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A nation torn apart

The battle over judicial reforms threatens Israel itself.

Israelis block a road and clash with police as they protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. Photo: Erik Marmor/Flash90.
Israelis block a road and clash with police as they protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. Photo: Erik Marmor/Flash90.
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern is the founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a think tank that specializes in the Middle East. She is the author of Saudi Arabia and the Global Terrorist Network (2011).  

I have made some 100 trips to Israel and never before have I left it with such a feeling of sadness in my heart. For more than 75 years, people have sacrificed everything to see the resurrection of an independent Jewish state in our indigenous homeland. Our generation is truly blessed to have the State of Israel resurrected within our lifetimes.

Yet over the week I was there, I witnessed the delicate fabric of this nation fraying at the seams. It appears that a genuine culture war with deep sociological roots is underway. Two nations with distinct cultural and religious sensitivities and values have emerged, with very little cross-fertilization of ideas.

The streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are brimming with rage. The supposed cause is the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reforms, but the issue goes deeper than that. The demonstrators share a sense of anger against the system, a deeply-held suspicion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom they view as corrupt, and a fear of executive overreach by his government. They are concerned that the separation of powers will be violated and resent the religious right. In particular, they worry that Israel will become a theocracy due to the pure weight of demographics. So, the protesters have taken to the streets in massive numbers, blocking traffic and Ben-Gurion Airport, and doing anything and everything to disrupt the system.

The protesters are, for the most part, the self-anointed intellectual elite of Israel, mingled with the old Labor left. They have convinced themselves of their own hyperbolic rhetoric, which claims Israel “is no longer a democracy,” and feel they have the academic pedigree and therefore the moral authority to know what’s best for the country. They see the Israeli Supreme Court as a bastion of human rights and liberal democracy that stands up for the oppressed.

It is profoundly tragic that 37 of Israeli Air Force Unit 69’s 40 pilots refused to report for reserve duty because they “do not want to serve a dictatorship.” Reports have proliferated of other officers refusing to serve. The IDF is the instrument of Israel’s survival, so such refusals constitute a serious national security threat.

It is equally tragic that Israeli billionaires are publicly threatening to pull their money out of Israel, saying that the proposed reforms make Israel “a high investment risk.” It took decades to establish Israel’s brand as the “high-tech capital of the world,” only for this to be eroded within days.

Unfortunately, caught up in this frenzied atmosphere of moral indignation and rage, the protesters seem unconcerned about what they’re doing to the state their parents and grandparents worked so hard to establish.

On the other side of this divide are those on the right who have long felt alienated from the leftist oligarchy of the elite—particularly the Supreme Court. These suspicions can be traced back to the sinking of the Altalena, the Irgun ship carrying arms for the newborn State of Israel, which was sunk on the orders of David Ben-Gurion.

The most recent and profoundly traumatic event for this camp was the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, in which approximately 10,000 people were uprooted from their homes. Some protestors against the disengagement spent years in prison awaiting trial, simply for trying to hold on to their homes. Families were forced to live in temporary structures without any means of employment.

Appealing to the Supreme Court proved to be of little or no use in these cases. Thus, many on the right believe that the Supreme Court is dismissive of their genuine concerns.

Justices, they note, are all self-appointed, mostly graduates of the Hebrew University and share the same left-leaning intellectual and judicial perspectives.

Those on the right also know that in almost every other judicial system, judicial appointments involve some input from the executive and legislative branches. They too believe in a separation of powers, but think the Court has long since violated this separation, wildly overstepping its authority.

Last Thursday, while the protests were still going strong, three people dining at a café on Dizengoff Street in the center of Tel Aviv were shot by a terrorist, leaving one victim critically wounded. On Friday morning, the entire world awoke to the news that Iran and Saudi Arabia had formed a new alliance, brokered by Beijing—a tectonic shift in regional politics.

One would hope that such incidents might awaken the divided people of the tiny and fragile State of Israel, prompting them to find common ground and acknowledge that Israel’s many enemies do not ask if Israelis are right-wing or left-wing.

I pray they wake up before it’s too late.

Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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