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On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Unpacking Israel’s Political Crisis
0:00 / 46:06
March 30, 2023

After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed his defense minister for calling for a halt to government plans to gut the power of Israel’s judiciary, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets, participating in spontaneous mass protests and setting bonfires in the street. The next day, after a general strike brought the economy to a halt, Netanyahu backtracked, announcing the Knesset would not vote on the first part of his government’s judicial overhaul plan and that he would instead engage in negotiations with the opposition to forge consensus. To discuss these developments, Jewish Currents editor-in-chief Arielle Angel spoke with senior reporter Alex Kane, contributing editor Joshua Leifer, and contributing writer Elisheva Goldberg. They talked about how anti-occupation activists are relating to the mass protests, why the Israeli right is so intent on curbing judicial power, and the future of Netanyahu’s coalition.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Articles and Tweets Mentioned:

Huwara and the Dangers of Annexation,” Elisheva Goldberg, Jewish Currents

The Laundromat of Dispossession,” Amira Hass, Haaretz (Hebrew)

The Long Reach of Restraint,” Elisheva Goldberg, Jewish Currents

What’s Next for Netanyahu’s Judicial Overhaul?,” Alex Kane in conversation with Edo Konrad, Jewish Currents

Do Israeli Protesters Really Want Democracy?,” Orly Noy, +972 Magazine

What American Liberals Can Learn from Israel’s Protests,” Gal Beckerman, The Atlantic

Noah Kulwin’s tweet on the Israeli protests as “Muellerism”

A Color Revolution in Israel,” Liel Leibovitz, Compact

American Jewish Committee, Other Jewish Organizations Welcome Suspension of Israeli Judicial Overhaul Legislation,” AJC

Kan News segment on the Histadrut’s links to Netanyahu (Hebrew)


Arielle Angel: Hello and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Arielle Angel, the Editor in Chief of Jewish Currents, and I’ll be your host for today. This is a kind of emergency podcast as we are responding to the images coming out of Israel and what many people are calling a full-blown uprising. To recap what’s been happening in the last couple of days, the Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, was fired by Netanyahu after expressing that the judicial reforms should not go through. He was responding, in turn, to the fears that people in the military reserves weren’t going to show up for duty, as many of them were saying that they were not going to do in response to these judicial reforms. Since that happened, there was a call for a general strike. flights were grounded–outgoing flights were grounded–universities were closed, malls were closed. You had people in the streets at all hours of the night, blocking Ayalon Highway and marching to the Knesset at 1 am, 2 am, burning stuff in the streets. The images are images that I think we would find inspiring, in any context, of people standing up against an illiberal coup.

AA: At the same time, there are images that I think are more uncomfortable for people who are looking at this conflict not just as an inter-Jewish conflict but as a conflict between Israel and Palestinians, in the West Bank and Gaza and internally. For example, there has been a lot of militaristic imagery–the protesters applauding or lifting up police chiefs and generals, people protesting in their military caps, and of course, a sea of Israeli flags. Which has been interesting, also, to look at the imagery there in relationship to the counterprotests, the pro-Netanyahu protests, that look kind of similar from a distance, also a sea of Israeli flags. Of course, by now, Netanyahu has delayed the judicial overhaul and has actually done so in exchange for a promise to Ben Gvir, Itamar Ben Gvir, who’s a far-right member of the coalition, that he will provide him with a private militia and National Guard. A lot of people are hailing this as a victory for the protesters, and certainly, it is a victory, although long-term victory is, of course, not yet assured. So the question that I have is: Do these protests represent a major shift and a moment of new possibility, or are they just an expression of a desire for a return to a status quo?

Joshua Leifer: This morning, I was on the phone with Yael Berda, who is a sociologist professor at Hebrew University and a veteran activist, and she told me a line that has stayed with me since we spoke. She sounded very enthusiastic, and she gave a speech at a rally in Haifa and was just very wrapped up in everything that was happening. And I said to her, “It sounds like you sound optimistic.” And she said, “No, I’m not optimistic.” I said, “Are you hopeful?” She said, “No, I’m not hopeful.” I said, “Why, what are you feeling?” She says, “It was that there was a possibility.” That’s the upper limit of I think what anti-occupation activists and leftists are feeling. And for Yael, what she was saying was moving to her was that you did have people who were willing to take stickers that were condemning the occupation. Thousands of them, and that made a lifelong leftist feel less marginalized than they ever had been in the past.

JL: At the same time, one could also find oneself listening to Avigdor Lieberman speak, and in fact, he spoke ahead of her at the rally, and he, at one point, was Israel’s most racist politician, before he was outflanked by the right. But he’s staked out a position in opposition to Netanyahu. And so you have these contradictory impulses, where there feels like there is a break or a thaw in what has been a very conformist, very shut-down public discourse around the occupation, and at the same time, the real forces of mobilization that were definitive in bringing the legislation to a pause, at least, was the reservists, was the patriotic protests, were groups that were wearing shirts that said like, אחים לנשק, like we’re brothers in arms. Super militaristic. People coming out wearing their berets from the combat units that they were part of, people vowing not to serve. And it makes a lot of sense, if you are looking at this angle from how the Palestinians fit into this picture, you don’t really find a place for them.

JL: Obviously, there are Palestinians who have taken part in them. Ayman Odeh has participated in them. But I think everyone recognizes that at the very most, there’s now a little bit more room to say things. I mean, the last thing I’ll say that Yael said to me that I thought was interesting was that the experience of police violence has a radicalizing effect on people, and people who thought themselves to be good citizens, upstanding citizens–like the basis of this very kind of middle-class revolt has been “We pay taxes, we serve in the army, and they don’t”–and then to be on the receiving end of police violence does begin to raise questions for people about the nature of the state. That’s the possibility. The limit is they’ll have to learn that the state that they, until now, had a kind of baseline trust is actually doing things that are terrible in the occupied territories. That’s the jump that hasn’t yet been concretized for the majority of people, it seems.

AA: Historian Yair Wallach posted on Twitter a quote from the legendary Haaretz journalist, Amira Hass. This is from 2011, so this would have been around the time of the economic protests, the cottage cheese protests, that were taking place in the country that I thought seemed relevant. She wrote that, “If the Israeli social protest was a school essay, it would get a fail. But social mobilization is not a school essay. It’s always an opportunity for unexpected change, which comes with significant constraints and against the odds,” which I thought was just an interesting thing to say.

Elisheva Goldberg: Yeah, there’s two things that I think are really interesting at the moment. One is that that alignment, politically, in Israel, for a very long time, for five elections, has been pro-Bibi, anti-Bibi. And the alignment now is pro-democracy, anti-democracy. In a sense, each side is claiming that they are for democracy, but the right side is a little bit absurdist. But the alignment is shifting, and there is a potential there for camps to actually change, for maybe the first time in a very long time. I don’t know what that will look like, and there’s no way to predict it. But I do think that that’s some glimmer of hope here. And the other thing is that there’s this anti-occupation bloc as a part of the protests that has been pretty marginal for most of the time. But I do think we’ve seen some pretty amazing things happen. Like Hawara, the pogrom in Hawara happened a couple of weeks ago, and the next series of protests included people screaming, people who you wouldn’t expect–this is the people who are taking the stickers, this is the people who are saying, “Where were you?” to the police. “Where were you in Hawara?” That was, for me, an incredibly inspiring moment, where the marginality of that anti-occupation bloc that we support, that we want to be bigger, was actually potentially growing.

AA: Yeah, I was curious about that, and also about another video that I saw from Hebrew University, where it was like a whole hall of people chanting, “Democracy for all, from the river to the sea.” And there’s been a lot of chants, and even chants talking about equality from the river to the sea, although that’s less common, but it’s still very much, seemingly, in rotation, at least recently. And I know that I’ve seen things like in +972, for example, where they’re raising the question, “Do people really know what they mean when they say the words, ‘democracy for all’ or ‘equality for all,’ for example?” If “Democracy or equality for all, from the river to the sea,” is the chant, have they internalized what they are chanting yet? And it seems like it’s kind of unclear. I mean, I saw a video today of people in the democracy protests attacking and beating a man with a Palestinian flag. So how do we make sense of this?

Alex Kane: I was speaking with Edo of +972 earlier because we’re running a Q&A with him and asked him whether these protests hold the potential for more radical change, and he was pretty ambivalent about it. He was saying the chanting for equality has become more central, but that it’s unclear what that means and that it’s very difficult to imagine these protests actually moving towards a real radical reckoning with Zionism and the state, given that Israeli protesters benefit, particularly these protesters, middle-upper class, Ashkenazi-dominated protesters, have benefited from the structure of a state that privileges them over the rights of Palestinians. So it’s difficult to imagine them giving that up for understandable reasons. Nobody really wants to imagine giving up immense amounts of privilege because there’s a lot of fear that goes into that.

JL: Yeah, I mean, I think people on the left are of two minds. Because what you’re saying is obviously true, Alex. On the other hand, there is something crazy about the protesters at Hebrew U saying “Equality for everyone.” The problem is they don’t know what that means. I mean, that was something that Yael said.

AA: What’s the evidence that they don’t know what it means? Can we just tease that out for a second?

JL: As in like, when people are saying that– not everyone is saying, “We’re going to end the occupation and create a genuine democracy here.” You know, one of the really big images of these protests have been The Handmaid’s Tale blocs of Israeli women dressed up in red with white hats, that the fear is of the orthodox theocracy that would subjugate women’s rights. So it’s a signifier that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But I think that using this language gives them the opportunity to stop and ask, “Well, what do I mean by equality?” And it’s that that’s the source of possibility because that was a conversation that wasn’t happening before. So then you can say, “Well, equality means this thing that’s more expansive that we haven’t been able to discuss until now.” But it’s very fluid in that way.

EG: It’s the door. It’s not the thing itself. It’s a door to get to the thing, which is equality for all. And I also think, Josh, you’re right. When they say quality for all, they mean, people who are women, who are LGBTQ, but also Arab citizens. And I don’t think that they don’t mean that. The people who are out on the streets are mostly center people. They’re the middle class that we’re talking about. These are people who are taxpaying citizens who serve in the reserves. These are the people who are really upset about this. The high tech, the people who kind of run the economy of Israel. Many of whom are Ashkenazi, we should also just say that, but it’s a class that wants to think of itself as liberal. And it wants to be able to say the words, “equality for all” out loud and mean it. And so it’s a liberal uprising against an illiberal move by the government. There is a liberal push inside of this that is important.

JL: I also think like this issue of liberalism is connected to the argument about the court. Because the thing that Aharon Barak did, who is the former Chief Justice of Israel and who was responsible for basically formalizing the principle of judicial review–there had been review, but it hadn’t been formalized as a principle–and then arguing that the basic laws would serve as a pseudo-constitutional framework, that all happened in the 1990s, like a long time after Israel was established. And part of what Barak wanted to do was create a way for Israel to exist, at the same time, as on the one hand, a form of a liberal state with liberal freedoms of religion, sexual identity, free from religious coercion, while at the same time, not forcing Israel to eliminate all of the ways that it’s structured to privilege Jewish supremacy. Because there are all of these institutions–land ownership, the Jewish para-state institutions that came from the pre-state period, the Law of Return, all sorts of things that give Jews special rights–he wanted to find a way to balance that and, also just as importantly, not force a verdict on the occupation.

JL: And what the opposition from the right has tried to do is to say, even that liberal move, which at least in like judicial terms, allowed for an interpretive carve-out, where sometimes liberal values might win out over Jewish prerogatives, that was too much for the right. They want to get rid of it, not just for like ideological, principled reasons, but because they have an agenda of annexation and then transfer that they want to carry out, that they view the court as an obstacle. So that’s why the parameters, I think, of the debate can sometimes feel so narrow because you have a right that’s shooting for what I sometimes call the vision of total Jewish victory over the foes of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. Like a definitive end. I mean, that’s the language that people like Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotric used. They want a decisive end to the conflict. That’s on the one side, and on the other side, you have what is basically, it feels bad to call these protesters the forces of the status quo, but that’s what they are. They want to maintain the balance that Barak made through the judicial revolution. They might want to deepen it. They might want to give it more substantive teeth and expand the range of freedoms that the court might protect. But right now, there isn’t a more radical, more ambitious force of transformation that says like, this compromise between, on the one hand, liberal values within the state and the preservation of Jewish privilege, there’s no one right now who’s arguing for that to be eliminated with a large following.

EG: Yeah. This gets to what I’ve been calling the dual revolution, or the dual coup, you could say. Like on the one hand, what you’re talking about, Josh, is this moment where the right is shooting for the moon. They’re really shooting for a complete overhaul, a complete politicization, a complete capture of the legal systems in Israel. They want it all, and then they want to turn that over and move into what is the second revolution, which they’re already doing, right? We have to remember that Bezalel Smotric currently has powers over the COGAT and the Civil Administration, which run the civil affairs of the West Bank, for Israelis and for Palestinians who live in Area C. And we just saw them pass last week a thing that we already forgot about, because all of this is so crazy all the time, they passed an amendment to the disengagement law, which allows settlers to go back to places that had been made illegal for them to go in 2005. And for them, this is the same kind of language, Josh, that you’re talking about. It’s totalizing. It’s, “We need redress for the crimes of the disengagement,” right? The fact that Israel ever pulled out of territory, they have an overhanging sense of defeat and betrayal by the state. And that’s also why the sense that we need law, that there needs to be the rule of law in order for a country to function, actually doesn’t really exist for the more far-flung settlements, places like that surround Hawara, let’s say, especially in the northern West Bank and the deep, deep south of the West Bank. So it’s extremely interconnected, and I do think that they’re trying to do a kind of one-two punch, where you overhaul the judiciary so that you can annex and transfer in the West Bank.

JL: I just want to speak a little bit to this question that comes up, especially on Twitter and in takes about the issue of like, continuities, discontinuities between the present and Zionist history. Because Shev, what you’re saying, and I think this is true in the self-conception also of the religious Zionists, they view themselves as the inheritors of the settling, pioneering ethos in a practical Zionism, which has always had–I think, Shev, as you write in the piece about Hawara–an ambivalent relationship to the rule of law. From the very beginning of Zionist settlement in pre-state British mandate, Palestine, Zionist settlement required the breaking of laws, and it required a kind of Zionist permanent revolution. That’s also part of why Ben-Gurion didn’t want a constitution, because he recognized that as things unfolded, there would need to be actions taken that would not be able to be constrained within the formal limits of a written constitution. Part of what you might say, like the Israeli liberal camp can’t decide on yet, is whether they’d be willing to embrace a post-Zionist position. This was a much more common term in the 1990s, during the Oslo period, when there was a sense that the developmental period of the state was over, that Oslo was going to give Israel defined borders, it was going to end the permanent conflict and permanent state of emergency with the Palestinians, it was going to become a state that would have internationally recognized boundaries, which it still doesn’t have, and so it wouldn’t be in this dynamic of permanent Zionist revolution. It’s not clear to me, even to what extent the protesters right now are aware of having to make a choice. Like, are we going to be a normal state that gives up on this broader vision of constant expansion, and conquest, and ongoing cleansing, in some sense, of the Palestinians who live there?

AA: I think one way of saying what you’re saying is that the right actually has a desire to end this, or move into a new phase, that is a little bit more clear-eyed, on a certain level, than what we call the left in Israel, or the center-left, or liberalism in Israel. That this protest movement is essentially, right now, defining itself by what it’s against, and even to the extent that it defines itself as pro-democracy, as we’ve been talking about, it hasn’t dug into these concepts to such an extent that we’re getting to a point that takes us into a different phase, or gets us to a point that’s beyond the stage of the conflict that’s been maintained, at least over the last 50 years.

AK: I would just say that at least some of the people in the anti-occupation bloc, and, writ large, the radical left in Israel, among them Israeli Jews, do have a clear-eyed vision, which is, decolonization, the right of return for refugees, and some form of configuration where there’s total equality and an anti-colonial ethos. There is some clear-eyed vision on the radical left, but they don’t really have any power.

AA: Well, I think it’s actually beyond not having any power. I think a problem that there is on the radical left is that they’ve been engaging with Israeli society as it is for so long that their approach to it has been, “We’re right, and we’re in the minority. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing.” And the thing that they don’t have a vision on is how to engage a Jewish majority that they’re going to have to bring along for the ride on these ideas. And that’s kind of the major question, on a certain level, and also the thing that these protests open up, or the place where this possibility becomes very real. I mean, this to me connects to the question of like, the Israeli flags, for example. I mean, I saw that Gal Beckerman wrote about what the American Left could learn from the Israeli Left, and I assume there’s going to be a conversation about how a certain kind of nationalism or patriotism has been reappropriated towards these aims. And you know, of course, there were moments where American communists marched with American flags and wore their military uniforms if they served, or whatever, and really thought of that as part of their strategy.

JL: Arielle, I don’t think you even need to go that far back. I mean, Noah Kulwin had a funny tweet, but I felt there was a there was a kernel of truth in the his provocation, which is that there’s really protests were like Muellerism .Like the Muller Report version of American liberalism, in the sense that it was recourse to the security state, to the authority of the military, to a good kind of patriotism against a radical, right-wing populist agenda, viewed, because of its radicalness, as anti-patriotic, but that they actually worked, in a way that this form of liberal politics wasn’t successful in America in the same way.

AA: But again, I think the question is: What is success? There’s a kind of dialectic here, because on a certain level, if the Israeli public is Jewish majority, that does need to be brought into the conversation and brought along, in a certain way. There is nothing without them. There’s no partner for peace without them, you know? It’s not going to be the anti-occupation bloc or whatever. If they were really thinking about the internal minority, the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, they probably wouldn’t be reappropriating the Israeli flag. Like that would be a more uncomfortable symbol for them, and also it might be a less effective protest. But then, of course, effective protest to what end? I mean, that’s the question.

AK: Well, I think also, it’s difficult to imagine any sort of consensus that satisfies both Itamar Ben-Gvir and Yair Lapid.

AA: Yeah, sorry, I didn’t even talk about that piece of things. So do you want to just update us, Alex, on where we are right at the moment?

AK: Yeah. On Monday, Netanyahu declared that he was going to freeze the Knesset process for the first part of the judicial overhaul, because he said dialogue is better than civil war. Then Lapid said that he’s willing to enter into good faith negotiations, and today, I saw that the negotiations amongst representatives of the governing coalition and the opposition have begun at Isaac Herzog’s residence. And so, the question is, are the headlines that say, like “This is the end of Netanyahu” correct? Or is this crisis just going to come back up? Like basically, is there a hope for actual compromise? And if not, does that mean that the government could fall?

EG: So no one can predict what is going to happen, first. It’s just impossible, stuff is changing by the minute. But the thing that I want to talk about for a second is just consensus in general and what that could ever mean in Israel. Because this question that Josh raised about a constitution and Aharon Barak’s shifting and consolidating of individual liberties in the 90s. Back then, it was opposed by the right. Back then, there was pushback by the ultraorthodox and the religious Zionist contingents. Back then, it was already a betrayal of a certain segment of the Israeli population, not to mention the Arab minority, that often, in situations of land rights, certainly which we know, has not gotten justice there. And obviously, in the West Bank, we won’t even go there. Arielle, you already touched on that.

EG: But the other thing that Ben-Gurion was looking at when he asked this question about a constitution when Israel was first founded, it’s written into the Declaration of Independence that there should be a constitution, like months after the state was declared, but it never happened. One of the other reasons, Josh, is that he couldn’t ever imagine consensus amongst the different parts of Israeli society. He couldn’t, especially the ultraorthodox. And I do think that comes to this question of like: When can you ever have a representative government for Israel? Like when can that ever work? There was a change government. For the last year, the last year of government before this new Netanyahu, far-right government, let’s just remember, the fifth election yielded a Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government that was like the broadest coalition you could possibly imagine. And that fell apart in a year, and it fell apart because of the West Bank. It fell apart because they were trying to pass these emergency regulations that pass every five years, usually when there aren’t Arab members of the coalition, which is also part of the bizarreness of that moment. And this is a country that doesn’t have right and left in the way that America does. We don’t have two parties that compete, and you kind of have to get on board as a leftist with the Democrats at some point if you want to make change. And this is also to your point, Arielle, you kind of have to wave the liberal flag, even if you’re further to the left, because that’s the guy that’s running. That’s the party that’s the only one available.

AA: Well, you don’t have to wave the flag, but you do have to go to the protests.

EG: Exactly. You do not have to do that in Israel in the same way. You can be a Jew who votes for an Arab party that sells-marginalizes or doesn’t. You could be a pretty modern Mizrahi voter who votes for Shas. This is a country that has a lot of flexibility in voting, and therefore, has a lot of trouble coming to consensus, and always has. The thing that is also interesting about this moment, this moment for Netanyahu is really unique, because he has a coalition of 64, which is a huge majority in a 120 seat parliament for him right now. He could not put together a majority coalition for five elections, and now he has one. And so what he wants is to perpetuate that as long as possible. So to your question, Alex, he’s going to pull every single trick he can out of the book. And that includes offering Ben-Gvir a private militia. That includes saying, “Okay, I’ll press pause right now.” He’s going to try and keep this government going as long as he can, until he can guarantee its perpetuation beyond the next election. That’s only his goal. Stay in power, avoid jail, and hold on for dear life. So I think that that’s what we’re going to see.

EG: I also think the other thing we’re going to see is probably more violence, because the settler, right is empowered. Hawara was a taste. I don’t think that that’s going away, and I think that Ben-Gvir is going to keep prodding and poking, especially now that he has more authority over certain parts of the army. He and his people are calling people. Like there was these huge protests in Tel Aviv. He tried to get the police chief, who was overseeing these protests, fired. that was a whole balagan, it was a complete mess in the chain of command. This is what’s going to be happening, and it’s going to continue to happen because people don’t know who they’re reporting to. The people who are supposed to keep the peace and keep the law don’t know if it’s Ben-Gvir or if it’s Yoav Gallant, or if it’s somebody else Netanyahu’s appointing now. It’s extremely confusing, and that actually does lead to anarchy. So that’s the thing to watch out for.

JL: I agree I think that the risk of violence will increase. And this is something that if you follow right-wing Israelis and settlers on Twitter, the kind of rhetoric that they’re using is, “See, we are the majority” is what they say. “We have the majority in the Knesset, but look, the minority went crazy in the streets and got their way. They circumvented the democratic process, so now we know that our force, again, is the only language that they understand,” and it’s going to take extra-parliamentary violence in order to enforce their side’s agenda. The other thing that was interesting to see is that immediately in the wake of Netanyahu announcing a pause on the judicial court overhaul bill, the person whose political futures jumped the furthest were Benny Gantz. The voters who seem to want an alternative to Netanyahu seem to be turning away from Lapid, who until now, and for most of the last rounds of election has been the standard bearer of the anti-Bibi camp, to Gantz. Gantz because he’s seen as a general, because he’s seen as moderate. And another reason is because Gantz is seen as the person who could potentially be a bridge between the secular parties and the Haredi parties.

JL: The reason why that’s important is because Netanyahu has been able to create a very cohesive, hegemonic bloc that’s united around the defense of Jewish interests but articulated through a range of different ways. So Jewish interests can be the defense of tradition, and that can get on the religious parties. It can be the defense of Jewish identity as a primary mode of identification, which gets on some of the traditionalist members. Obviously, the settler and the religious Zionist vanguard is on board because they’re Jewish nationalists, first and foremost, and also the Likud traditionalists. That’s a really good way of consolidating his block, Netanyahu says things like, “The left forgot what it means to be Jews.”

JL: Right now, the alternative doesn’t have glue, like a rhetorical, strategic glue to keep it together and have it be wide enough to pose an alternative. And part of why that is, is because the liberal bloc is also super anti-religious, and a lot of those politicians burned serious political capital. Whereas in previous generations, the orthodox, the ultraorthodox parties, were basically agnostic about who was in power. They wanted what they wanted: autonomy. They were happy to join different coalitions. They were much more politicized. And it’s really, really hard to imagine a core segment of the protesters who were in the streets being willing to make the kind of compromise necessary to be in a government that would include the Haredi parties. But the problem is that there’s almost no path to unseating Netanyahu that doesn’t involve pulling them away in some way, or with the Arab parties, Arab-led parties. Which is also going to require them to rethink their priors because the reservists and all of the militaristic elements of the protests aren’t going to agree to sit in a coalition with parties that don’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state. And that is going to exclude in a lot of ways, parties like Hadash and Balad.

AA: Absolutely. And this has been what has been so frustrating to watch in the last however many series of elections in the last couple of years. It’s just the complete unwillingness to make common cause with the Arab parties, even at the expense of their own political possibility. You know, we talked a little bit about how there’s pro-democracy and anti-democracy, and both sides think that they’re the democratic side. I want to drill down on that a little bit in the question of who is the majority, and who is the minority? Because I think it’s actually not so simple. I mean, to a certain extent, when you ask certain kinds of questions of the Israeli public, majorities agree on a lot of things that we would think are pretty messed up across different demographic markers. So on the one hand, I just want to say that we’re troubling these political categories.

AA: I do want to also ask the question about the court. So for example, the very politically confusing Compact Magazine just published a piece by Liel Liebovitz from Tablet, saying, “This is the will of the people. The court is unelected, its appointed, it controls itself. Who are these people, really? They’re an elite group. Focusing power with the legislature is the most democratic path forward.” And the editors of Compact on Twitter, getting the expected deluge of backlash to publishing Liel’s piece, cited the fact that many Americans on the left think of our Supreme Court as a kind of undemocratic body, not accountable, lifetime appointments, etc., etc. So I wanted to put that to this group and see what we make of that.

EG: The central problem in Israel right now is that the right does not trust its own checks and balances. It doesn’t trust the Supreme Court one whit. That’s an old, old, old problem, and it’s an Ashkenazi elitist problem from the founding of the state, from the first Justice Minister, from the start of the Supreme Court. And there’s a legacy of elites electing elites, electing elites. The first Sephardi judge was a Greek, he was elected in the 50s, and then his chair became what’s now known as the Sephardi Chair. There was a tokenism. The same is true for the Arab seat on the Supreme Court. There are 15 seats, one belongs to an Arab. That’s not representative of Israeli society, but it’s also indicative of the fact that for a long time, Ashkenazi were appointing Ashkenazi.

EG: But that has not been true for decades at this point, and the purported backlash of the right against the court is a memory of a kind of frustration that comes from decades before. Ayelet Shaked was the Justice Minister in 2015 and appointed conservative justices to the entire system. I mean, we’re talking about hundreds of judges that she appointed, or that she pushed through the system to get appointed. There are justices on the Supreme Court right now who are settlers, who are conservative, quote, unquote, in their outlook,–in other words, noninterventionist–which is the way that the nomenclature works in Israel’s legal jurisprudence, also in American. But I think that there’s a holdover anger, and it’s not wrong, or at least it wasn’t wrong until, say, 2017. But the court has since kind of become afraid of its own shadow. There’s been a step away from interventionalism. There’s been a pullback from anything that would put it in conflict with the Knesset, and that, in Israel, is because there’s only one check on the power of the legislature.

EG: In America, we have a federated system. There are state governments that check the power of the federal government. There are two legislative bodies that check each other before it even gets to the Supreme Court, and also an executive that is often in conflict with those. So you have checks and balances, and those are just a few, in the United States that you do not have in Israel. And so you have a much quicker slide towards majoritarianism once the Supreme Court is out of the way. If it’s the only check, we’re just so close. If there’s an override clause that’s passed that allows the Knesset to reinstate laws that were passed and then struck down by the Supreme Court, you’re a hop, skip, and a jump away from majoritarian rule.

JL: I mean, I do think that the parallel to the American context, it’s just uneven, because basically, the left position on the judiciary in America is like the Supreme Court is an elite, undemocratic body, and actually, we probably have enough support within the majority to do the thing that we want to do. That’s just not the case in Israel. It’s just simply not the case that the majority of Israelis would support, say, a equality basic law. It would be very, very hard to pass through almost any configuration in the Knesset that we can currently imagine, a law with constitutional status that would guarantee equality for all of its citizens formally. Would not be possible. And part of what the constitutional revolution of Barak was intended to do was to try to find a way to begin that process, recognizing the limits of what can be achieved in terms of majoritarian democracy.

JL: But I do think it’s important, also, that Barak’s interpretive shift did produce anger and resentment, but it was nowhere near as controversial at the time as it has become. And I think that part of that has to do with the way that rather than the court generating being the prime mover of the right-wing populist backlash, it’s been redescribed as additional evidence for a right-wing populist backlash that was already in process by the right, as ammunition basically, in order to support the change that they’ve been trying to carry out for a very long time, and that maybe would have been wanting to do anyway, vis a vis annexation and transfer, whether or not Barak had decided in the court decision that he did or not. And so there’s a risk, I think, in liberals in America wanting to say, “Well, because I critiqued the Supreme Court in America, I have to critique it here on first principles.” I think the contexts are different enough that it’s not really possible to like divine a position based on first principles here.

AK: Well, also the US has a constitution and Israel doesn’t, which is the main fundamental difference.

JL: Right. Or let me just put it in very provocative terms. Like imagine if the Dred Scott decision was still on the books, and then the American public was like, “We’re going to decide the issue of slavery via a majoritarian decision.” It would have been ratified, probably, at the time. That’s the state of public opinion of the majority of Israel, vis a vis, the issue of equality for all people living between the river and the sea. So I know that’s like a provocative way of framing it, and I’m not saying that slavery and occupation are the same. But in terms of the kind of mental shift that would be required in order to then have the conversation about the possibility of weighing majoritarianism versus principles of like, judicial intervention, Israel hasn’t established that equality among people is good. I mean, one of the things that’s very striking is when you read drafts of the Constitution that were written and proposed in 1950–America’s constitution began, “We the People”–the proposed versions of Israel’s constitution began “We the Jewish People.” The ethnos was imagined as the demos from the beginning, and so that shift, which still hasn’t been resolved, was what would be necessary in order to be like, “Oh, now we’re going to have an abstract debate about whether the courts can intervene in decisions or not.”

JL: A lot of people are very relieved by what has just happened. People are seeing this as the end of the story to a certain extent, when obviously, this has just been delayed, and in response, Ben-Gvir’s just gotten a promise to have a personal militia, and we don’t really know what’s going to happen. But I think there’s this sense–I mean, the AJC put out a statement, AIPAC has put out a statement, there’s a lot of like, shalom bayit talk right now, in which it’s sort of like, “Let’s turn down the volume. I’m sure we’ll be able to hear each other.” The Jewish world can’t survive this kind of a fracture, basically, like the level of conflict is too high. And again, also appealing to an outside fear and security, like, “If we are fractured, we are vulnerable to attacks by others.” That was very directly in the AJC statement on this. I do think that some of what you’re talking about here, Josh, in terms of the ethnos as the demos, as you said, is really coming out in some of the way that Jews in the United States are talking about this, even though I have been very surprised at the amount of engagement by American Jews on this topic. And I feel like, I don’t know, maybe it’s just who I follow or who I see pictures from, but there are people, I think, who have been going to these American protests, where the message has been “No democracy with occupation.”

AK: My reaction to that is that the AJC, and the ADL, and the Biden administration, all really are uncomfortable with this governing coalition. And the fact that the AJCs rhetoric is centered around security perfectly aligns with what Yoav Gallant said, which is basically, “This is impacting our army.” And the implication is that Israel has to be ready to fight more wars with Iran, with Hezbollah, and then of course, carry out its occupation. So that’s the subtext that, of course, isn’t being said by the AJC, but to worry that this kind of internal fracture makes Israelis vulnerable is an appeal to the center-left government that was led by Lapid and Bennett, and in general an appeal to veneration of an army that is now being destabilized by this debate. They don’t want that destabilization in order to carry out Israeli foreign policy goals, which in many cases are destabilizing themselves in the region. Of course destabilizing to Iranians and to Palestinians.

EG: I think that a lot of Israelis feel like their government is attacking them. This also gets to the rallying around the flag that you were talking about, Arielle, there’s like a sense of, “We’re all in this together” and achdut, this sense of the brotherhood, which I feel many ways about. But one of the ways I feel about it is like, there is a part of it that is so powerful that it made Netanyahu stop. Like it made this guy who was powering ahead, was firing his defense minister, just like have a serious moment of reality check. And there are those who say that he can’t come back from this, and I don’t know to predict that or not, but the power of that in this moment isn’t to be underestimated.

JL: I have one fear, which is that because Israel has seemed like such a hopeless, bad place for a long time, because Netanyahu has been in powered, at least to American Jews, feeling like it doesn’t represent their worldview, there’s now a risk, ironically, that these mass protests, become a way of rehabilitating Israel’s image.

AA: I have the exact same fear.

JL: And I wasn’t worried about it, actually, until the Gal Beckerman peace. And then I was like, Oh, this is going to be the new Hasbara line. It’s going to be “Israel is vibrant democracy where people can take to the streets and have really fierce arguments about the things that matter most to them, and have the government be responsive to them.” And like, “See, how could you say that it’s this, and it’s that,” and like the irony of ironies that a protest against a plan to eliminate the last vestige of procedural democracy in Israel will now be used to politically wash the very government that tried to do that. I think that is already in process. It’s very absurd. But like, I think that would be the ideal situation for the Jewish establishment group.

AA: And also, it’s just the natural way of things. I mean, after every single major uprising, you get a little bit, and then people go home. I mean, this pause is not a win, especially with the promise that had to be made to Ben-Gvir. Whether it happens or not, it’s still extremely alarming that the idea is to give Ben-Gvir a National Guard in exchange for just a delay, not even an abandonment of this idea. And like people have been out there, nobody wants to sustain a protest for this amount of time. Nobody wants to sustain this much upheaval in their own lives, and least of all, this mass of centrists. So yeah, I mean, I think you’re right, that we may go back to normal even harder, you know?

AA: I mean, that kind of takes us full circle back to the potency of these images. I had somebody, like I said, arguing with me online about how this represents the biggest instance of the Histadrut, the Jewish labor union, undertaking mass action, and how could I be anything less than just in awe of that? And agree, like, I fantasize about general strikes in the US and anywhere else. I cannot deny the power of that. but that’s where the insidious potential of this comes in, is to forget, for example, the entire history of the Histadrut as an exclusionary body that was trying to keep Palestinians and Mizrahim out of the picture on some level and consolidate a certain kind of market power. And as you pointed out, Josh, Likud led certainly not a leftist, unionist project.

JL: They may have also even been in contact with Netanyahu. One of the reports that I saw right before I came on the podcast was like, “To what extent was Netanyahu in contact with the Likud-led head of the Histadrut,” that was like, “Maybe this is a way to put leverage on the on the coalition partners to get them to agree.” We don’t know. That’s sounds conspiratorial but like not out of the realm of possibility.

AA: I think this is why this conversation about how we approach these protests matters, because without the full vision or commitment to real equality and restoration, these images actually can be seductive and dangerous images, in the way that you are talking about, Josh, that they can become rehabilitative.

EG: I think that that’s right. I think it’s dangerous. I also think that these protests aren’t going to stop. There might be people who go home now that there’s a pause, and I think a lot of people might go home for Pesach. But if this comes back, we are going to see more people out in the streets. It might not be in the same 300,000, which is the equivalent of whatever, 10 million Americans. it’s not going to be necessarily that. But there are enough people saying you can’t compromise with terrorists, basically. People were threatening to burn down the house, and there’s no conversation to be had. There are enough people who are saying that that I do want to inject just that sense. Not to say that there’s going to be like some pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, but I do think that you’re gonna continue to see people protesting, if/when this legislation comes back around, in like the summer session of the Knesset.

JL: There’s also like a Chekhov’s legislation thing happening, which is like the bill is ready for the second and third votes. If Netanyahu decided on the whim that the coalition was going to vote on it, they could do it, and there would be nothing to stop them. And so I think, Shev, you’re right, that the protests will continue because of this instability. I mean, it is like there being a gun on the table. The question is when is it going to go off, and in what direction will it go off?

AA: I think this is a good place to stop. Thank you all for being with me today on such short notice and for lending your expertise. We will see what happens this has been another episode of On the Nose. If you liked it, share it. Leave us a review and visit JewishCurrents.org and subscribe. Thanks a lot. Bye

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