calm of Shabbat, I set off, initially feeling a sense of trepidation. However, within minutes I saw other protesters emerging, waving their Israeli flags, and I started to feel the atmosphere. The spirit and energy, especially from the young people there, was just amazing.

Each of the protests was negotiated with the police, who cordoned off the part of the street where the protest was being held. Each was peaceful, with enormous spirit, young and old and in Jerusalem religious and secular. For some protests, a stage is set up, there are loudspeakers, singing and speeches, with the ongoing chants of ‘democratia’ [democracy]. Participants blow their toy trumpets and whistles to the rhythm of the chant.

So why are these protests ongoing? Why are Israelis, many like me who have probably never gone to a protest before, so intensely involved?

I have been very active over the years pushing back against left-wing anti-Zionism and Israel hate, but the current government is pulling the rug out from under our feet.

There is a multiplicity of factors. They are not just about the judicial reform, but also about what the current extreme Right government represents. Many Israelis and commentators recognise that the pendulum may have swung too far and that there is need for some adjustment in the powers of the Supreme Court; they just don’t agree with decimating the Supreme Court.

Firstly, there are the political factors – many fear that Israel will become an “illiberal democracy” like Poland or Hungary, or worse still a dictatorship like Russia. Indeed, in the last protest I attend at the Knesset in Jerusalem on the Monday evening before the major day of disruption on July 11, the man with the loudspeaker even compared Netanyahu and Ben Gvir to Putin. Many fear we are on the road to a dictatorship.

Secondly, there are the economic factors. The current budget has allocated billions to the Haredi parties and to the settlements in the West Bank – Judah and Shomron. This leaves a huge tax burden on the average working Israeli who lives within the Green Line. High tech particularly feels challenged. It presages the end of the Start Up Nation.

The government has tried to tar these protests by claiming they are funded by malevolent international forces. This is not the case. Peta told me that the protests are funded by the high-tech companies, who fear the scenario if the reforms go through. In addition, there is a fundraising website, where many give small donations, and at each protest T-shirts and other items are sold to raise funds.

Then there are the social factors – the fears of the minority groups, from women, to the LGBQTI+ Israelis, to the secular who fear that their lifestyle is being threatened. And of course, the Palestinian Arab community is also being targeted. Indeed, the Israeli Medical Association has threatened to go on strike because they feel the new laws that have been put forward calling for discriminatory treatment undermine the Hippocratic Oath.

It is these factors that have led reservist pilots and others – who voluntarily give up their time for training – to threaten to strike.

One of the features of the protests is the women dressed in red with white caps – in the Netanya protest there was a group like that. A huge Israeli flag was laid on the road and then a number of the protesters picked up the flag and walked to greet the women – it was a powerful pageant.

There is so much more to write about the protests, but hopefully this gives a flavour. In his speech to the Congress, President Herzog stated that “democracy is in the Israeli DNA”. Attending the protests, one certainly feels that.

Will it be enough to stop the push for power? Will there be more bills after the summer break, so that step by step Israeli democracy is undermined? In defending the bill that will remove the “unreasonableness in the extreme” clause from the Court’s authority to overturn Knesset legislation, Justice Minister Yariv Levin stated it will make clear “who is the boss”.

However, democracy is all about checks and balances – so that no one branch of government has overwhelming power. Clearly, he believes that the Executive Branch, which in Israel is also the Legislative Branch, should have overwhelming power – but that is not democracy!

This is why Biden is taking a stand. A recent podcast of the Institute for National Security Studies was entitled At the Edge of the Abyss? The Social-Political Crisis in Israel and the Future of the “Special Relations” with the US. It is well worth listening to, as this is of great concern to many Israelis: protesters and non-protesters alike.

As is the distancing from Israel of American Jewry. Veteran Australian and Israeli Jewish leader, the late Isi Leibler, wrote in 1984 that the Diaspora needs Israel, but Israel also needs Diaspora Jewry. Leaders of the judicial reform ignore the importance of this partnership.

We are told by our rabbis that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans because of needless hatred. Sadly, that is what it is happening today.

I have been very active over the years pushing back against left-wing anti-Zionism and Israel hate, but the current government is pulling the rug out from under our feet. For me, this is a matter of great concern.

We have just commemorated Tisha B’Av. We are told by our rabbis that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE because of sinat hinam – needless hatred. Sadly, that is also what it is happening today. And, as Abraham Lincoln warned, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand”.

We are at that point. Let’s hope and pray that reason prevails, that the current government pulls back from the abyss and that President Herzog’s ongoing efforts to create dialogue finally meet with success. For this to happen, Diaspora Jewry also needs to speak up. Without that, the Israel experiment could well be doomed, and we shall be facing a replay of 70CE.

Protest group pays for all-black front-page ads in major Israeli newspapers (Jerusalem Post)

The Zionist Federation of Australia today expressed deep regret 

The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) expressed its profound concern 

Photo: A demonstrator waves a coloured Israeli flag during a protest, July 24 (AP/Ariel Schalit)

About the author

Suzanne Rutland

Suzanne Rutland, OAM, is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical & Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney. She is a renowned historian of Australian Jewry and a member of the Australian expert delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Her latest books are Lone Voice: The Wars of Isi Leibler (Hybrid 2021) and Special Religious Education and its Value in Australian to Contemporary Society (Springer 2021), co-authored with Professor Zehavit Gross.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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