The intensity and fervor of the current protests that have gripped Israel over the past few months are different than other Israeli protests in recent memory. Since 1949 there have been several periods of civil unrest, which often divided the country along sectarian, political, religious, or social lines and had individuals aligned either for or against the cause du jour.
The difference with the current wave of protests is that they transcend a single systemic flaw or singular political or economic issue – these protests are about the nature and character of our nation. The mad dash to institute a sweeping range of judicial reforms has unhinged a multitude of demographic trends that have long been bubbling under the surface.
The scab that was painfully ripped off the arm of our society has unleashed an unexpected torrent of complex emotions and deep-rooted fears about the future of our homeland.
There is little doubt that considerable elements among the protesters are politically motivated to unwind the outcome of the most recent elections. But the relatively small number of Israelis who protested on bridges and in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence for the past several years does not help explain the level of broad engagement and deep concern and anguish we are now witnessing.
Dismissing the valid claims and worries of many of the current protesters as “delusional leftist anarchists” is neither truthful nor helpful. Just the same, branding the advocates of the judicial reform as “right-wing zealots” is neither accurate nor productive.
What remains clear is that Israel’s electoral system and political structure have remained mostly unchanged since its founding. In its early years, Israel did not have the luxury to fully plan and structure its political system, given the tumultuous nature of the immediate wars and the absorption of millions of olim (immigrants), among many other challenges.
As Israel has become more financially and militarily secure, the fabric and social contract of the country is now being tested and demands our immediate attention. The character of the state has become the defining question of Israel at 75.
What is truly different now, is the question of identity and values. We are witnessing a national sub-text of democracy vs demography, an agonizing debate about what kind of state this country will be. The notion of a “Jewish and democratic state” was always assumed to coexist and to be compatible, one with the other.
Today, as different camps place greater emphasis on either one of those two dimensions, without guaranteeing their interdependence, it is clear that these two values may not be entirely compatible. There are growing communities inside Israel who believe that the Jewish character should be the leading, and even the governing principle of this state.
Meanwhile, other communities vehemently cling to the democratic character of the state, at the potential expense of marginalizing its Jewish character. The balance between preserving individual freedoms and liberties, while enshrining Israel’s religious character, poses an existential challenge to the very raison d’etre of our state.
The arguments and solutions are not simple
AS WE grapple in the streets with Israel’s fragile equilibrium, the arguments and solutions are not as simple or one-dimensional as those of former protests. This new wave of protests has encouraged a new phenomenon, where sacred cows, which seldom would have been discussed in the public arena, are now being slaughtered.
As an example, reserve duty and defense of the country, which had thus far been an unquestionable value, is now being challenged. This unprecedented disobedience poses a grave physical danger to Israel. As our enemies cheer Israel’s dysfunctionality, we must reconcile the price we are paying now and prepare for the ripple effects and consequences of these new challenges in the near term.
With Passover approaching, we will soon gather with family and friends to read the Haggadah and ask “how is this night different from all other nights?” We will answer – then we were slaves; today we are free. As we stop and ask, “how is this protest different from all other protests”, let us answer with renewed vigor about consecrating the modern freedoms in our society.
In every crisis, there is also an opportunity. We can take a skeptical view of Israel’s vitality and its uncertain future, or we can use this moment of crisis to offer hope for Jews – inside and outside of Israel.
This can be a moment that will rightfully lead to necessary reforms and maybe, if we use it wisely, to the creation of an Israeli constitution. Such a constitution would embody the values of Israel’s founding fathers together with modern-day Zionist values and set the framework and revitalized structure for the future of Israel and the Zionist enterprise.
This is our Zionist reboot moment. Let us use the pause from the aggressive rush to judicial reform and call for a temporary hiatus of the protests, in favor of a National Day of Healing and Dialogue. Next month, on April 19-21, the World Zionist Organization will hold an Extraordinary Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, a gathering which brings together hundreds of Jewish leaders from across the globe for deliberations and votes about the future of the Zionist Movement.
Between Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, let us target Sunday, April 23, the 2nd of Iyar, as a fitting day of dialogue and use that opportunity to envision the framework for a much-needed constitution. While our Zionist National Institutions are light years away from their glory days, perhaps the timing of the Congress can be used to highlight the need for a gathering that can restart our national conversation and start the process to mend what is broken in our fractured society.
We have but one homeland. And it can and must serve as a beacon of the best of both our Jewish and democratic values.
The writer is the chairman of Kol Israel, the global General Zionist party and a vice chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL)-Jewish National Fund.