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Israeli mass protests: A centrist movement with a silver lining

Israeli mass protests: A centrist movement with a silver lining

Mass protests in Israel against the government’s slew of laws intended to weaken the judiciary have come to a head in the last 48 hours. Sunday night saw a spontaneous blockade of a major traffic artery in Tel Aviv, and today a demonstration is taking place in front of Parliament. After weeks on the fence, the main trades union has finally declared a general strike that will encompass much of the economy, and high-schools and universities have also closed in protest, as has the country’s major airport. The final straw seems to have been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sacking of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, after the latter called for the legislation to be paused for several weeks.

The laws being pushed through Parliament include making it nigh-impossible to oust a Prime Minister accused of corruption; the creation of a majority for the ruling coalition in committee selecting Supreme Court judges; and a clause allowing Parliament to override the Court’s ruling and legislate a law it has deemed unconstitutional. As I write there are mass demonstrations taking place in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. A general strike has been announced by the country’s largest labour union. High schools and universities have closed, as has the country’s main international airport. Numerous private companies have also suspended operations, and the lawyers’ guild has called on its members not to appear in court. There are indications that prime minister Netanyahu will freeze the proposed legislation intended to weaken the Supreme Court until the next parliamentary session, but as of Monday afternoon this has not been confirmed yet. Meanwhile there is also a right-wing demonstration taking place in support of laws. It is an unprecedented political crisis in Israeli history, although of course it showcases all the deep faults in the society.

The “democracy” protesters are largely from the middle classes, and have a liberal-centrist orientation aligned with the mainstream Zionist parties. A call for action from two weeks ago had the following signatories: ‘Commanders for Israel’s Security’, ‘The Hi-Tech Workers’ Protest’, ‘White Coats (Doctors’ Protest)’, ‘Students’ Protest’, ‘Democracy Social Workers’, ‘Academia Struggle Headquarters’, ‘Accountants for Democracy’, ‘The Cloaks’ Struggle’ (lawyers), ‘The Association for the LGBTQ’, ‘LGBTech’, ‘Artillery Veterans for Democracy’, ‘Armoured Corps Veterans for the Defence of Democracy’, ‘555 Patriots’, ‘Naval Officers Protecting Democracy’, ‘Submarine Fighters Protecting Democracy’, ‘Education Workers’ Struggle’, ‘Together with the Fighters of Kippur 1973’, ‘669 Reservists’, ‘Pride Headquarters Against the Enablement Clause’, ‘Planners, Architects and Engineers for Democracy’, ‘No democracy, no culture’, ‘The Cultural World for Democracy’, ‘No education without Democracy’, ‘The Youth’s Struggle for Democracy’, ‘The Democrats’, ‘Kahanism, Racism and Homophobia – Not in Our School’, ‘School Principals’ Forum for Human Rights’, ‘The Black Flags – Save Democracy’ (anti-corruption group, not anarchists), ‘From Protest to Resistance’, ‘Crime Minister’, ‘Koomi Israel’, ‘The Pink Front’, ‘Democracy Now’, ‘Israeli Landslide’, ‘The Civil Democratic Movement’, ‘Civilian Call-up Order’, ‘No Way’, ‘The Fighters’ Demonstrations Hotline’, ‘The People’s Protest Haifa’, ‘Mothers against violence’, ‘Strengthening’, ‘110 intersections, bridges and squares throughout the country’, ‘Musicians for Democracy’, ‘Justice and Democracy Fighters’, ‘The Women’s Struggle – Building an Alternative’.

As the list indicates, there are a lot of military reservists involved, as well as organised groups from various professions, and overall these protests represent the mainstream secular Zionist point of view adhering to the concept of a “Jewish and Democratic” state. That said, there has also been participation by radical left groups who organised an “anti-occupation bloc” in the main demos. These activists have been gaining increasing acceptance at the protests after initially being marginalised and sometimes even attacked. But apart from these, the protests are not all that heterogeneous in their message. They basically represent a resistance to the brazen Jewish supremacism and neo-liberal extremism of the current government, but without really seeing through the nature of the regime between the river and the sea. Here’s a translated passage from an article published today by critical Israeli columnist Meron Rapoport:

“This is what was behind the vindictive ambition of the current coalition and behind [Justice Minister Yariv] Levin’s reform: an attempt to ensure that what happened in the four election systems from 2019 to 2022 will not be repeated; To ensure the rule of the Right and allow it to realize its agendas: from the institutionalization of apartheid in the territories, through the removal of Arab parties from the parliament in Israel, to the crushing of the secular-liberal centres of power in Jewish society. This can only be done by sterilizing the Supreme Court. In other words, the right-wing coalition decided to officially place “Jewish” above “democratic”…From this emerged the feeling of so many Israeli-Jews that the danger of a dictatorship threatens them (the Palestinians are already used to the denial of rights, so they were less excited), from this emerged the adherence to the slogan “democracy”…What gave rise to the huge spontaneous protest yesterday was the dismissal of Defence Minister Yoav Galant, because he was perceived as loyal to the military elite, which strongly opposed the reform, and was accused of protecting the thousands – pilots and others who announced that they ‘will not serve under the dictatorship'”.

There is a cost of living crisis in Israel, and this contributes to the protesters’ sense that the government is neglecting the “real issues that bother citizens” in pursuit of their regime change agenda, as well as the perception among the mainstream protesters that the government is serving particular sectoral interests (settlers, ultra-orthodox) who are painted as “not contributing to the country”, particularly the ultra-orthodox who do not serve in the military and are not “productive” in terms of the neo-liberal common sense. Again, this is a protest movement of the mainstream secular-Jewish middle class. This “democracy” which they are defending has always been something closer to an ethnocracy, and Palestinian citizens of Israel have less of a stake in it because it’s basically defending a status quo under which they were already marginalised. Another aspect here is the intra-Jewish ethnic/class division, between those of European ancestry (Ashkenazim) — associated with the centre and the middle class — and those whose heritage is in the Arab and Muslim world (Mizrachim) — associated with the right and the working class. This is not a hard and fast division, but certainly you hear a lot of voices on the right who represent Netanyahu and the current government as the heroes of the marginalized Mizrachim, and institutions like the Supreme Court and the elite military units as a bastion of Ashkenazi hegemony (which is true, up to a point, but is basically similar to the class and urban-rural divisions that have driven the ascendancy of politicians like Orban or Trump who rally against “the elite”).

Emblematic of the contradictions found in Israel, these “pro democracy” protests are thoroughly patriotic and liberal-centrist in spirit, with a prominent organising role taken by army reservists and high-tech workers. Aside from the “anti-occupation” bloc through which radical left activists have been mobilising within the mass movement, the agenda remains completely detached from the realities of occupation and Apartheid, and is often cast by mainstream participants as crucial for maintaining Israel’s security and as a mark of “true Zionism” in its illusory liberal version.

Had Israel been a plausible democracy to begin with, these laws would position it alongside Orban’s Hungary or Erdogan’s Turkey. But this is not the case — what we are witnessing is a fight by secular Jewish Israelis to preserve the ethnocratic status quo. The sizeable minority of Palestinian citizens of Israel have largely kept away from these protests. That the new legislation, rather than the ongoing abuse of Palestinian human rights, has occasioned widespread calls for military refusal is an ironic turn not lost on the Palestinians.

Will the protests open up a wider space for change in Israel, especially when it comes to ending Apartheid and changing the regime into a more democratic one? It’s hard to be optimistic in this respect. Yes, there have been calls for giving Israel a Constitution that will anchor equality and liberal values, but whether these protests actually lead to a reconsideration of what “democracy” is and for whom is an open question. Again I find Rapoport’s analysis helpful here:

“One possibility, quite likely, is a return to the original positions: that is, the pilots will return to bombing Gaza or anywhere else the government instructs them, the holders of economic privileges will return to their positions in the neo-liberal system, and the Supreme Court will continue not to represent the population in Israel: Arabs, Mizrahim, Ethiopians and others. But there is certainly another possibility. The feeling is – perhaps the hope is – that the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets learned a new language. They are not ready to return to the starting positions of January 3, 2023, the day before Levin announced the reform. For three months they shouted “democracy or rebellion”, and now there is a possibility that they will start taking the term “democracy” seriously. They can, perhaps, be the agents of a much more real democratization within Israel. The requirements for the constitution or fundamental laws of significance can certainly be used as a basis.”

Rapoport’s optimism is a bit forced, to be sure, but another aspect that should be emphasised is that the protests have suddenly legitimated things like calls for military refusal, and the notion that if the legislation is passed Israeli leaders will be more exposed to sanctions abroad. These things may have wider consequences that we will witness in the coming months.

Finally, one of the more ridiculous aspects of the protest so far has been how the term “anarchist” has been bandied about by both sides, with never a reference to the term’s true meaning. Netanyahu’s supporters and the even further right have been using the to discredit the protester movement, whereas the protesters have been referring to the governing coalition, its far-right settler supporters, and even to Netanyahu himself as “anarchists” in the superficial sense of going against the rule of law and standards of public decency. Even Israel’s former head of Shin Bet (the internal security agency) came up with the following in a televised interview:

“We live in an upside down world, the world has gone mad. The anarchist became the ruler, and we, the ones who served the State of Israel, all our adult lives… My father’s uncle and cousin were killed in the War of Liberation. My uncle was killed in the Yom Kippur War. My father was wounded in the battle for the Jordan Guard, he received the exemplary decoration. If these are called anarchists, then I am a proud anarchist”.

Who knew we would ever find ourselves in such distinguished company? Perhaps the silver lining is that this may bring a few more individuals to learn what the term really means.

Uri Gordon

Image: Hanay, CC BY-SA 3.0 text: “Dictatorship begins – The mind ends” with a blown up copy of the Israeli declaration of independence.

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