Two images dominated my Facebook feed in recent days. One was the cover of Haaretz’s weekend supplement last week depicting the Israeli flag with the Star of David sinking into the lower blue line, representing the sea. “The picture says it all,” declared friends and commentators who nonetheless continued to describe their view of Israel’s current situation at great length.
The other image that kept popping up was an aerial view of the demonstration in Tel Aviv last Saturday night, giving a clear impression of the numbers – estimated to be more than 100,000 – who turned out to protest the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reform. At least, that’s what most of them were there for. Or it might have been just to protest Benjamin Netanyahu himself. No matter what the prime minister and his government do, after all, those who did not vote for him and his coalition partners are understandably not going to be happy.
“This is what democracy looks like.”A friend of Liat Collins
“This is what democracy looks like,” commented one friend, as she shared the photo. True. Israel is a democracy – whatever detractors and doomsayers say and predict. A protest rally this size goes to prove it. However, the true picture of democracy in action would have to include images from the election less than three months ago in which Netanyahu’s camp clearly came out on top.
Pictures of democracy
The interesting thing about both the Haaretz cover and the demonstration was the return of the Blue-and-White flag to a position of honor. It was strangely comforting to see Haaretz give pride of place to the national flag on its cover, even if it was to impart a sinking feeling. For several years, the flag – a symbol of national pride – has dominated only rallies and protests on the Right. Indeed, at the protest attended by some 80,000 in Tel Aviv on the previous Saturday night, the presence of a few Palestinian flags drew attention. Perhaps people got the message and left those flags at home for the most recent mass rally.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid spoke to the Tel Aviv crowd on Saturday night, calling it a “protest for the country,” and promising: “We won’t give up until we win.” It’s not clear what exactly “winning” entails given that he just lost the election. Labor leader Merav Michaeli, whose party lost even more drastically, called Netanyahu’s reforms “a coup d’état.” It’s something of a catchphrase lately; like the flag, it is being used by both Left and Right.
Lapid has called for Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s judicial reform to be put to test in a national referendum. It’s interesting that he should suddenly think of that. As interim prime minister, just days before the general election, Lapid hastily signed a maritime agreement with Lebanon – whose president was similarly about to finish his term in office. Lapid refused to even bring the agreement giving away Israeli economic waters to a vote in the Knesset, knowing he did not have a majority. And he dismissed calls for a referendum, despite the Basic Law: Referendum, which calls for a plebiscite on territorial changes. Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara ruled that the law does not apply to the waters, economic or territorial, that were conceded to Lebanon. It doesn’t take Levin’s proposed legislation to make an ass out of Basic Laws, it seems.
There was a twist to the protests this week. They went from being a Saturday night activity – a chance to meet up with friends and feel good – to being an opportunity to break up the workday.
The protests by hi-tech workers drew particular attention. Former minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, a passionate opponent of Netanyahu, described the hi-tech community as if it were its own separate Israeli tribe. On Monday, several companies allowed their employees time off to participate in an anti-government protest, marching with banners proclaiming “No freedom, no hi-tech.” Many warned that should the judicial reform go ahead, it would severely damage investors’ confidence in Israel. This has become a common theme in the last two weeks, voiced by a long list of figures in judicial and economic circles. Prime Minister Netanyahu held a press conference on Wednesday, rejecting the criticism and claiming that over-legalization in the form of over-regulation is what is most damaging to investments and economic growth.
Another threat is that if the overhaul goes ahead, hi-tech people will leave the country en masse, causing a brain drain. I can’t help but wonder where these highly intelligent Start-Up Nation workers will go. I don’t want to further depress anyone, but a look at many English-speaking countries does not suggest an attractive destination. The UK had three prime ministers in about as many months last year, and the slogan “Heat or eat” is not an empty catchphrase for many cash-strapped citizens this winter; the situation in the US is not enviable, with increasing polarization, rising antisemitism and shocking mass shootings; and even New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, hailed as a breath of fresh air just five years ago, quit the job this week admitting she’d “run out of juice in the tank.” She was also running low on support.
One friend posted a picture of himself at the Saturday night rally in Jerusalem wearing a yellow vest – a tongue-in-cheek gesture hinting at the recent anti-government protests in France. Another potential paradise lost. You might as well stick to the original Promised Land.
The demonstrations have definitely drawn international attention – bashing Israel as it bashes itself is an opportunity too good to miss, especially if it can deflect attention from problems closer to home. Under the circumstances, it was particularly welcome to read the editorial in The Wall Street Journal on January 20. Haaretz it ain’t.
Titled, “Who’s Threatening Israeli Democracy? Israel’s Supreme Court makes the best case for its own reform,” the paper opined: “Every time a right-wing government wins an election these days, the immediate refrain from the dominant global media is that it’s a threat to democracy. Israel’s new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting this treatment now, and a brawl over that country’s Supreme Court illustrates why the issue is more complicated than the media narrative....
“The wisdom of the reform proposals varies, but it isn’t ‘antidemocratic’ to think Israel’s Supreme Court needs democratic checks on its power. The danger is that the court will next reject as unreasonable any reforms to the court itself. Eminences in the West might cheer such a move all the way to a constitutional crisis. They would do better to concede that Israeli democracy has proved to be resilient, often under the most trying circumstances. If the Netanyahu government overreaches, the voters will get their say again.”
The problem is that the judiciary has gone from trying to abide by the intention of the democratically elected lawmakers to laying down the law in its own image. Now there is a backlash. The pendulum swings from Left to Right are where the danger lies, passing over the vast majority of the public. A turnout of more than 120,000 for protests on a Saturday night is noteworthy, but the population stands at more than 9 million.
Like the hi-tech scene, the judiciary – and particularly the Supreme Court – seems to have become a closed club. Whether or not you agreed with the court’s 10 to 1 decision last week to bar Shas leader Arye Deri from serving in the government, his supporters rightly noted that the panel of 11 judges comprised nine Ashkenazim, one Arab and one Sephardi Jew (who was the dissenting opinion.) I think it’s scandalous that Deri ran in the first place. I also find it disturbing that after all these years, the top benches of the courts do not better reflect the demographic composition of the country, including those who chose to vote for Shas with Deri as its leader.
Among the smaller but significant protest groups this week were the so-called Black Robes, members of the legal profession, some of them eminent. Whether it is judicious to use their right to demonstrate on the streets, you can judge for yourselves. Teachers, healthcare workers and other professional groups also held separate protests, professing to speak for all. They don’t.
There are those who paint a picture all in black, without the relief of the blue and white flags. They do protest too much, methinks.