This 2024 - Let's Win the Battle of Headlines
column

Israel’s protests are now crossing sacred red lines

The battle is existential and reflects a similar struggle in the West.

Thousands of Israelis protest against judicial reform at the Azrieli junction in Tel Aviv, April 8, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Thousands of Israelis protest against judicial reform at the Azrieli junction in Tel Aviv, April 8, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir, Guardian Angel, has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy, in 2018. To access her work, go to: melaniephillips.substack.com.

Israel’s three-month-old protest movement, which has repeatedly brought tens of thousands into the streets, is now crossing an increasing number of red lines.

There are serious anxieties that protests will disrupt next week’s Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Independence Day ceremonies.

At a Holocaust Remembrance Day synagogue service this week, anti-government participants forced Likud MK Boaz Bismuth to leave after they shouted at him to get out and started to become physically violent.

The leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, announced that because the government had “divided society,” he would boycott the traditional torch-lighting ceremony that ends Memorial Day and opens Independence Day.

It was hitherto unthinkable that Israelis could desecrate those three sacred days. It was similarly unthinkable for soldiers of the IDF to refuse to serve their country, as did a group of elite Air Force pilots in protest against the government.

Even the memory of the Shoah is being traduced. On an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to New York on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the pilot announced, “Things like [the] Holocaust are potentially carried [out] in a dictatorship, and we are fighting in Israel to remain a democratic country.”

On the same day, in another obscene equivalence, a ceremony at the Mateh Asher Regional Council displayed pictures from the Holocaust alongside photographs from the protests.

It should be apparent to rational observers that this has gone way beyond the issue of judicial reform. That particular agenda is now all but dead in the water. The government has retreated. Yet the protests are not only continuing but are becoming increasingly disturbing.

This is because judicial reform is a flashpoint for profound divisions that have previously escaped attention but have now erupted.

The Israeli protests are being fed by several different agendas. Some people oppose the judicial reforms because they believe the judiciary provides the only check on political power. Some want to bring down Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Some are frightened by religious or nationalist extremists in the government.

The deeper reason, one that connects all of the above, is secular Israel’s onslaught against Jewish religiosity in the public square.

For this, religious leaders bear significant responsibility. The reformist Orthodox Rabbi David Stav has warned that the extremism of the religious Zionist bloc has caused a dangerous rift in Judaism and Israeli society.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “some of our leaders, elected officials and rabbis speak in a tone that frightens many people in Israeli society—and rightfully so.”

However, secular Israelis are intolerant of all Orthodox religious observance. When a Jewish prayer service was held in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square to celebrate Passover, the city’s Deputy Mayor Reuven Ladyansky attacked it as a “scandal” and demanded that “the organizers be fined in the most severe way possible” because they had separated men from women.

In Tablet, Liel Liebovitz reported that one of Tel Aviv’s protest organizers told him: “We’re here because we want this to be a normal state, you understand? Just like the United States or France or Germany. We don’t want this country to be taken over by those fanatics with their beards and their religion.”

As Rabbi Stav observed, many religious Israelis are now afraid to wear their kippah at their workplace because the “forceful and violent” rhetoric from secular Israelis has made the atmosphere so toxic.

Obviously, this tumult reflects the ambiguity over national identity that’s remained unresolved since Israel’s rebirth in 1948. Was the new Jewish state to be a recovery of Judaism’s ancient religious calling, or would the “new Jews” who replaced religion with secular values repudiate that calling?

These secular Israeli “New Jews” view themselves and their country as no different from other peoples or countries. That’s why they sign up to the universalist principles promoted by the “human rights”-driven judiciary. The erosion of the judiciary’s power is therefore intolerable.

But Judaism, the most particularist of creeds, stands in direct opposition to universalism.

Judaism created the nation-state that universalism seeks to destroy. Jewish human rights are created from the network of duties that form a civilized community and nation. Modern, secular “human rights” have no such prior network of duties and instead divide people into groups warring for power.

Jews can never be the same as other peoples. Israel, like the Jewish people, is unique. If it tore up its ancient identity, it would tear up the reason for its existence as a Jewish state.

In America, liberal Jews have embraced secular ideologies inimical to Judaism. As a result, Jewish identification is dwindling and America’s Jewish community is being inexorably reduced to a small rump of the truly observant.

A similar process is happening more broadly in the West. For decades, it has been subjected to a sustained onslaught on its cultural inheritance of laws, morality and traditions based on the Hebrew Bible, in an attempt to replace them with supposedly universal principles intended to bring about the brotherhood of man.

This has both eroded the West’s internal cohesion and undermined its defenses against the enemies of civilization. Western liberals deem these enemies victims of the powerful, and thus excuse their violence and other misdeeds.

These liberals believe that if they are nice to their enemies, their enemies will lay down their weapons and chant “kumbaya.” That’s why U.S. Democrats grovel to the genocidal fanatics of Iran and pressure Israel to kowtow to the Palestinian Arabs, incentivizing their agenda of exterminating the Jewish state.

This attitude also dominates Israel’s military and official classes, among whom the “Oslo” mindset—which held that the Palestinian Arabs will end their aggression if offered a state of their own—still endures despite the destruction of that fantasy.

Of course, when rockets start flying from Gaza or Lebanon, the IDF responds appropriately. But in the daily war of attrition by Palestinian Arabs in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, Israeli soldiers are told to enforce “normal life” for the Arab residents.

So, instead of doing everything possible to save the lives of Israeli citizens, the soldiers refrain as far as possible from any action that may disrupt normal Arab life.

Unless soldiers endorse this mindset, they come up against a promotional glass ceiling. That’s an important reason why so many senior officers have such liberal views.

This amounts to the same unadmitted but devastating cultural pressure that exists in Western universities and other cultural institutions and ensures that anyone who dissents from prevailing liberal shibboleths is pushed out.

It is impossible to understand the tumult in Israel without understanding that it is a rerun of a battle that goes back to the earliest days of the Jewish people—the titanic struggle between paganism and Jewish monotheism; between universalism and Jewish particularism; between Jewish Hellenists and those desperately defending Mosaic law against the manifold seductions of Greek culture.

The battle over Greek Hellenism fatally undermined the Jews’ defense against their enemies and led to their expulsion from ancient Israel. A direct line can be traced from today’s Western progressives through the 18th century Enlightenment all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

The current onslaught against biblical values and their replacement by secular and even pagan ideologies is sacrificing the West on the altar of identity politics, moral relativism and the retreat of reason.

Israeli secularists are prepared to bring Israel to its knees in order to be like the West at the precise point that the West is going down the tubes.

It’s often said that the Jewish community is the canary in the cultural coal mine. What’s happening in Israel is that the canary is now fighting off an adder it hadn’t noticed was coiled up inside its cage.

The fate of the Jewish canary should be of acute concern to the West, to which that adder belongs.

Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir “Guardian Angel” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy.” Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Topics
Comments
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates