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Tuesday (technically Wednesday) News Bulletin 02/22/2023

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributing writers, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

This article is by Jewish Currents contributing editor Joshua Leifer.

A Rolex sign tops an Israeli flag at a mass demonstration against proposed “judicial reforms” in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. The sign is a response to a quip by MK David Amsalem that the protesters wear Rolexes.

Eyal Warshavsky/Sipa USA via AP Images

February 22nd, 2023

Last week, Likud member of Knesset David (Dudi) Amsalem took the podium to make an acerbic observation about the demonstrations against the Israeli government’s “judicial overhaul” plan. “When I saw the protests last night, I couldn’t understand what was glittering there,” the veteran Mizrahi politician said. “In the end I understood it was the protesters’ Rolex watches. Look at how many Mercedes there are! How are you not embarrassed?”

Amsalem’s remarks were, of course, an exaggeration (not to mention hypocritical: As he spoke, he wore a Cartier watch of his own, reportedly worth $25,000). But they also contained a kernel of truth. The demonstrations against the Netanyahu government’s plan to gut the judiciary have in many ways been a revolt of elites—of the secular, highly educated (and largely Ashkenazi) liberals whose economic and social power has survived the gradual diminishment of their electoral strength. “When [the protesters] say, ‘they’re taking the state away from us,’” explained New York University professor and left-wing Mizrahi intellectual Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, referring to a common refrain of the demonstrations, “they mean—‘we are the state.’”

The current administration—and the protests it has provoked—marks a significant realignment in Israeli parliamentary politics that has been years in the making. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on multiple corruption charges in 2019, he moved to consolidate his Likud party into a bastion of right-wing populism that could wage war against the country’s institutions, so as to better combat his charges. The Haredi parties had once been willing to join both Labor- and Likud-led coalitions, but as Israeli Haredi communities moved rightward, they fell in lockstep behind Netanyahu. At the same time, the old standard bearers of Zionist socialism—Labor and Meretz—have shriveled into near oblivion. In their place, an amorphous bourgeois center exemplified by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid has assumed the mantle of primary challenger to Netanyahu and the right. The result was the bifurcation of Israeli politics into pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs, a division that persists today.

The polarization is deeply felt; the intensity of the protests against the current Netanyahu government’s proposed changes reflects this fact. Yet the divisions underlying the pro- and anti-Netanyahu split are not simply ideological. For instance, supporters of West Bank annexation can be found on both sides of the divide. Indeed, the former settler leader Naftali Bennett, who helped to depose Netanyahu briefly in 2021, long positioned himself to Netanyahu’s right before ending up in the opposition. Members of the current opposition have also supported various policies that closely resemble the “judicial revolution” proposed by Netanyahu’s Justice Minister Yariv Levin. Take erstwhile Likudnik Ze’ev Elkin, now a member of the opposition National Unity party: In 2018, he endorsed the idea of a court override bill with a simple majority of 61, one of the core components of Levin’s plan. Even now, despite the acrimony in the Knesset, bills continue to pass with support from both the coalition and opposition parties.

Rather than ideological differences, it is a politics of resentment that has, in large part, defined the discourse within and about the protests. Since 2018, the right-wing Israeli journalist Avishay Ben Haim has popularized the argument that the criminal cases against Netanyahu constitute an attempt by “The First Israel”—Israel’s old Ashkenazi and Labor Zionist establishment, the country’s judicial system and cultural elite—to depose Netanyahu in order to keep power out of the hands of “The Second Israel”—the largely Mizrahi working- and lower-middle classes who vote overwhelming for Likud, Shas, and other parties of the right. In Ben Haim’s telling, the case prosecuted by the “Ashkenazi hegemony” against Netanyahu takes on a conspiratorial quality. It is an attempt by the country’s liberal and predominantly Ashkenazi elite, who comprise only a small segment of the population, to maintain their undemocratic hold on power—in opposition to the will of the country’s right-wing (and non-Ashkenazi) majority.

Ben Haim’s analysis ignores the crucial fact that for more than 40 years, Likud and the right have dominated Israeli politics. Netanyahu himself has ruled the country for a total of more than 15 years. He and his party bear much of the responsibility for maintaining the persistent social inequality and gaps in cultural and political power between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. His policies created the conditions, in other words, that produced the right-wing populism that in turn bolsters his power. “Since 1981 [the Likud] has positioned itself as the defender of the Mizrahim,” Ben-Dor Benite said. “But it’s never been true.” Even at the level of party leadership, Likud remains dominated by “a right-wing Ashkenazi aristocracy,” Ben-Dor Benite observed. Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, and Infrastructure Minister Yisrael Katz (who aspires to one day succeed Netanyahu), all hail from a milieu of elite right-wing families who opposed the Labor Zionists’ rule and, as a result, bear a deep generational grudge toward the formerly socialist left.

Still, Ben Haim’s analysis does point to an uncomfortable truth: The pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs do, in fact, represent vastly different socioeconomic constituencies. According to a November 2022 post-election breakdown published by the left-wing website Davar, the parties of the current coalition—Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ)—performed best among voters in the lower half of Israel’s socioeconomic bracket. The Haredi parties Shas and UTJ represent Israel’s poorest Jews, while Likud and Religious Zionism polled highest among Israel’s lower-middle and middle class. By contrast, the parties of the opposition—Yesh Atid, Labor, and the National Unity party—are largely the parties of the richest Israelis. Yesh Atid alone won a plurality of voters in Israel’s highest socioeconomic bracket—a full 40%. Likewise, Labor and Meretz, though both nominally social-democratic parties, performed best in the top socioeconomic segments. And while class is not a perfect proxy for ethnic origin, the Ashkenazi–Mizrahi divide is, to paraphrase the British Marxist Stuart Hall’s famous quip, “the modality through which class is lived” within Israeli Jewish society; Ashkenazi salaried workers continue to out-earn their Mizrahi counterparts by a substantial margin, and Mizrahi men and women are roughly 15% less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than Ashkenazim. “The tragedy of the present is that Netanyahu was successfully able to upgrade an old lie about the alliance between the Zionist right and the Mizrahi population,” Ben-Dor Benite said. “The politics of resentment is much better at reinventing itself, much more agile and resistant” than left alternatives have been so far.

It is against this backdrop that class war rhetoric like Amsalem’s resonates. For Israel’s populist right, dismantling the power of the judicial branch is not merely a technical or constitutional matter: It is part of a greater material and symbolic struggle to depose the liberal, Ashkenazi ruling elite once and for all. “I invite everyone to check the judges of the High Court from 1948 up to today—10% Mizrahim,” said Likud MK and Information Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan, after the court invalidated the ministerial appointment of Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardic Haredi party Shas, due to his prior conviction for tax fraud. The judiciary is, in the eyes of the right, the last obstacle standing in the way of overthrowing the old order—of completing the revolution that Menachem Begin started in 1977, when Likud defeated the Labor Zionists in what was Israel’s first political transfer of power. “The judicial system is controlled by a radical leftist, post-Zionist minority that elects itself behind closed doors, dictating to us its own values,” Levin once said at a pro-annexation conference. In this view, once the court is stripped of its power to strike down laws, it will no longer be able to impede the real will of the people—and particularly that of “the Second Israel.” On Monday, as the Knesset prepared to vote on the first part of Levin’s judicial overhaul package, Amsalem took the podium and launched another broadside at Israel’s ruling elite. “You can’t accept that Amsalem David makes the laws here,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “It kills you!”

The protesters amassing in the streets outside the Knesset, and those who have been gathering week after week in Tel Aviv rallies, have done little to prove him wrong. At the weekly rallies, speaker after speaker with sterling elite credentials has extolled Israel’s glory days of yore and bemoaned the threat to “democracy”—a rosy nostalgia that Israel’s disenfranchised citizens are unlikely to share. “It’s our role,” declared Israeli comedian Lior Schlein at a Tel Aviv protest last week, “to bring back the Israel that our grandparents and parents dreamed of—and not just dreamed of, but established.” Indeed, their rhetoric often confirms accusations like Amsalem’s, that the protesters do not believe Israel’s working classes and its representatives have an equal right to determine the fate of the country. “When we spoke about social welfare and Mizrahiness, they called us dumb right-wingers, and when we spoke about the occupation, leftist traitors,” the Mizrahi feminist activist Sapir Sluzker Amram wrote on Facebook of the “pro-democracy” protests in Jerusalem last week. “And now they’re asking me, this crowd full of pathos, rich and well-funded, wrapped in Israeli flags, to protest with them?” Sluzker Amram wrote that while she did ultimately join the protests, she did so “without a full heart.”

To be sure, the protest movement is not monolithic, and just recently a new initiative called the Mizrahi Civic Collective has emerged rejecting both Netanyahu’s agenda and a return to the status quo. “We believe that a deep and fundamental change in the judicial system and public policy is indeed necessary, but not in the racist, anti-egalitarian spirit” of the right-wing libertarians and ethnonationalist settlers currently pushing to quash the judiciary, the platform declares.

Iranian Israeli journalist Orly Noy, who is among the initiative’s signatories, wrote in Local Call that the activists behind the Mizrahi Civic Collective “share the deep and widespread fear among the public about the far-reaching institutional changes that this government is advancing.” But she drew a distinction between their position and the overarching orientation of the protests: “We do not believe that the solution is to be satisfied with stopping the judicial reforms or to turn the clock back to the days before Netanyahu-Rothman-Ben-Gvir.” Instead, the Mizrahi Civic Collective argues, “We do not say ‘democracy is lost’ . . . because full democracy for Mizrahim, Palestinians, Ethiopians and those who fled the Soviet Union has never existed here.”

Palestinians hold Friday prayers next to an apartment building under threat of demolition by Israeli authorities in the neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem on February 17th. One hundred Palestinians who live in the building face displacement if Israel goes ahead with its demolition plan, which was delayed following an international pressure campaign.

Oren Ziv/Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • Israeli forces killed at least 10 Palestinians and wounded over 100 during a Wednesday raid in the West Bank city of Nablus, making the operation the deadliest single raid since the UN began keeping records of casualties in 2005. Israel said it launched the raid to arrest three Palestinian fighters suspected of shooting attacks. The raid led to a gunfight and confrontations with Palestinian youth throwing stones. Palestinian militant groups claimed six of the dead as members. Israeli forces also reportedly killed at least three civilians.
  • The United Nations Security Council on Monday unanimously approved a statement opposing Israeli settlement expansion. The statement was released as part of a deal to head off an Palestinian Authority-backed effort led by the United Arab Emirates to get the Security Council to vote on a resolution that condemns Israel’s recent decisions to advance 10,000 settlement units and legalize nine Israeli “outposts,” the term given to settlements built without official approval. The resolution would have likely led to a US veto. Instead, the US reportedly brokered a deal in which the Palestinians withdrew their push for a UN Security Council resolution in exchange for inviting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House, as well as securing an Israeli commitment not to advance any additional settlement plans for several months. This commitment by the Israeli government was not a significant concession, as the military body that approves settlement activity only meets every three months.
  • Israel’s Knesset voted 63–47 to advance the first part of the government’s controversial plan to weaken the power of the Israeli Supreme Court. The vote came on a day of strident protests in which demonstrators blocked highways and attempted to stop Knesset members who support the plan from leaving their homes. The legislation would give the governing coalition control over judicial appointments and remove the ability of the Supreme Court to strike down Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. The bills will now go back to a Knesset committee for further discussion, and have to be confirmed by a Knesset vote twice more before they become law.
  • 25-year-old Palestinian activist Harun Abu Aram died last Tuesday from wounds sustained two years ago, when an Israeli soldier shot him in the neck. He was shot during a confrontation in which he tried to stop soldiers from confiscating a generator belonging to one of his neighbors in the South Hebron Hills. Abu Aram was paralyzed as a result. At the time of his death, he was living in a cave with his family because the Israeli army demolished their home in November 2020.
  • On Tuesday, the Biden administration withdrew its nomination of human rights expert James Cavallaro to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights because he condemned Israel as an “apartheid state” and said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries was “bought” and “controlled” by AIPAC. The administration’s decision to rescind Cavallaro’s nomination came in the wake of an article published by the right-wing Jewish newspaper The Algemeiner highlighting Cavallaro’s comments and casting them as antisemitic.
  • On Sunday, Senator Bernie Sanders said he was weighing the introduction of new legislation to condition US military aid to Israel. Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation program, Sanders said he was “very worried about what Netanyahu is doing” “and “what may happen to the Palestinian people.” He added that “the United States gives billions of dollars in aid to Israel, and I think we’ve got to put some strings attached to that and say you cannot run a racist government. You cannot turn your back on a two-state solution. You cannot demean the Palestinian people there. You just can’t do it and then come to America and ask for money.” Sanders also criticized AIPAC’s heavy intervention against progressive candidates in Democratic primaries during the 2022 election cycle.
  • On Tuesday, the Supreme Court announced it would not hear an appeal of the Eighth Circuit’s decision to uphold Arkansas’s anti-BDS law. Arkansas is one of 28 states that requires certain state contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel in order to keep their contract with the state. The publisher of The Arkansas Times, Alan Leveritt, sued in 2018 because he objected, on free speech grounds, to having to pledge not to boycott in order to maintain the newspaper’s advertising contract with a state college. In June 2022, a full Eighth Circuit panel ruled against Leveritt and upheld the law. Because the Supreme Court won’t hear the ACLU’s appeal, the ruling that anti-BDS laws are constitutional will remain binding on lower courts in Eighth Circuit states, which include Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.