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‘The public is truly worried this government will turn Israel into an illiberal democracy’

Eetta Prince-Gibson
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Published: 3 February 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Democracy defence demonstrators, anti-occupation activists, and high-tech workers worried about the economy are coalescing to form a noisy but diffuse protest movement.

Last Saturday, January 28, tens of thousands of Israelis once again took to the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and nearly a dozen other cities throughout the country to protest against the government's proposed attacks on Israel’s judicial, political and educational systems.

Over the past month, these demonstrations have become a regular weekly feature of Israeli life, attracting new groups and growing constantly. But since its inception, this embryonic “movement” has had to cope with tensions from within, including divisions between those who want to focus on the threat to democracy and those who draw a direct connection between these threats and the deeper injustice of the occupation.

The most recent demonstrations were more subdued than previous ones. Indeed, organisers had considered postponing them in the wake of the  shootings in East Jerusalem, reflecting a deeply-rooted instinct, even among veteran activists, to tone down protests during escalating security situations and after terrorist attacks.

Guy Schwartz, a leader of a Jerusalem-based ad-hoc organisation, "Protecting our Shared Home," explains to The Jewish Independent that he does not want the protest movement to be seen as "dancing on the blood," citing a particularly barbed Israeli expression for making political gains out of terror and death.

“We must make it clear to the politicians that we will not allow them to continue to divide us by sowing hatred for their own political gains. We are in mourning, but we are here in hope that we can all find a way to live together."

The upcoming demonstrations this weekend are expected to return to their previous, rather noisy format, with songs and drums, and, according to police expectations, they are likely to be even larger.

Gadi Wolfsfeld, Professor of Political Communication at Reichman University, told The Jewish Independent: "The public is truly worried this government will turn Israel into an illiberal democracy like Hungary or Poland. There have been right-wing governments in the past, but they have always had a fig leaf; at least one party that assuaged people's fears. 

"There is no fig leaf in this government," he says. "Even people who voted for it now see that this is a radical, right-wing, racist government and they believe it must be stopped."

Protesters march in Tel Aviv streets against the judicial overhaul (Matan Golan/Sipa USA).
Protesters march in Tel Aviv streets against the judicial overhaul (Matan Golan/Sipa USA).

In some ways, the current demonstrations have much in common with previous protest movements, such as the social justice protests in 2011 and the demonstrations against Netanyahu over his ongoing criminal trials in 2021-22.

As they have often been in the past, the protests are organised by a combination of ad hoc and more established groups. The Civil Democracy Movement, legally incorporated as a non-profit organisation last week, has already signed up close to 4000 people. Other groups include the Black Flags and Crime Minister movements, both of which were prominently active in the “Balfour protests” (so nicknamed because the demonstrations took place outside the PM’s  official residence on Balfour Street.)  

Also visible, wearing bright purple sweatshirts with Hebrew and Arabic logo, is Standing Together, a grassroots movement of Jewish and Arab citizens dedicated to economic and social justice. The well-established Movement for Quality Government in Israel is also involved, although it has been organising its own demonstrations in close proximity to the main Tel Aviv demonstration.

As in the past, the largely grass-roots organisations have shown an impressive ability to pull together ideologues as well as practical doers and gain public trust.

Hundreds of volunteers organise buses, print signs, set up large screens and sound equipment. Flyers provide the names and mobile phone numbers of lawyers who have volunteered their services in case any of the demonstrators are arrested, and groups of academics are offering free lectures to groups who want to know more about the reasons for the protests and the threats to Israeli democracy.

But as in past, as noted by Ben Lynfield in The Jewish Independent last week, Israel’s Arab citizens are largely opting out of participating, for a variety of political and sociological reasons. Nor have the labour unions, including the umbrella Histadrut, joined in – although that may change this weekend. Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee and a key figure in all of these legislative efforts, submitted a bill on Monday that would severely limit Israeli workers' right to strike. In response, the Histadrut has also threatened to take to the streets.

Moreover, dozens of additional organisational efforts have come up, many of them for the first time. Most prominent is the growing list of professional and institutional groups that cross political and social boundaries.

These include medical professionals, including directors of most of Israel's private and public hospitals. Referring to themselves as The White Coats, they signed declarations in opposition to a statement by Minister of National Missions Orit Strook (Religious Zionism) last December, in which she stated doctors should be allowed to refuse to provide treatments that contravene their religious faith, as long as another doctor is willing to provide the same treatment, and that businesses may refuse to service LGBTQ individuals. 

Following Strook's statements, dozens of companies and advertisers, including insurance firms, high-tech companies, hotels, and law firms, publicly announced that they were instituting internal procedures to block business and groups that would boycott people over sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or nationality. The White Coats groups attend the national demonstrations as well.

"If the new government’s revolution is successful, it means that our children will not be able to live in this country."

Avi Himi, Chairman of the Israeli Bar Association

The Israel Bar Association rarely takes political positions or publicly engages in controversial issues.  But in a recent interview in Haaretz, Avi Himi, Chairman of the Bar, declared: “Our lives are on the line: If the new government’s revolution is successful, it means that our children will not be able to live in this country … [this government] has left us no choice." Himi addressed the demonstration in Beer Sheva last week.

Hundreds of high-tech workers have been holding regular lunchtime protests outside the Defence Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, carrying Israeli flags and signs that read, “No democracy, no high-tech” and “No freedom, no high-tech”.

Gadi Mizrahi, 39, a high-tech worker who attended one protest, told The Jewish Independent: "Netanyahu likes to brag about Israel's high-tech. High-tech draws foreign investment, is a large part of Israel's exports, and has helped to drive Israel's GDP.  But Netanyahu has to realise that there can be no high-tech if he turns us into an illiberal pseudo-democracy. I'm protesting not for my job or my salary, but for the future of my children and the future of my country."

Tel  Aviv protest, January 7 (Tomer Appelbaum)
Tel Aviv protest, January 7 (Tomer Appelbaum)

In support, earlier this week, in an open letter, 50 former officials from the economics, energy, commerce, and trade ministries warned that the impact of the government’s plan to weaken Israel’s courts will be felt “first and foremost” in the high-tech sector. Business and venture capital have joined in. Hundreds of investors and high-tech leaders signed an open letter opposing changes to the judiciary and school funding to favour the ultra-Orthodox

Last week, the CEO of Nice Systems, one of Israel’s oldest and most successful tech companies, said in a letter to employees posted on LinkedIn that the judicial overhaul would be “disastrous to the continued existence of a competitive high-tech industry in Israel”. Other  banking and cybersecurity business leaders made their opposition public in a Bloomberg Businessweek article last week. Also last week, hundreds of Israel’s top economists, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Daniel Kahneman, issued an “emergency” statement against the judicial revolution, noting that Poland’s credit rating had been downgraded after it weakened the judiciary. 

"Netanyahu has to realise that there can be no high-tech if he turns us into an illiberal pseudo-democracy."

Gadi Mizrahi, high-tech worker

Moshe Hazan, a Tel Aviv University economics professor, quit the Bank of Israel’s monetary committee to join the struggle against judicial reform. "I feel that I cannot sit and discuss whether to raise the interest rate by a quarter of a percent or half a percent while Israeli democracy is in danger," he told the business website Calcalist.

The education system has also joined in the public dissent. Dozens of municipalities, hundreds of schools, and thousands of teachers have signed declarations, publicly protested, and made it clear that they intend to reject plans to continue funding Haredi schools that do not teach core subjects, at the expense of the general educational system, or to censor teachers. 

Earlier this week, high school students throughout the country – largely supported by their teachers and administrators – went on strike for an hour and marched in Tel Aviv.  They have printed up stickers that the students are wearing in schools, reading, “We will not let you destroy our future."

Gadi Wolfsfeld observed: "This is unprecedented. The number of forces, including institutional forces, is really significant. The pace and scope of the protest movement is different from anything we have seen in the recent past."

The pace and scope of the protest movement is different from anything we have seen in the recent past."

Gadi Wolfsfeld, Professor of Political Communication

While the main events take place in Tel Aviv, where as many as 130,000 protested two weeks ago, the protests in Jerusalem, usually assumed to be a furiously right-wing city, are also growing rapidly, and seem to have developed their own character.

While Tel Aviv crowds were largely secular, in Jerusalem, significant numbers of religious, and even a few ultra-Orthodox, Jews, participated.  Their presence is part of a new development in Israeli political scene, known as the Smol Emuni (loosely translated as "Devout Left" or "Faithful Left").

With her hair tightly wrapped and covered in the currently fashionable modern Orthodox style, Adaya Rubinstein, 51, a teacher from Jerusalem, holds her toddler granddaughter and tells The Jewish Independent: "I'm here because of the Torah and Jewish values. I am ashamed of the way that this authoritarian, racist government has distorted Judaism for its own purposes.

"I used to think of myself as a right-winger. I even voted for one of the parties that's currently in the government. But this isn't about the left or the right. It's about the meaning of being an Israeli Jew."

At the same time, the demonstrations in Jerusalem also reflect some of the fault-lines along which the demonstrators are divided. On one side of the central podium, standing tightly together, were demonstrators from the solidarity protests with the Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah and other similar groups, loosely organised into what is referred to as the "anti-occupation bloc".

"I used to think of myself as a Right-winger. But this isn't about the Left or the Right. It's about the meaning of being an Israeli Jew."

Adaya Rubinstein, teacher from Jerusalem

On the other side were representatives of the centre-right National Unity Party, including hawkish former ministers Zeev Elkin and Orit Farkash-Hacohen.

Rachel Donin, 32, a member of Standing Together, which is strongly anti-occupation, says she comes to the demonstration every week with a small Palestinian flag and a sign reading, "Democracy for Jews only is not a democracy". In deference to the different tone of the demonstration because of the terrorist attacks, she has not brought them this week, but insists that she will in the future. 

"The so-called liberal Jews who are standing here," she says angrily, "are not willing to abandon their supremacy. They care about democracy – but only for Jews.  Israel will never be a democracy until there is full equality and liberty for everyone, Jews and Arabs, and until the occupation ends."

But Moshe Libel, 73, a retired businessman, says the anti-occupation signs and rhetoric trouble him. "I am not a left-winger and I am not interested in discussing the occupation or the territories. These demonstrations aren't supposed to be about what divides us, it's supposed to be about what unites us, which is our concern for Israeli democracy."

Guy Schwartz, the leader of Protecting our Shared Home, agrees with Libel.  "If we want to be successful and ensure that the government doesn't proceed with its terrible plans, then we have to make sure that we share the broadest common denominator."

In contrast, Peace Now, a veteran anti-occupation movement, issued a statement on social media that reads, "We have a long road ahead of us, so we’ll say this right now. To those of you who have a problem with the anti-occupation messages or agenda of us and our colleagues: Deal with it. We will not keep silent about what brought us out here, and we will not censor ourselves in the struggle for democracy.”

Avi Ofer, veteran activist, a former head of the kibbutz movement, and a founder of the newly incorporated Civil Democracy Movement, says: "There are purists on both sides – I think they are insignificant and completely marginal. We all know our house is burning, and that if we fail at saving our democracy, we may not even be able to say the word, occupation, in the future. 

“Ultimately, we all know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a diplomatic solution, but we hope that people will keep the broader picture in their minds at this time."

Meanwhile, the protest movement continues to grow. And earlier this week, during his visit to Israel and Palestine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that the US expects Israel to “maintain its democratic values”. 

The government has largely attempted to dismiss the protest movement, and Netanyahu, who has built much of his career on his efforts for Israeli security and the economy, has publicly stated that the protest movement is politically motivated.

And in response to Blinken’s firm advice, MK Orit Strook (Religious Zionism) hotly retorted that democracy is about majority rule, not “foreign involvement”, and that Israel did not need “lessons in democracy’’.

But Gadi Wolfsfeld concludes that Netanyahu will not be able to completely ignore the domestic, popular and professional pressure and the diplomatic pressure from other countries.

“Netanyahu likes to talk about 'shared values' with the US, but he's sharing values with Hungary and Turkey. I am cautiously optimistic that this movement will be successful."

Main photo: Israelis protest against the government's plans to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, January 28 (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

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