Israeli judicial reform protest actions fray national solidarity - analysis

With the atmosphere as charged as it is, each side would do well to consider the ramifications of their actions and ask themselves if they are taking are not putting Israel on a slippery slope.

 Israeli police stand in a line as protesters demonstrate on 'Day of Equality' in protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel May 4, 2023. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
Israeli police stand in a line as protesters demonstrate on 'Day of Equality' in protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel May 4, 2023.
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

In this sour season of Israeli discontent, many seem to have been stricken by a bad case of short-sightedness.

The most recent example is the haredim, who spontaneously began to boycott Angel Bakeries on Thursday. Why? Because Omer Bar Lev, the chair of Angel's board of directors and former public security minister, took part in a protest on Thursday near the Bnei Brak home of 100-year-old Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the spiritual head of the Degel Hatorah faction inside the United Torah Judaism Party.

And why demonstrate against Edelstein? Because Degel Hatorah takes instructions from Edelstein, and United Torah Judaism – together with Shas – is part of the government pushing judicial reform.

Although the haredi parties have not been at the forefront of the struggle for judical reform – as evidenced by the refusal of haredi leaders two weeks ago to endorse a major pro-reform rally in Jerusalem – they are very much in favor. 

The central haredi interest in the judicial reform is in passing an override clause that would neutralize the Supreme Court’s ability to shoot down as unequal Knesset legislation providing draft exemptions to haredim, which the court has done in the past.


The coalition is currently debating a new law that would drop the age of exemption from the IDF for yeshiva students from 26 to 21-23. By that age, they could leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce without having to do army duty.

Bar Lev, in a Twitter post with a picture of his presence at the protest, wrote that passing this law on IDF exemptions is a bribe the government will give to the hared parties to get them to vote for the judicial reform.

This was shortsighted because Bar Lev was recently appointed chairman of the board of Angel Bakeries, one of the largest bread makers in the country and a publicly traded company. He is no longer merely a Labor Party representative but now sits atop the pyramid of the Israeli bread and baked goods empire. He should have realized that his presence at a demonstration in front of the home of a venerable haredi rabbi would lead to anger among haredim, which it did – fueled by haredi politicians Moshe Gafni and Arye Deri.

Within hours of Bar Lev's post, calls spread for a boycott of Angel, and a number of yeshivot canceled their contracts with the bakery. On Friday, photos emerged of crates of Angel challah standing unbought in supermarkets in haredi neighborhoods.

One can question the judgment of the head of the directorate of a company that does not have an insignificant amount of business in the haredi community, essentially protesting against that community. Bar Lev was obviously looking to score political points and forgot that now he is not only the representative of a political party -- one that, according to the polls, is barely making it back into the Knesset -- but also an economic entity.

Regarding the haredi short-sightedness, the first question that needs to be asked is what they hope to accomplish. The stated goal is to force Bar Lev's resignation. In the process of trying to force that, however, they are only going to add more fuel to a growing anti-haredi sentiment among the judicial reform movement.

As the negotiations over the reform continue, and as some of the intensity of the protests begins to wane, the demonstrations are branching off into different directions. One of the main directions is against haredim and the conscription law that the haredi parties are keen on passing.

On its own, this bill that would formalize haredim not serving in the army would be difficult for the general public to swallow. But the bill does not exist on its own. The haredi parties are also pushing for significantly increased budgets for yeshivot, as well as funding for schools that do not include English and math in the core curriculum. The upshot of all that is that haredim will get an exemption from the army but will, in many cases, not be equipped with the necessary skills to find jobs when they can legally leave the yeshivot and start working. 

A haredi boycott of Angel at this time is shortsighted because it will only bring the spotlight to these inequalities and add more fuel to already raging resentment by many against haredim. 

Moreover, in general, Israeli groups and organizations need to be wary of boycotting others. The Jewish state spends so much energy, time, and money trying to fend off BDS efforts that Israelis should be cautious about doing to each other what they do not want others to do unto them.

There is also the question of effectiveness. While haredi politicians called for a boycott, other politicians called for non-haredim to go out and buy Angel products to counter the boycott. 

Furthermore, since the haredi market generally buys the price-controlled basic white bread and challah from Angel rather than the more expensive whole grain products, it is not certain how much profit the company will lose, as industrial bakeries are saying that without a promised price rise, they are producing these products at a loss.

Secondly, boycotts often boomerang, with those boycotting today being those similarly boycotted tomorrow. If the haredim are boycotting Angel, thereby harming the livelihood of some 1,200 people employed by the bread behemoth, then what is to keep non-haredim angry with haredi politicians from boycotting haredi-run businesses or even the kashrut supervisory bodies run by haredi institutions that provide jobs for thousands?

Once one side legitimizes boycotts, it opens the door for the other side to do the same.

And this is not only true of boycotts.

Red lines crossed by both sides in Israel's judicial reform protests

Since the massive protests against judicial reform began in January, a number of red lines have been crossed.

For instance, in the early days of the judicial reform protests, a few high-tech companies moved or were talking about moving their money and operations abroad, ignoring the damage this may cause to the Israeli economy and the livelihoods this may cost. 

But if they were willing to take this action, then condemning the haredim for taking action that will negatively impact the livelihood of Angel's some 1,200 employees is an argument that rings hollow. Because if one side can use business as a weapon, then surely the other can as well.

The same is true of the pilots who threatened not to show up for reserve training. This led, though a bit delayed, to a threat by Air Force technicians not to service the planes when the pilots show up because they are in favor of the reform. If it is legitimate for some pilots to threaten not to fly in order to further a political agenda, then it is no less legitimate for Air Force technicians not to service the pilots or their planes to further their agenda. 

If one side uses means that are problematic to serve a goal, then that gives legitimacy to the other side to use those same means to further its goal. These means can range from blocking roads to not showing up for reserve duty. If reservists opposed to the judicial reform use their opposition as a reason not to show up for duty, then no one should be surprised if right-wing soldiers refuse to show up for reserve duty down the line if the government again contemplates uprooting settlements or settlement outposts.

Or, if pro-reform activists protest in front of the home of 86-year-old former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, then they are opening the door for anti-reform protestors to demonstrate near the home of a venerable haredi sage. 

With the atmosphere in this country as charged as it is, each side would do well to consider the ramifications of their actions and ask themselves if the steps they are taking are not putting Israel on a slippery slope leading to a breakdown of critical solidarity.