Political arguments are always clarified when people say the quiet part out loud. Such a moment occurred last week on Israeli television when as part of a news panel discussion, Channel 12 host Galit Gutman referred to haredi Jews as “bloodsuckers.”
Gutman’s comments engendered a storm of protest from a broad range of Israeli society, including some members of the opposition as well as the government. But the incident also offers an insight into the political turmoil that has been going on in the Jewish state for the past five months.
The focus on Gutman—who issued a weasel-worded apology about hurting the feelings of haredim rather than acknowledging that her words were not merely offensive but employed a classic trope of antisemitism—is immaterial. However, the model turned television presenter shone a spotlight on the feelings that have been dividing Israeli society. And that’s something that Americans, who have been fed a steady diet of media coverage that characterizes the debate as one that is really about the survival of democracy, need to understand and take to heart.
What’s driving the demonstrations?
The demonstrations that have attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters and intimidated the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into temporarily shelving its proposals for judicial reform have ostensibly been in defense of “democracy.” This movement has generated unprecedented attention and mobilized to threaten the country with ruin should the government legislation be passed. Ostensibly, this was because much of the Israeli population and the media, business, academic, legal and even parts of the security establishments believe that cutting back on the unaccountable power of the Israeli Supreme Court and the legal establishment would lead to the creation of an authoritarian regime.
The spurious claims about judicial reform are deeply felt by the demonstrators. They think that unless left-wing judges are allowed to maintain their power to rule on any issue under any circumstances—and overrule the elected legislature and government with impunity and with no rationale other than their own ideas about what is “reasonable”—democracy is imperiled. Their position is actually antithetical to the basic principles of democracy that hold that the chosen representatives of the majority of the voters should be allowed to govern. But those who identify with the secular left and the country’s ruling elites genuinely believe that unless their particular views prevail, the outcome is inherently undemocratic.
Yet the more one digs deeper into both the discussion and the invective being hurled at the government, which was broadly elected last November, the easier it is to see that a cultural, ethnic and religious divide is driving the protests as much, if not more than, any theoretical arguments about maintaining the power of the courts. Comments (not unlike those of Gutman) have often been made by demonstrators and their sympathizers. The seething contempt for their fellow citizens who gave Netanyahu’s coalition a clear majority in the Knesset is not exactly a well-guarded secret.
The characterization of supporters of the government as “freeloaders,” words often heard about the haredi sector, relates to the fact that a vast majority of their males don’t perform mandatory army service. Many of these men also study Torah full-time rather than hold jobs—an issue equally offensive to other Israelis, who bitterly and not unnaturally resent the burden this places on them to support a growing sector of the population that lives in poverty due in no small measure to this choice.
The backlash against the establishment of the current government was largely because of the influence in it of religious voters, as well as those who are politically right-wing or of Mizrachi origin. Those who supported the National Religious and the Otzma Yehudit Parties, as opposed to the two haredi parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, are among the most likely to serve in the military (even though that alliance’s two leaders, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir did not). But the main focus of the anger of the demonstrators has been about the idea that the haredim have a strong voice in the government.
The opposition in the streets is, for the most part, a movement of secular Ashkenazi Israelis who are economically better off and who are dismayed at the idea that the other half of the country might actually be allowed to govern without being obstructed at every turn by the courts. This speaks to the wellspring of distrust and animosity that one side in the country’s tribal conflict feels about the other. And beyond that it is a fight about whether a secular vision of what a Jewish state should mean can long prevail over one backed by a growing majority that wants it to be more assertively Jewish, while still democratic, even if more voters prefer the latter to the former.
The specific context for the slur was a segment about the debate over the state budget put forward by the government.
The fight over the budget
As with every previous Israeli state budget, it’s a political document whose contents are largely determined by the needs of the governing coalition to satisfy its constituents. In this case, some of the biggest winners are the ultra-Orthodox sectors whose schools and other institutions are being lavished with more funding. Another measure causing controversy is a proposal to move funds from wealthier municipalities to those that are more impoverished, thus benefiting communities remote from the Tel Aviv megalopolis in the center of the country as well as some whose populations are largely religious.
Those are reasonable concerns that point to endemic problems in Israeli society. Still, the anger over this allocation of resources ignores the fact that different governments always rewarded their friends and allies without much concern for whether or not they were justified.
In November 2021, when the “anybody-but-Bibi” government led by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and current opposition leader Yair Lapid passed a budget (the first time an Israeli government had been able to accomplish that feat since 2018), it was a delicate affair that involved payoffs to their constituents. In that case, it was to Arab voters whose Ra’am Party had provided Bennet and Lapid with the voters to topple Netanyahu in June 2021, as well as to a host of other sectors with which they were allied.
If Netanyahu passes this budget, it will be because he is able to accomplish the same balancing act in which government funds will be handed over to those who supply the votes for his coalition, including the haredim.
Nor is the decision by those organizing the weekly demonstrations to switch their focus from opposing judicial reform to opposing the proposed budget allocations much of a surprise.
The talk of democracy has always been a thin facade covering a desire to overturn the results of the November 2022 election in which Netanyahu’s allies received approximately half of the votes and 64 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The protests are—similar to the reaction to the election of former President Donald Trump in 2016—a “resistance” determined to topple the object of their ire by any means possible, fair or foul. Only such a belief could possibly justify the determination of Netanyahu’s opponents to cripple Israel’s economy (by pulling investment out of the country) and its security (by military pilots refusing to do reserve duty) in order to get their way.
They also know that if Netanyahu passes a budget, he is likely to be able to stay in office at least another two years. Whether that will allow him to pass a necessary program of judicial reform that will actually make Israel more rather than less democratic, remains to be seen.
But as Gutman’s bile revealed, the great divide in Israel is not so much an esoteric debate over protesters’ demands to preserve the current judicial supremacy over the legislative branch. It is, instead, a raw contest over political power. The country’s secular elites understand that the religious sector makes up about a quarter of Israel’s electorate and is growing. Whatever the outcome of the battle over the budget or that of judicial reform, this is an argument that will ultimately have to be settled at the ballot box. Those watching this increasingly bitter fight from afar need to look beyond the propagandistic claims about democracy and see the struggle for what it is: a battle not so much about how Israel should be governed but one about who is doing the governing.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.