Israel’s outgoing Council General to New York, Asaf Zamir, has tied his departure to the mass protests in the country, stating that “what we see today in Israel is an encouraging awakening and our last chance to make sure that Israel will be the place we want to continue to live in.” The protests that have been going on both in a planned and in a spontaneous manner since the beginning of the year are a response to Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government and its efforts to bring about a judicial overhaul that would affect a plethora of processes, “from how judges are selected, to what laws the Supreme Court can rule on, to even giving parliament power to overturn Supreme Court decisions.”
What is at stake in the proposed radical reform is not only a major threat to the core democratic principle of the separation of powers, but also, more broadly, a hidden de-secularization of the judicial system, given the present and expected future domination of the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties over coalition governments in Israel. If governments with an overtly religious agenda control both the political and the judicial apparatuses in the country, then, along with the separation of powers, the separation between halakhic law and secular authorities (known in the West as the principle of separation between Church and state) will cease to exist. Along these lines, a stark harbinger of future developments is the freshly passed law that enshrines rabbinical edicts in civil legislation, banning bread from Israeli hospitals over Passover.
The focus of recent studies concerned with demographic trends in Israel has been a faster growth of Arab compared to Jewish population: “In 2020, for the first time in many decades, the Arab population living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River rose slightly above the Jewish population, according to analysis conducted by two research groups associated with Israel’s defense establishment.” This has been presented as a demographic challenge to the Israeli democracy, which will eventually have to make a choice between being a democratic state or a Jewish one.
Nonetheless, the real challenge, as the recent events are indicating, is the demographic rift between secular and religious Jewish citizens of Israel. Given that the country’s Haredi population is growing twice as fast as Israeli population overall, far-right coalitions are likely to become a constant feature of Israel’s political landscape. Rapidly shifting demographics signal that democracy is, just as rapidly, slipping into a non-democracy or into an “illiberal democracy,” as it has been called. The awakening, to which ex-Council General Asaf Zamir appeals, is the realization that the existential danger to Israeli democracy emanates neither from outside the country nor from the demographics of its non-Jewish population, but from the changing outlines of Israel’s own Jewish citizenry.
Although Zamir’s point is worth keeping in mind, the moment of truth Israel faces is a different and a more profound one. Over one fifth of the country’s population consists of Israeli Arabs, who are largely unrepresented in its political structures and do not fit within the state’s official self-conception. Millions of stateless Palestinians live in precarious and ever worsening conditions in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967. Consider, for instance, their status in March 2023, when Israeli Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has publicly stated that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” The nostalgic idealization of Israel prior to the looming judicial coup is incongruent with the experience of these groups, who evidently do not see it as a place they “want to continue to live in” or to be oppressed by.
The hundreds of thousands of Israelis fighting for democracy in Israel cannot stop at the goal of reverting back to the status quo, which has been threatened by the far-right governing coalition. Fighting for democracy in Israel means striving for political and economic equality among Jewish and Arab citizens, as well as respecting the rights of adherents of all religions and of atheists. It means, also, putting an end to the decades-long occupation, which has caused tremendous suffering to the stateless Palestinian people. A thriving democracy cannot keep living off occupation, nor can it conveniently ignore the daily violence and injustice inflicted on another, neighboring people. A true awakening sheds light on this underside of the Israeli status quo, now disturbed by the extreme right.
The protests and general strikes sweeping through Israel imply that what has been for a long time viewed as a challenge is, in fact, an opportunity. Important as they are, I am not referring here to shared ideals of equality and coexistence, but, rather, to something much more pragmatic: shared interests. There is potential for the development and cultivation of the still unarticulated solidarity among Palestinians, who have been further oppressed under the policies of the current government, Arab Israelis, and the secular Jewish population of Israel, who find the ideological climate and the political conditions imposed upon them intolerable. A struggle for a genuinely democratic character of Israel is, in other words, inseparable from a vigorous, bottom-up peace process, capable of reconfiguring the shape of the country and of yielding a long-awaited Palestinian state.