If someone had asked me six months ago what have been the most inspiring, profound Israeli experiences of my 16 years living here, my thoughts would probably turn to one of the powerful ceremonies I’ve had the privilege of attending on Independence Day or Remembrance Day. Or perhaps, in a more idealistic mood, I’d think about how extraordinary it is to have three Israeli-born children, speaking Hebrew as their mother tongue.
Today, my answer to the question would be unequivocal. Nothing I’ve experienced here has matched the weekly protests against the government’s planned overhaul of the judiciary for sheer, raw, exhilarating patriotism, with Israeli flags in their thousands, the text of the Declaration of Independence in giant letters, and “Hatikva” sung each week to conclude the proceedings.
Of course, the minority of Israelis who fully support the government’s plans (and yes, consistent polls show it is indeed a minority), decry the protesters as “leftists”, “anarchists,” or worse. But it is also the case that some who oppose the “reform” are ambivalent about the protests, viewing them as either pointless or an overreaction.
I’m positive they are neither
Firstly: pointless? Certainly not. This protest movement, the international attention it has garnered, and the snowball effect of mass opposition from multiple sectors of Israeli society, is the only thing that can stop the decimation of Israeli democracy by this government.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has surrendered a great deal of his power to the fanatics he has so shamelessly enabled, yet he remains the one person who can stop this, if convinced that the price to the fabric of society is just too high.
No sooner had he condemned reservists who are refusing to show up for duty, Israel’s doctors announced their intention to strike. This all began with the protests; with 28 consecutive weeks of 300,000 in 500,000 people on the streets, across the country – including in Likud strongholds. Not pointless at all.
To the second charge: an overreaction? Here it’s helpful to look abroad, and hear what citizens of other countries are saying; in particular citizens of Hungary and Poland. There’s a reason why these two countries feature on so many protest placards and chants – such as:
“Yariv Levin, poh zeh lo Polin. Bibi v’Sara, poh zeh lo Hungariah.” (It doesn’t rhyme in English: “Yariv Levin, this is not Poland. Bibi and Sara, this is not Hungary.”)
Why Poland and Hungary?
In those two countries, democratically elected governments passed legislation that has neutered or politicized the judiciary, removing a central check and balance on the power of the government.
In Hungary, fair elections are now virtually impossible because media critical of the ruling party has been crippled, and the previously non-partisan election commission is now run by loyalists of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Poland has followed in Hungary’s footsteps.
The governments of both countries have close relations with Netanyahu and the Likud. Netanyahu’s son Yair, until very recently a hugely influential figure on the Israeli Right, is a fervent admirer of Orban, as are many prominent figures pushing the government’s “reform” agenda.
And lest there be any doubt that the Israeli government is looking to these countries for inspiration, the deputy foreign minister of Poland let the cat out of the bag in March, telling a Polish radio station that Israelis consulted with Poland on judicial reform.
Those opposing protests should listen to Hungarians and Poles messages
The Israelis telling us that protesting is pointless or an overreaction should listen to the message from Hungarians and Poles now living in quasi-autocratic states.
PROFESSORS Gabor Halmai and Tomasz Koncewicz are from Hungary and Poland respectively. They were both in Israel recently at the invitation of the Israel Democracy Institute. They attended one of the Saturday night protests and were blown away.
I spoke to Halmai over Zoom recently and he told me the Israeli protesters serve as “a model for Hungary. Nothing similar to this happened here.” And he warned me where this process of slicing away at the “salami” of democracy can lead. Thirteen years after Orban first took power, “under the current election rules, this government cannot be defeated.”
Meanwhile, Koncewicz wrote in his blog after his visit to Israel: “The Israelis made this intuitive assertion that following now the path blazed by Poland or Hungary of dismantling the justice system would deprive them of their rights and undermine the very essence of their democracy… In Poland, this understanding that when you defend a court… you are defending democracy… has never penetrated public consciousness.”
We cannot allow the destruction of liberal democracy that they suffered to happen here – especially as our government is so transparently following the same autocratic playbook. This week, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said he plans to replace the currently independent agency overseeing cable and satellite television with a politicized body, and to introduce rules that will specifically benefit the pro-government Channel 14.
The bill that is currently making its way through the Knesset, canceling the “reasonableness” standard, is just the first phase of this process. If passed, professional civil servants can be replaced by political appointees with no possibility of the court preventing it, even in the most obviously unreasonable case. The attorney-general, who is authorizing the prosecution of the prime minister on corruption charges, can be replaced by a loyalist of that prime minister.
In truth, I’ve never been much of a protester. Before I moved to Israel, the only ones I attended were pro-Israel demonstrations in London, countering the Israel-hating far Left.
The protests here in Israel are not unrelated.
In London, I was protesting accusations that Israel is a fascist, racist country. Here, I’m protesting a government that would transform this country into something perilously close to that anti-Zionist fantasy: an illiberal state, where racists and bigots can act with impunity.
If you think that’s hyperbole, study what happened in Hungary under Orban, and keep in mind how closely Orban’s playbook is being followed by the Netanyahu government.
The author writes and lectures on Israeli and global politics, with a focus on threats to liberal democracy, and the trend of rising antisemitism. He is part of the Olim for Democracy movement.