Both sides of Israel’s judicial demonstrations are calling for ‘democracy’, but for Jews only

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  /  September 18, 2023

Both sides of the Israeli judicial overhaul debate claim to be upholding the mantle of “democracy.” But because they are also defending the idea of the “Jewish state,” both are simply enforcing apartheid.

The Israeli Supreme Court has begun convening a full 15-judge panel to consider petitions to overturn government legislation, in particular, the cancellation of the “reasonableness clause” — a tool through which the judiciary could overrule government practice or legislation, as well as other aspects pertaining to the current judicial overhaul. The deliberations will take weeks if not months. 

Ahead of that, on September 7, supporters of the government gathered in Jerusalem by the tens of thousands in order to press the Supreme Court not to intervene. 

The Israeli right-wing has long charged that the Supreme Court uses its judgment of what is “reasonable” to disqualify the will of the people, the Israeli voting public, thus interfering in democratic political processes. While the left and center have argued that the clause was a necessary democratic counter to the legislative and executive branches, the right says these powers actually hamper democracy. 

In other words, both are arguing in defense of a supposed democratic principle.

The demonstration on September 7 was an eerie mixture of outright murderous Jewish supremacist fascism, mixed with these repeated self-righteous calls for “democracy.” There was a considerable amount of people waving signs hailing known Jewish terrorists, such as posters that read “Yigal Amir was right” (Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin in 1995), “Baruch Goldstein was right” (who massacred 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994), and “Amiram Ben Uliel was right” (who torched and burned alive the Dawabsheh family in Duma in 2015). 

Still, the leaders in attendance, including various ministers, spoke of democracy, threatening those who would supposedly upend it. 

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism, who is also the de facto governor of the West Bank through a special ministerial post, warned the President of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, “Don’t you dare disqualify Basic Laws!” 

Smotrich was referring to the fact that the “reasonableness law” that passed in July, which curtailed the powers of the Supreme Court, is actually an amendment to a quasi-constitutional “basic law” governing the judiciary.

He added: 

“Even if you think that the amendments that we are carrying out in the judiciary are wrong, and even if you think they should be done otherwise, disqualification of a Basic Law means an end to Israeli democracy.”

Hasbara Minister Galit Distel-Atbaryan (Likud) warned Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara that “If you throw our choice to the trash bin, you are messing with me!” and ended her speech with a promise to bring “liberty, equality, and democracy to the state of Israel.” 

Minister of Settlement and National Missions Orit Strock of Religious Zionism went even further, laying claim to her version of “true” democracy: “You are right in wanting governance. We came here to clarify that even if they call dictatorship ‘democracy’ a thousand times — we will not forget what democracy really is. We will not forget what our voters sent us to do, we will deliver what you sent us to bring.” 

The Minister for Advancement of the Status of Women and self-described “proud racist” Mai Golan also chimed in on the rush to defend democracy, calling those who protest against the government’s judicial overhaul “democtators” and accused them of “blasphemy against the term democracy.”

Echoes of 1995

Some people online saw strong associations to the Likud demonstration in 1995 protesting the Oslo Accords, at Zion Square in Jerusalem, where people were waving placards featuring Yitzhak Rabin in Nazi uniform. Benjamin Netanyahu waved to that crowd from his balcony, and it was widely perceived to have been a direct leadup and incitement towards the murder of Rabin just a month later. At that time, a nineteen-year-old, who is now Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was seen with a Cadillac emblem stolen from Rabin’s car, saying “we got to his car – we’ll get to him too”. 

Noga Eitan, political scientist at the Hebrew University, tweeted following the current demonstration: 

“What happened at the rightwing demonstration is that Judeo-Nazis walked around with pride and with revealed faces, with placards and stickers that justified murder (that of Rabin and that of Palestinian babies), while senior ministers threatened the President of the Supreme Court and the State Attorney. A million times more than Zion Square. For the record.”     

Even if there was no explicit call for the murder of Supreme Court President Esther Hayut at the rally, the combined message is chilling, and indeed threatening. 

Appropriating ‘democracy’

“DEMOCRACY” has been the main slogan of the protests against the judicial “reform” — what the protesters consider an overhaul or coup. They have been arguing that Israel’s core democratic tenets are being destroyed — but alas, their main concern has been the preservation of the “Jewish and democratic” construct, which is a foundation of Israel’s apartheid. As Palestinian-Israeli lawmaker Ahmad Tibi quipped in 2009, what the “Jewish and democratic” state means in practice is that it is “Democratic toward Jews, and Jewish toward Arabs.” 

Because the “Jewish and democratic” veil for apartheid is so thin, in a sense it is not so surprising that Jewish supremacists are able to co-opt it. After all, how could Zionists of the center and the left reject the right-wing claim to democracy when they themselves cannot honestly say that they want true democracy for all, which would be anathema to Zionism ? 

But the “democracy” protesters were also very concerned that the loss of this so-called “democratic” semblance may see Israeli war criminals face international prosecution at The Hague. 

It is easy to scoff when Hasbara Minister Galit Distel-Atbaryan promises to uphold “liberty, equality, and democracy,” yet because of the battering that “democracy” has taken under the stewardship of the Zionist center-left, virtually no one within the Israeli political sphere will say that democracy needs to be extended to Palestinians. In fact, Distel-Atbaryan is so crass and engrossed in fascist self-righteousness, that she can inadvertently end up spelling out that Zionists are “a pack of thieves” while saying that all we need is to explain how we are “ancient owners.” She doesn’t even appear to get the irony. 

People like her are in power now, and they are bringing to the fore a screeching cognitive dissonance that claims “democracy” while demanding racist Jewish supremacist values.

Democracy or Jewish Kingdom ?

The pure Kahanist ideology, which influences several of these politicians and certainly the hailed terrorists, is strictly and explicitly anathema to democracy. Meir Kahane’s ideology was based on turning Israel into an halacha (religious law) kingdom. In an interview in 1987, he said “Judaism does not accept democracy unless it is within a structure that adheres to the law of the Torah.” On the question of whether such a state would still ensure freedom of speech, he answered: “Of course not! In a religious state, there can be no such freedom.”

Baruch Goldstein, the Ibrahimi mosque mass murderer, was a devoted Kahane disciple and followed these principles. The ‘Hilltop youth’ from which Amiram Ben Uliel, the Duma arsonist, stems is all about re-establishing a “Jewish kingdom”. The Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, also a Kahane disciple (and Goldstein admirer), has been defending these hilltop youths numerous times in court – he calls the torchers of Palestinian villages “sweet boys”. Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, also claimed he acted according to “Jewish law.” 

And even Bezalel Smotrich, in 2019 (then as Transportation Minister) said that “we would all like the state to act according to the Torah and halacha.”

So the longing for a non-democratic, halacha state is deep in the ideology of the current government and those who adamantly speak of “democracy.” And this is why it’s entirely unconvincing when these right-wingers shout “democracy.”

But there is, of course, another problem – that the “democracy” that the center-left cry for is also not a real democracy – they want to preserve the ‘Jewish and democratic’ state, which is an apartheid construct.

In that Meir Kahane interview mentioned earlier, he actually addressed Zionism in relation to democracy, and said outright: “You can’t have Zionism and democracy at the same time.” It may be shocking, but he was right, and that’s the very sad reality, that there is no actual democratic option in the apartheid state from the river to the sea. And thus, the competition for ‘democracy’ in Israel is between two parties which do not believe in democracy in the first place. 

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark