The struggle brewing inside Israel’s anti-government movement

Activists march in the radical bloc at an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv, January 7, 2023 (Ahmad al-Baz)

Haggai Matar

+972 Magazine  /  January 12, 2023

The far-right coalition has already provoked broad resistance from within Israeli society — but Palestine remains the elephant in the room.

Almost two years ago, on the eve of the March 2021 election, Israel’s leading satirical television show “Eretz Nehederet” ran a sketch titled “Shauli’s Solution,” in which Shauli, a beloved character who represents the middle-class Israeli everyman sits down for an interview alongside his wife, Irena, to discuss the political deadlock that had sent the country to its (then) fourth election in two years. “We urgently need a civil war,” he says. “I say this with pain, but yes. There is simply no chemistry among the people. We cannot get along.”

Shauli details his plans for the war to come: “We all know how to fight. Everybody was in the army, everybody has the gear needed at home … Mizrahim should fight Ashkenazim, right-wingers against leftists, the rich against the poor, Haredim against secular Israelis — I don’t care … Except for the Arabs [Palestinians] . We fought you guys for long enough and it brought us nothing. You sit this one out. If you want, you can fight the winner.”

The clip immediately went viral, with many feeling that, against the backdrop of a deeply polarized society and seemingly endless rounds of elections, “Eretz Nehederet” had tapped into something deeper that was coursing through Israeli society. Now, with the formation of the most far-right government in Israel’s history, the video is enjoying a revival.

On Tuesday, Benny Gantz, until recently the defense minister and previously the chief of staff of the Israeli army, warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he is dragging the country into civil war. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has already called for “civil disobedience” against this government. Other retired high-ranking generals, as well as opposition leaderspunditseducators, and jurists have made similar statements. (In response, two members of the coalition called for the arrest of opposition leaders for treason.)

What has triggered these statements is a combination of the government’s proposed assault on LGBTQ+ rights, its plan to overhaul the law enforcement and education systems, and, most prominently, its proposals for “reform” of the judiciary. Newly-appointed Justice Minister Yariv Levin and the Knesset’s Constitutional Committee Chair Simcha Rothman have stated their intention to further politicize the process for electing judges, offering the government full control of appointments; deepen the government’s involvement in the election of the High Court’s Chief Justice; make it more difficult for the Supreme Court to strike down bills and allow the Knesset to overturn such rulings, in effect canceling judicial oversight of lawmakers; turn legal advisors to public ministries into personal appointments of the ministers, and absolve ministers of the requirement to abide by their legal advisors’ guidance; and weakening the position of the legal advisor to the government, thus allowing the government to create a new position of state prosecutor.

A burgeoning resistance movement

Those opposing these steps are about more than just talk. Last Saturday, around 30,000 people marched against the new government in Tel Aviv, in what was one of the largest demonstrations in Israel in the last decade. The protest, organized by the left-wing Standing Together movement, took place under the slogan, “This is the home of all of us” — a direct rebuttal to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s dog-whistle election campaign slogan, “Who here is the lord of the land?” (implying that the answer is “only Jews”). The demonstration ended with speeches outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art by members of Knesset Ayman Odeh (Hadash) and Naama Lazimi (Labor), alongside activists from Standing Together, and more veteran groups such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Breaking the Silence. The demonstration also included people who have generally been more careful about making public political statements, such as Avi Himi, the chairman of the Israel Bar Association, who held little back when he told the audience that this government is promoting “racist” and “dictatorial policies,” and called for a “struggle for democracy.”

The protest on Saturday also included a smaller, more radical bloc of Israeli demonstrators, who held banners and signs against Israeli apartheid and colonialism, as well as Palestinian flags. A day later, and just a few days after Palestinians in the north of the country welcomed political prisoner Karim Younis back home after 40 years in prison with Palestinian flags, National Security Minister Ben Gvir instructed the police commissioner to ban the raising of the Palestinian flag in public, and called for expanding the drastic measures that can be taken to prevent future demonstrations. This has led even more people, including leaders from nearly every political party in the opposition, to commit to showing up to a similar demonstration expected to take place this coming weekend.

These demonstrations, likely the first of many, are but one of several forms of resistance Israel has seen in recent weeks. To name just a few:

  • The education rebellion.Dozens of municipalities, hundreds of schools, and thousands of teachers have vowed to reject the new government’s steps against LGBTQ+ people in schools and its plans to continue funding Haredi schools that refuse to teach the core curriculum (such as math and English). Organizers are working to get wealthier municipalities to help fund liberal education in poorer municipalities that are interested, in the event that the government cuts off funding. The coalition, in response, is already threatening to punish the municipalities that have pledged to take up this call.
  • Boycotting the boycotters.Following the announcement that the government will try to pass a law allowing doctors to deny care and businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ+ people, dozens of corporations, including one major bank, several insurance firms, high-tech companies, hotels, hospitals, and law firms have put in place new internal regulations to block all business with people and organizations that boycott people over their sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or nationality.
  • Unions getting organized.Several unions have also joined these calls, with some putting in place measures to protect LGBTQ+ workers who might be targeted by authorities. Meanwhile, the Histadrut, the country’s largest union federation, is organizing a nationwide struggle against the new government’s plans for the economy.
  • Conscientious objection.As Oren Ziv recently reported for +972, civil society groups offering support to conscientious objectors have seen a spike in the number of people turning to them for guidance in recent weeks. Since then, Ram Cohen, a leading Israeli educator and former high school principal, has called on teenagers to refuse to enlist in the army, while former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon called on police to disobey Ben Gvir’s orders to attack demonstrators.
  • The judiciary fights back.While the Israel Bar Association is gearing up for battle, hundreds of lawyers and former judges went on strike on Thursday and demonstrated outside courthouses across the country. Meanwhile, President Isaac Herzog said he was concerned by steps the government is taking to defang the judicial system, and several reports claimed that Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Esther Hayut, were threatening to resign if the planned reforms were to pass.

All this, and not yet three weeks have passed since the government was sworn in.

A chasm opens up

Palestinians, for their part, have so far mostly been sitting this one out. While many Jewish Israelis are mourning, terrified, or enraged over the barrage of illiberal legislation that they see as signifying the “end of Israeli democracy,” most Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line never saw the regime as a democracy to begin with. In the words of MK Ahmad Tibi, “this is a Jewish Democracy: democratic for Jews, and Jewish for Arabs [Palestinians].”

This gap in attitudes toward the new government, and more broadly toward the entire nature of the regime, is deeply evident in the current protest movement. At Saturday night’s demonstration, several people carrying Palestinian flags or chanting anti-apartheid slogans were repeatedly reproached — and at times physically confronted — by other demonstrators for “diverting” the messaging from “defending Israeli democracy” to issues such as the occupation. When Odeh or Palestinian activists from Standing Together took to the stage, some yelled that they didn’t want Arabs [Palestinians] in the demonstration, and that the occupation should play no part in the protest. The organizers doubled down on their commitment to a “home for all of us,” and clarified that the country they are fighting for is one without a military regime and racist discrimination. “This struggle is for all of us — against fascism,” Odeh told the crowd. “Arabs [Palestinians] and democratic Jews together. There will be no democracy without solidarity.”

This coming weekend, a left-wing coalition led by Standing Together will demonstrate in the Bedouin city of Rahat, in an attempt to build shared Palestinian-Jewish resistance to the government around the country. Meanwhile, the “centrist” opposition parties will try to move the struggle away from any talk about apartheid, aiming to create a “broad common ground” for the fight ahead. Some in that bloc, such as the right-wing anti-Netanyahu politician Avigdor Lieberman, announced they would not join the protest out of fear that some demonstrators will insist on anti-apartheid rhetoric, which will turn away these politicians’ base. Meanwhile, in the Knesset, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid admitted he was boycotting the Palestinian Hadash-Ta’al alliance and barring it from joining opposition meetings, accusing it of “working with Likud, not with the opposition.”

These divisions are the nascent movement’s Achilles’ heel — a struggle within the struggle to define where we go from here. So let’s be clear: a democracy for Jews only is no democracy at all, and a struggle to sustain the existing system of apartheid is both deeply immoral and will understandably continue to face resistance from Palestinians so long as it exists. Such a struggle is also self-defeating: in a deeply polarized society, where there is very little movement between the pro-Netanyahu and the anti-Netanyahu bloc, the only way to end the right’s rule — in simple mathematical terms, given the votes needed to form an alternative government — is through Jewish-Palestinian partnership. Since Palestinians cannot be expected to give up on their most basic rights, such a partnership will only arise if Jewish liberals are willing to abandon their privilege and supremacy, and join Palestinians in the demand for full equality, liberation, and democracy for everyone between the river and the sea. Without such an alliance, the Netanyahu-Ben Gvir camp could remain in power indefinitely.

Haggai Matar is an award-winning Israeli journalist and political activist, and is the executive director of +972 Magazine