Thousands rally in Tel Aviv to protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government and judicial overhaul, Jan. 7, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Matan Golan-SOPA Images-LightRocket via Getty Images)
Thousands rally in Tel Aviv to protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government and judicial overhaul, Jan. 7, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Matan Golan-SOPA Images-LightRocket via Getty Images)

Israel is headed for a revolution — but whose?

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I recently returned from a nine-day trip to Israel, where the current political crisis was the inevitable subject of dozens of conversations with Israelis across the political spectrum.

These conversations left an indelible impression: Israel is in a revolutionary moment, but no one knows what direction that revolution may take.

Will the constitutional reforms neutering the Supreme Court and other laws promoted by the new government dismantle Israeli democracy, or will the mass opposition to them topple the government?

Never, except in times of war, has the country felt more mobilized. But now, as opposed to crises of national security, the divisions are so deep as to seem unbridgeable.

On my first night in Jerusalem, I attended a reunion with seven professors of Jewish studies from different Israeli universities. We had worked together for four summers to write a jointly authored book and had become friends bound together by mutual respect. One of them had voted for the Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich. The others had voted for parties either in the center or left.

We managed to avoid politics for most of the evening, but an argument was inevitable. While the Religious Zionist voter was willing to concede that the judicial reform was being rushed through too fast and that he disagreed with some parts of it, the discussion rapidly degenerated into a shouting match.

He retreated into the slogans of the right: A liberal elite — the “deep state” — controls the country and it is time they get their comeuppance since they lost the election. Those on the other side also sought refuge in slogans.

Most striking in this argument was not the content but the tone. If these highly intelligent Israelis could not have a civil discussion, then it is no surprise that the country seems on the verge of an abyss.

I covered a great deal of Israel in only nine days, meeting people in the Tel Aviv area and in the north. One person with whom I had lunch was a public intellectual from a well-known family. Her son organized one of the earliest demonstrations of university students and is now part of the committee that is behind the weekly protests.

She and her husband, a professor of law, have taken part in semi-secret meetings convened by President Isaac Herzog to try to find a compromise solution. But Herzog has become increasingly frustrated and finally abandoned his position as mediator by denouncing the legal reforms, as they are now written, as proposals that “need to disappear from the world.”

Most of those I met were out demonstrating. Clearly, the size and fervor of the demonstrations had an electrifying effect, creating a sense of political community that no one expected. Instead of waning, the demonstrations have grown by the week.

Some have taken part specifically in demonstrations of reserve soldiers, highlighting the centrality of the military in Israeli society. One friend who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the reserves told me that he always had a list as long as his arm for why young people should remain in Israel. Now, he said, the list has shrunk to a third of his little finger.

The current coalition is driven by grievances against the old Zionist elite, even though that elite has not been in power since 1977.

Not that he thought it would do any good, but he sent the insignia of his rank back to the army and said he didn’t want to keep them in a dictatorship.

Not everyone is in the streets, however.

One colleague who runs a school for students on the spectrum identifies with the far left and, for him, the demonstrations are too nationalistic. Demonstrators use the Israeli flag, a sign for him that they, no less than the right, believe in Jewish supremacy over Palestinians, who seemingly aren’t welcome in the fight for democracy.

A number of people, including a retired professor of German history, argued that the Occupation was the original sin and there could not be a democracy in Israel as long as the Palestinians are a subjugated people. Certainly, the settler pogrom in Hawara, which took place Feb. 26, the night I flew to Israel, has focused acute attention on the way right-wing politics within Israel cannot be separated from the Palestinian question.

Perhaps most radical is a physicist who spent his whole career doing top-secret work in Israel’s armaments R&D unit, has cut off his subscription to the newspaper, doesn’t watch the news and certainly does not demonstrate. His view is that if Israel has chosen Netanyahu, he doesn’t want any part of it.

Others took the long view.

A best-selling Israeli author has also not joined the demonstrations because, in his view, even if the current judicial coup fails, it will only postpone the inevitable by a few years: The demographic explosion in the religious world — ultra-Orthodox and national religious — will swamp the liberal population and create a nationalistic, theocratic state. He is as pessimistic as anyone I spoke to.

One of the kibbutz movement’s leading historians and ideologues, meanwhile, pointed out that the fight over the Supreme Court is symbolic at best.

What really is at stake is the kind of state Israel will be. While the founders of the Zionist movement imagined a largely secular, European-style state, Israel today is much more diverse and fragmented.

The current coalition is driven by grievances against the old Zionist elite, even though that elite has not been in power that much since Menachem Begin’s electoral victory in 1977. Moreover, the Likud, the party that Begin led, has evolved in the same direction as the U.S. Republican Party — toward a kind of authoritarianism.

Finally, in a gathering of old comrades from the Jewish student movement in Berkeley in the 1970s who now live in Israel, I posed a question: “How many of you thought 50 years ago that we might end up where we are today?” Not a single one thought so.

That, by itself, testifies to the degree to which many Israelis — regardless of their political positions and also regardless of how the forces at work today were certainly visible decades ago — have found themselves in an unexpected state of crisis.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

David Biale
David Biale

David Biale is emeritus Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of History at UC Davis.