The Israeli protests have opened a crack in apartheid – our job is to widen it

Rachel Beit Arie

Mondoweiss  /  March 18, 2023

The limits of the protest movement in Israel have been frustrating for those of us focused on ending Palestinian oppression. But it has also created an opportunity to destabilize apartheid. We have to take up this challenge.

For over two months, Israel has been rocked by some of the largest demonstrations in its history, part of a growing protest movement resisting Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government plan for a judicial system overhaul and other legislation. Disguised as a legislative reform intended to limit the Supreme Court’s power, it is, in fact, a regime change planned to award the coalition with almost absolute power and undermine the already intentionally weak judicial review over the Israeli government. The protests still go strong after ten weeks of escalation and are almost unprecedented within Jewish Israeli society in mobilization and the willingness of protestors to confront police and disrupt order. 

To those of us who have been protesting the Israeli regime and its oppression of the Palestinian people for years, this wave of dissent is both perplexing and frustrating. The protestors are calling to “shield our democracy”; they are ferocious in their defense of the high court of justice and of the balance of power.  We know that the same court for decades has approved killing, torture, house demolitions, land confiscations, and deportations of Palestinians. It’s the court that, from the very establishment of the state of Israel, and with very few exceptions, willingly positioned itself as one of the arms of an un-democratic, oppressive regime and provided It with a decent facade. Only last year, the supreme court green-lighted the transfer of thousands of Palestinians from Masafer Yatta, whose lands the army declared a “firing zone,” and this is but one example of dispossession allowed by the court.  

It’s easy then to be cynical towards, dismissive of, or even enraged at those vowing to protect “their democracy” when — like me — you are in the view that this so-called “democracy” is, in fact, a Jewish-supremacist ethnostate built through the dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinian people, from the Nakba in 1948 onward, that it is a society steeped in militarism and disregard to human lives. It’s enraging to read a doctor stating he will, from now on, refuse to serve as a reservist army physician because “for decades we, people who oppose the occupation, served under right-wing governments and in their service did things that were definitely illegal. We knew what we were doing, and we did not refuse orders.” 

Now, this doctor and many others — pilots, officers, and other others — declare they will no longer comply. 

Can anyone trust this sentiment from people who have presented this degree of complicity for so many years? Even now, the dissenters have little to say about the relentless abuse of Palestinians. Most of them seem too happy to continue participating in this abuse as long as it is done under some formally democratic institutions.

Is it but an empty threat towards a government they don’t like? An expression of underlying intra-Zionist class and ethnic relations, namely the reaction of an Ashkenazi liberal elite to what it fears to be some kind of Mizrahi and religious coup? Or is there something new here, perhaps a moment of self-awareness, a genuine ideological shift that could fracture the ongoing dehumanization and abuse of the Palestinian people? Can the spectrum of the protest be widened to include real moral issues, not just formalities? 

Can this be an opening to organize around Palestinian liberation and a shared, secure future for everyone between the river and the sea? The answer is not obvious, but this seed of dissent, however misguided in its utterance, may be a seed of hope as well. 

No one could ever expect that Israeli society, after decades of indoctrination, would wake up to denounce its founding myths without going through a very messy transition.  Where is the hope? Maybe in realizing this: for well over a decade, it seemed like a brutal attack on the Gaza Strip repeatedly served as a way out of complicated internal political situations for different Israeli governments. Every time, and despite speculations, reservists were called, and they answered the call. Two months ago, the question of whether they’ll report to “duty” under this far-right government had an obvious answer: that they will. Now, it’s not so obvious anymore, and this destabilizing movement deserves some attention.  

The protest, especially its main organizers — a loose coalition of veteran groups and civil society organizations — tried to ignore the occupation from the outset, whereas on the ground, anti-occupation groups joined the protest with slogans such as “no democracy with occupation” and “democracy to all, from the river to the sea.”

And then came the pogrom in Huwwara, and overnight the true goals of this government became much more difficult to ignore. 

The so-called judiciary reform is aimed, first and foremost, at expanding the Israeli settler-colonial project in the West Bank. It is Bezalel Smotrich’s life’s work and the reason he was given power by the people who voted for him. It is Netanyahu’s source of power as well and the reason the far right wants to keep him as Prime Minister.  

The settler colonial project is even important to the ultra-orthodox parties in the coalition. Those were once considered moderate but have long since found in West Bank settlements a solution to their communities’ growing housing crisis, and have let racist, xenophobic, and especially anti-Arab sentiments run amok within their communities. None of this is new, and none of this was particularly problematic as far as Israel’s “center-left” camp was concerned.  The Huwwara pogrom made it too clear to ignore for many who have tried their best to turn a blind eye to the realities of the Israeli occupation for decades: the settler-colonial project cannot live alongside a liberal democracy. 

Of course, Palestinians always knew that and have spoken and written volumes about the pretense of “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Solidarity activists, Israelis, and others followed their lead and have pointed out the treatment of Palestinians, the practice of apartheid, and the ideology of Jewish supremacy as the rotten foundation upon which Israeli “democracy” is built. It cannot be said that now this is clear to all. Obviously, many people still refuse to see what is obvious, but it can be said that there is an opening, a crack in the wall of denial most Israelis have hidden behind. 

The task of the hour is to widen this crack as much as possible and push forward the destabilization.

Rachel Beit Arie is the Director of Zochrot, an NGO that has been working since 2002 to expose and disseminate historical information about the Palestinian Nakba in Hebrew, to promote accountability for the Nakba among the Jewish public of Israel and the implementation of the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees