Amid the turmoil of Israel 2023, the question is being asked: Where do we go from here?
For some, this is a metaphorical question: an anxious debate over how to get out of the deep divides and general weakness created by the government’s judicial reform plan – and the response to it. For others, the question is literal: Where should we move to?
Leaving Israel used to be called “yerida” – going down, the opposite of aliyah, ascending to Israel. Nowadays, it’s known by the English term “relocation.” It sounds better.
I find it hard to understand the Israelis who are seriously considering emigration as an expression of their patriotism. Packing the flags that for the last few months have been waved at protest after protest to set out for a new life abroad seems a perverse way of demonstrating Zionism and a love of the land. And finding a country where carrying the Israeli blue-and-white flag in public is not a risky business presents its own challenge.
As redline after redline was crossed this year, almost nothing should come as a surprise. The publicity stunts have been creative. I’m waiting for the first Israelis to try to seek refugee status. Maybe a government in exile could be formed in Portugal or Cyprus or some other country with pleasant weather and close enough to home to keep in touch with family and those friends and fellow protesters who are staying behind.
The leaders of the protest movement (or movements), while encouraging others to consider abandoning the country, could just create an alternative government within Israel. They are so clearly aiming to bring the current government down, that they don’t seem to care if they bring the country crashing down with them. Political polls already relate to the possibility of some of the leaders – Shikma Bressler, for example – establishing their own party. This would threaten in particular Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party and National Unity led by Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar (although I wouldn’t risk predicting Gantz and Sa’ar remaining together in future elections. They are strange, estranged, bedfellows in a marriage of political convenience.)
“All my friends are going to Portugal to check out buying homes,” an acquaintance told me a couple of weeks ago. “That includes doctors and pilots.”
I don’t know how she expected me to respond, but I gave a polite answer and pointed out that I would still be here if and when they came back. It’s becoming harder to remain civil. And it’s becoming harder to keep friends. That’s part of the tragedy of the clash over the reform/overhaul/revolution – tell me what you call it, and I’ll tell you who the majority of your friends are.
Israelis aren't just leaving, they're refusing to serve
The IAF pilots threatening to take flight – and refusing to serve – are celebrated by the country’s enemies like Iran and its terrorist proxies. Together with veterans from other elite units – e.g. cyberdefense and military intelligence – they have grabbed a lot of attention. Their reasoning is that without the reasonableness standard and with future judicial reform in the air, they will lose their safety net and face arrest and possible prosecution on trumped-up charges of war crimes in foreign courts. Some high-ranking IDF veterans have indeed faced such problems in the past, well before the reform was in the news. Attempts to delegitimize and distort the country predate this government.
But refusing to serve is a doomsday weapon, a last resort. When a country’s soldiers threaten its own government, it smells of a coup.
The mainstream media have mobilized to promote the protests – with hours of live coverage – and there are regular interviews with pilots, doctors, hi-tech professionals, and academics about their plans to leave the country.
You might have missed the petition signed by 80,000 reservists against IDF refusal. Veterans from a range of units have promised to do extra reserve duty if necessary to make up for missing manpower. Of course, you can’t just bring in extra pilots – which is exactly what the refuser flyers are relying on. They’re not holding a gun to the government’s head: They’re pointing F-35s instead.
One of the reasons the government continued unilaterally with its reform was the threat of being held hostage by the refuser reservists. The coalition feared that if it gave in the government would never be able to pass any legislation.
And then there’s the unhealthy situation of the doctors holding wildcat strikes and threatening to leave en masse. Members of the Israel Medical Association and White Coats protest movement raise my blood pressure with every interview. A doctor earlier this month claimed she was one of the thousands looking into the possibility of leaving the country. She fears that in the wake of the judicial reform, she won’t be able to carry out abortions. It’s not clear why she is checking out moving to the US, of all places, (particularly as abortion is sanctioned under Jewish law in various circumstances, and is not under threat.) Altogether, there is more than a hint of Americanism in the protests’ slogans and themes. Another Israeli doctor was looking into jobs in the United Arab Emirates, not exactly a bastion of human rights.
Perhaps most of those relocating are packing emotional baggage along with their suitcases.
The White Coats are not in a healing mode. They issued a warning this week that in the case of a constitutional crisis, “we will not report for work” and called for the entire economy to be shut down if the government ignores a court decision (overturning a Knesset law).
On Wednesday, “Israel’s leading law firms” took out full-page ads in at least two papers “answering the call of the president of Tel Aviv University, and calling on the heads of other bodies and organizations in the country, both public and private, to state loudly and clearly, even now, that the closer we get to a situation in which the government doesn’t comply with the ruling of the Supreme Court, the economy will be shut down.”
The academics talking about defending democracy should also double-check for double standards. Several of Israel’s leading universities have research ties with China, where civil liberties are not part of the curriculum.
It’s easier than ever today to move abroad and feel at home if you want to be part of a protest group. Noisy demonstrations are a thriving Israeli export this year.
Last week, Calcalist reported that American philanthropist Arthur Dantchik was stopping his donations to the Kohelet Policy Forum, the think tank considered to be behind the judicial reform. Dantchik issued a statement saying: “Throughout my life, I have supported a diverse array of organizations that promote individual liberties and economic freedoms for all people.
“Nevertheless, when a society becomes dangerously fragmented, people must come together to preserve democracy... I believe what is most critical at this time is for Israel to focus on healing and national unity.”
The decision came after weeks of noisy protests outside his home. Haaretz ran a gloating story titled: “How 30 Israelis From Philly Stopped a US Billionaire From Funding Israel’s Judicial Coup.”
The group is led by Israeli postdoctoral fellows and tech employees, according to Haaretz.
When 30 people armed with megaphones have the final say, it sounds as much like bullying tactics as an exercise in civil rights. And what good came out of it? Attempting to close one of very few conservative think tanks in Israel, almost the only counterweight to left-leaning policy groups, is an interesting expression of freedom of thought.
Every time I see the clenched fist symbol of the current protests, a quote sometimes credited to judicial philosopher Zechariah Chafee comes to mind: “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
Despite the rifts and divisions, while attention is focused on those threatening to leave, immigrants are still arriving. Just this week, some 120 immigrants from France landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. It’s refreshing to receive a reminder of Zionism and idealism.
The government is not my dream team. For some, it is their worst nightmare, or so they are being told. But there are legitimate ways of protesting and bringing it down – in a democratic election. There’s a big difference between that and creating panic and chaos.
We’re in a bad situation, but not a bad place.