With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s formation of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, the nation — not unlike the United States after the 2016 election — has taken a sharp turn away from democratic values. Not only has Netanyahu welcomed a virulent racist, Itamar Ben-Gvir, into his Cabinet to oversee internal security, but the prime minister has also launched an assault on the country’s independent judiciary.
Fortunately, Israel’s democracy defenders are fighting back.
More than 100,000 Israelis crowded the streets in Tel Aviv and other cities last weekend to protest measures that would reduce the power of Israel’s Supreme Court to revoke laws passed by Parliament. As the New York Times reports, the changes “would allow the Parliament to override such court decisions with the narrowest majority of 61 out of 120 members.” The result, opponents of the plans charge, would be to “weaken the independence of the top court, severely reduce judicial oversight and remove the protections it provides for minorities.”
Among the speakers at the Tel Aviv demonstration was David Grossman, a highly regarded Israeli author. “The State of Israel was established so that there would be one place in the world where the Jewish person, the Jewish people, would feel at home,” Grossman said. “But if so many Israelis feel like strangers in their own country, obviously something is going wrong.” He added, “Now is the dark hour. Now is the moment to stand up and cry out: This land is in our souls. What happens in it today will determine who it will be and who we and our children will become.”
To borrow a phrase from President Biden, this is a fight for the soul of Israel.
That protest was just the beginning. On Tuesday, hundreds of high-tech workers also staged a protest in Tel Aviv. Then, on Wednesday, hundreds of prizewinning Israeli economists across the political spectrum issued a public letter expressing “deep concern regarding the government’s actions intended to weaken the judicial system and public service’s independence, which we think will cause unprecedented harm to Israel’s economy.” They argued, “The concentration of vast political power in the hands of the ruling group without strong checks and balances could cripple the country’s economy.”
One of the letter’s signatories, Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, said in an interview, “I feel like I’m in a place I don’t know. I’m completely shocked. For me, the end of Israeli democracy is no small thing. It’s the end of a dream.” He went on: “This is not the Israel I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in.” He also warned that pressure would build internationally, saying, “Israel is ostracizing itself from the world to which it belongs. This is no small thing.”
Predictably, Netanyahu rejected the admonitions, insisting in perfect authoritarian doublespeak that he was actually strengthening democracy. That will likely only inflame critics. Fortunately, Netanyahu also suggested there are some bridges that even he won’t cross by abiding by a Supreme Court ruling that he had to remove Aryeh Deri, his interior and health minister, because of his conviction for tax cheating.
In any case, Israeli defenders of democratic values set an important example for friends around the world, especially in the United States. Israel remains a U.S. ally with bipartisan support because the two nations share a common commitment to democracy. Anyone who cheers as Israel succumbs to right-wing authoritarianism must not want the U.S.-Israel relationship to thrive. Equally important, American Jews must be clear that defending an inclusive Jewish identity is essential to preserving diaspora support for Israel. And all Americans should be united in their condemnation of terrorist attacks of the type we saw in a synagogue in East Jerusalem on Friday.
Opposing Netanyahu’s threat to democracy does not mean Americans should give up their commitment to Israel’s security or start supporting the thinly disguised, antisemitic crusades against the country, such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. To the contrary, an effective defense of Israel requires moral clarity and a willingness to criticize authoritarianism, as is needed when other countries (e.g., Hungary and Poland) drift from basis democratic principles.
To the thousands of Israelis fighting to preserve their country’s democracy, we can say, well done.