The protest movement can’t unravel the thread of Israel’s unique tapestry

Despite the damage the demonstrators are doing to Israel’s standing and security, the one thing they won’t be able to shake is the underlying health of a society that cares deeply about preserving Judaism, Zionism and—yes—popular culture.

An anti-government protest outside a Tel Aviv retirement home, March 16, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
An anti-government protest outside a Tel Aviv retirement home, March 16, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Photo by Ariel Jerozolomski.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, former adviser at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is an award-winning columnist and senior contributing editor at JNS, as well as co-host, with Amb. Mark Regev, of "Israel Undiplomatic" on JNS-TV. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, and on U.S.-Israel relations. Originally from New York City, she moved to Israel in 1977 and is based in Tel Aviv.

Anybody who lives in and loves Israel is aware of its miraculously beautiful mosaic of inherent paradoxes. It’s Middle Eastern, yet Western; war-torn, yet peace-obsessed; provincial, yet cosmopolitan; frenetic, yet relaxed.

It’s religious, yet secular; conservative, yet woke; judgmental, yet empathic; marriage-oriented, yet a singles’ magnet. And it’s a bureaucratic hell, while also an entrepreneurship heaven.

Aside from all of the above, the tiny state—still young at its soon-to-be 75th birthday—is a major player on the world stage. This is both good and bad news for the Jews.

On the one hand, it means that we managed to return to our ancient homeland and make the literal and figurative desert bloom. On the other, such a miraculous success story, against all odds and surrounding enemies, comes with a price.

Indeed, as is the case with many blessings, this one often feels like a curse. The weight of responsibility—the burden of serving as a “light unto the nations”—is only part of it.

Perhaps a greater difficulty for a once-scattered nation demonized and slaughtered in the Diaspora is the realization that the “ingathering of exiles” didn’t put an end to envy-sparked antisemitism. On the contrary, what the late historian Robert Wistrich called the “longest hatred” was simply transferred to the Jewish nation-state under the cloak of “legitimate criticism.”

“Dear God, I know, I know, we are the chosen people, but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” cries Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

It’s not for nothing that this tragically funny line resonates with most of the tribe. Memorialized by Israeli actor Chaim Topol, whose stage-and-screen portrayal of Sholom Aleichem’s character earned him international accolades, it sums up our collective gripe in a nutshell.

Sadly, Topol died earlier this month at his home in Tel Aviv at the age of 87. Despite the political rift and mass demonstrations going on there and in other Israeli cities, prominent figures across the spectrum paid tribute to the award-winning actor.

The outpouring of appreciation was for more than his illustrious career, however. Through his performances as Tevye, the quintessential “Sabra,” who was born in Mandatory Palestine some 12 years before the establishment of the state, represented a merging of Jewish cultures—a thread connecting the tapestry of the “Old Country” to the new.

Today’s protesters against the government in Jerusalem are threatening to unravel that thread. Claims by the movement’s leaders about rescuing Israeli democracy from imminent demise are false.

The root of their rebellion really lies in an aversion to the right-wing-religious coalition and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their placards, slogans, chants and epithets make this abundantly clear.

Unfortunately, the campaign has had an effect on many well-intentioned members of society whose familiarity with the reforms is as minimal as their concern (or gullibility) is genuine. Nor do these fellow travelers seem to grasp that nothing short of a coup will satisfy the forces trying to bring down Netanyahu and his partners.

This is precisely why the architects of the endeavor are accusing the democratically elected powers-that-be of staging one. It’s a neat trick of projection, reminiscent of Soviet-inspired Palestinian propaganda, a key element of which is charging Israel with its own crimes. Oh, and enlisting support from the international community by inverting victim and perpetrator.

Observers at home and abroad of the current crisis fear—or hope—that Israel is headed for a full-fledged civil war. Hearing members of Israel’s military and other security forces join the fray by announcing their refusal to fulfill their duties causes them to consider this a real possibility; watching thousands of Israelis march to the beat of former prime ministers and defense officials calling on foreign governments to censure Netanyahu will do that.

What the ill-wishers purposely obfuscate, and the pearl-clutchers don’t take into account, is the way in which average citizens are going about their daily lives behind the lens of TV news cameras. This is certainly true of citizens who have little interest in and no clue about how the branches of government operate. But even activists are hard to discern at supermarket check-out lines and bus stops.

On Thursday night, for instance, as the so-called “Day of Resistance” came to a close, every trendy restaurant, bar and nightclub in the White City was packed to the brim with millennials eating, drinking and making merry. When I pointed this out to a friend, she quipped: “All that demonstrating must have made them hungry and thirsty.”

It’s unclear, though, whether this particular crowd—munching happily on shrimp and pork—had taken part in the protests at all. In fact, according to a recent Direct Polls survey, the civil “unrest” is populated mainly by silver-haired boomers. You know, the ones who think they’re at Woodstock or something.

In a lopsided debate (what else is new?) with two left-wingers, I cited this example of the “life goes on” resilience that’s characteristic of Israelis in the face of adversity. Their response was that the people I was referring to won’t be able to be out enjoying themselves, and certainly not in non-kosher establishments, if the government clips the wings of the Supreme Court.


“Ok,” I said. “So, you and the rest of the protesters can try to change the situation during the next elections.”

Their humorless answer was hilarious. If the judicial reforms proceed, they argued, elections will be banned.

It was a ludicrous pronouncement that Opposition leader Yair Lapid had made several days earlier. It’s baseless hype that he and the pundits parroting him know to be nonsense.

Despite the damage they’re doing to Israel’s standing and security, the one thing they won’t be able to shake is the underlying health of a society that cares deeply about preserving Judaism, Zionism and—yes—popular culture. Faith in this unique blend, which the over-reaching judiciary has been attempting to dilute, is what the majority reasserted at the ballot box on Nov. 1.

Voters must not be bullied into forgetting it. It’s no accident, after all, that Israel just ranked No. 4 in the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network report on world happiness.

Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and commentator. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, as well as on U.S.-Israel relations. The winner of the Louis Rappaport award for excellence in commentary, she is the author of the book “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ” 

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