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Six Stories About the Protests in Israel

The following is a transcript of Episode 132 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news ad ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Monday, March 27, 2023. 

Earlier today I recorded a live webinar trying to respond in real-time to all of the issues facing Israeli society in the midst of protests, judicial reform, and all the rest. Here’s a recording of what I said earlier. Hope you enjoy it. 

Rebecca: Welcome everyone to our session today with Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, presented in response to this moment. I’m Rebecca Starr, director of regional program programming at the Hartman Institute, and I just wanted to make a note that as Yehuda is speaking, if you have questions, there will be an opportunity near the end of our conversation today, time permitting, we’ll do our best to answer as many as we can. Yehuda. 

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Thanks for coming on today. I wanna start by saying if you feel confused or overwhelmed right now by the news coming out of Israel you’re not alone. So thanks for being with us today to talk a little bit and to learn. 

For the last couple of weeks, and especially the last 48 hours or so, it’s been really hard to know where to look to understand what’s going on. I’m reminded of a similar feeling back in May, 2021, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, protests around the change in the status quo on Sheikh Jarrah, and threats to the same on the Temple Mount. It was Ramadan, it was around the time of the Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day flag parade. There was an outbreak of violence on the streets of the so-called mixed cities between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and there were even some rockets from Lebanon. 

I felt a sense of whiplash at that time, and every time I tried to speak about it, and it’s my job to do so, I felt burdened with the sense that any analysis that tried to isolate one issue or one cause from the whirlpool of stories was going to become quickly either biased or inaccurate.

So one option in moments like this is that you simply describe these kinds of situations as complicated. That’s banal, of course, and might be even worse, like a kind of avoidance that affirms the status quo. If you keep telling people that something is hopelessly complicated, then you’re basically telling them don’t try to figure it out. Stay out of it. 

And if you say that kind of thing while protestors are in the street, while politicians are trying to remake a society, well then simply deciding that something is complicated is a decision to be complicit with whatever ultimately emerges on the other end. 

And by the way, the same goes for pointless or not substantive calls for unity right now. So instead, I think the educationally responsible thing to do, which I’m gonna try to do today, is to try to do a little bit of peeling apart the layers and disentangling the stories, for me, honestly, just as much as it is for all of you, to try to embrace the complexity of this moment precisely so that we can be responsible actors in response.

Maybe doing something like this will help us also to better understand the difference between the short-term news events, some of which may be obsolete by the time we finish this webinar today, and the actors who will disappear from the news cycle quicker than we think, to separate from those things from the enduring trends and storylines that will continue to define modern Israel for much longer than we think. 

I’ll also say, personally, it’s been hard for me to be far away from this story as it’s been unfolding. I nearly bought a ticket to Israel last night, and in retrospect, had I done so, I might have found myself stuck at the airport right now in the midst of a national strike and far from home without a plan the week before I need to get back to cook for Seder. So maybe it was the better decision not to go. 

But I hope that today’s webinar and podcasts are productive contributions to this story that implicates all of us and that this work of explaining, which I’m gonna try to do today, is understood by all of us as complementary to the work of protest and actual political change and not an avoidance of it.

In that spirit, I want to dedicate this talk today to my colleagues at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem who are trying to do their jobs and take to the streets when I have the luxury of just doing the first. 

So I wanna suggest that we’re actually right now watching six linked but separate stories unfolding at the same time.

The first story, number one, is that there’s the political narrative of the judicial reform legislation itself, which prompted this crisis. News reports right now are saying that the protests, and especially today’s general strike, have finally worked, and that the legislation will be at least temporarily suspended, but we don’t know that for sure yet, and it’s not clear yet whether the coalition will survive even such a temporary capitulation.

I felt for a few weeks now that the best case scenario for Prime Minister Netanyahu is that the current Knesset not pass these laws before it goes into a Pesach recess. That buys some time and it potentially dulls the protests, slows them down, and it would enable him then to start a negotiation, which inevitably will fail, but then you can blame the opposition when it does. 

At the same time, it does seem unlikely that the coalition will be able to push this through right now, following the public dissent by a number of major Israeli government figures, especially, most importantly, Yoav Gallant, the now-fired Minister of Defense, and in light of the magnitude of the public protest.

But the story of judicial reform was not born just now with this coalition. There’s been criticism of the court system as biased towards the left as part of the talking points of the Israeli right for several decades and has been building up to now like a drumbeat. Now, some of this emanates from the fact that yes, the Israeli Supreme Court has been a protector of individual and minority rights for a few decades now, especially during and following the tenure of Justice Aharon Barak, who strengthened the power of the court exactly for this purpose.

This led to frustration by the right, which has been in actual power for most of the past few decades, because it essentially stymied their efforts to legislate as they would like. So some of this history intersects, this is a long story with a history of ethnic tensions between the former ruling class, white Ashkenazi, and now the majority in Israel, at least a plurality, which is more likely Sephardic working class and religious, which prompts the question about who gets to shape the character of the country.

The Netanyahu government came into power after a series of elections and short-lived governments and entrenched the most right-wing government in history. And it’s clear that they saw a window of opportunity to change the game altogether. There’s a lot more than we can cover here today, but the judicial reform that the government was proposing, is proposing, is sweeping and it constitutes a lot of different elements.

This includes changing the way that judges are appointed, which would give more power to the ruling coalition. It includes changing the rules to allow government ministers to appoint their own legal advisors as opposed to the current system where the legal advisory function is separate and ostensibly neutral, and dramatically changing the nature of judicial review.

But easily the most controversial element, the one that lost members of the coalition, even some of the people who originally wrote some of these proposals and advanced the idea of judicial reform, the most controversial piece was the so-called override clause in which the Knesset could override a Supreme Court decision with a simple 61-seat majority.

This eviscerates the balance of power. If the judicial reform passes a Knesset and then the Supreme Court overturns that law, Israel will face a bonafide constitutional crisis, which is especially vexing for a country without a constitution. But what’s even more important than the reforms themselves are what seems to be driving them and what would come next.

The reason the reforms have such strong backing in the coalition is not because the entire coalition is made up of wonky, libertarian populist lawyers. Rather it’s because it will inevitably be followed by a right-wing legislative shopping spree once the threat of the Supreme Court overturning those laws is taken away. The Ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist parties want to entrench a wide variety of changes to the status quo on issues of religion and state, on annexation, on a whole bunch of other issues, and they correctly understand that this is the path. If you remove the court as an obstacle, you can change the game entirely. 

You’ll remember that this happened in America too. You block Merrick Garland, flip the court, overturn Roe v. Wade, like a bloodless coup. So story number one is about the reforms. It’s about a political strategy, but a political strategy which masks a much bigger ideological conflict in Israel.

If the protests succeed at stopping the reforms now, they will have won this battle, but it’s not clear in the long run whether they will win the larger war. Story number two, if story number one is about the reform, story number two is about the protests. Now, I find the protests totally riveting. I can’t look away. We could spend the whole time here talking about my favorite clip so far, which was of the Israeli Philharmonic out on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv playing Hatikva. 

I’ve been wondering for a few weeks now whether these protests will ultimately resemble something more like the great political upheaval of 1977, which ended decades of left-wing power in Israel and forced a political realignment, or will these protests wind up resembling the 2011 great cottage cheese uprising, which was a burst of political energy and a consumer boycott that brought a few new voices into Israeli politics. But as far as I can tell, didn’t yield lasting political change. The last 48 hours suggest it’s not a flash in the pan and the general strike, in particular, is a really big deal.

But there are two enduring aspects of this story, the story of the protests that we should continue to watch. The first is that we see that there were quite a few Israelis who were politically dormant for longer than they should have been, who are now awake. Maybe it’s because they took for granted that the court ultimately would protect their rights. Maybe they took for granted that they could lose elections without major consequences for their own status and their own identity. And it looks like that era is over. And God bless the realization that if you care about liberal values, you actually have to fight like hell for them. 

So the second subplot of the protests is the iconography itself, the flags, the naked Zionism of all of it. I don’t know that I saw this coming, and I love this too. It’s new and remarkable in part because ideas and ideologies really do matter to societies seeking to repair themselves. And I’ll, I’ll try to say a little bit more about this later on. So story number one is the speed of the judicial reforms, their consequences, and all that lies beneath that. And story number two is the story of the protests, what they signal in terms of the electorate, and what they signal in terms of what they look like. 

Story number three, related to both of these, is just a theory of mine, but it’s about what I want to call reasonableness. One of the judicial reforms themselves are related to what is known as the doctrine of reasonableness. It’s something that the Supreme Court uses for itself as a means of evaluating the legitimacy of a proposed law. In other words, the Supreme Court is allowed to say that a law is unreasonable. I can see both sides of the argument about the doctrine of reasonableness. To its critics, if you don’t sufficiently define what reasonableness means, you’re basically giving the court a get-out-of-jail-free card to do whatever it wants.

But I’m wondering now, watching that public dissent by the defense minister Gallant, watching the resignations by Israeli diplomats abroad, seeing a lot of unlikely people speaking up against these reforms, whether there isn’t now also emerging a doctrine of reasonableness among the Israeli electorate, not just in the court, but among the electorate. 

There’s a lot to not like or to disagree with, with various Israeli politics and policies, but in this moment, it kind of feels like the majority of the population is making a collective declaration of unreasonableness. Not that it’s a standard for the court, but rather that it’s a standard for the people. And the nice thing about unreasonableness, which is the same thing that its critics hate about it, is that you don’t actually need to define it.

And so what does it mean for politics to have such a category for the majority of a population to say, we support what is reasonable and we object to things that we consider unreasonable. And this leads to story number four, the question of what this whole thing is about and also what it’s not about. That is, pretty clearly Palestinians and the occupation.

There’s a lot of leftist frustration on social media, which I think represents a relatively small population, but a noisy one, especially on this side of the water, arguing that the protests are hypocritical because why now, why this, and why not about the foregoing 50-plus years of occupation? And the truth is there actually is a significant Palestinian piece of this story, a little underreported, in spite of some news reports, there are Palestinian citizens of Israel participating in the protests, and they’ve been endorsed, the protests, especially in the last 48 hours, by a number of Palestinian Israeli politicians who usually sit these things out. 

Palestinians, by the way, also stand to be extremely victimized following the passage of judicial reform, both in Israel and in the West Bank. So if you do ever wanna end the occupation and change the status quo, you need to fight against the procedural changes that would entrench it forever. In other words, somebody who may not share leftist politics about the occupation, but knows that in the long run the status quo has to change could be supporting the protest against these judicial reforms because they understand that they need to retain the infrastructure of democracy for the time to in to eventually come for a change in the status quo.

But it’s also true, that can all be right, and it can also be true that the Israeli public can only build the kind of coalition that it’s building right now because it is patently not a referendum on the issue of Palestinian rights. There’s no uniform standard of reasonableness connected to that cause, which would mobilize nearly 7% of the Israeli population. You heard that 7% of the Israeli population, to take to the streets as they did last night. And there’s reason to feel sad about it. 

I see a deep connection between the chaos and lawlessness unleashed by this government and the settler pogrom in Huwara a few weeks ago, which will probably go unpunished. But if the only story was Huwara and there was no judicial reforms, we probably wouldn’t be here today.

Still, even so I think it’s probably a mistake to embrace the positions now being advanced by folks like Mehdi Hassan of MSNBC and others on the left who are using this moment to accuse Israel of hypocrisy, accusing the protestors of claiming to take down an authoritarian government in service of a different authoritarian government.

Cause like I said at the outset, it’s more complicated than that. And those kinds of arguments really seem like ways for people with strong ideological views, this is more important than that, to reinforce those views, and to resist actually interrogating them. The better approach would be, I think, welcome to the protest party, how can we all work together? 

Story number five, I think goes beyond the judicial reform. It’s generalized political chaos in Israel right now, and it’s amateur hour. If you remember, Bibi had to assemble this coalition for his own political survival, and he needs the judicial reform to potentially be able to hurdle the litigation, that pen that’s pending against him personally. This forced him into making a wild set of concessions to invite into government a whole bunch of clowns who do not belong there, and so it is kind of a clown show. 

The cabinet is basically a manel. The police is run by a guy who claims to have been indicted 53 times, who fired the Tel Aviv police chief because he wouldn’t go full Bull Connor on the protestors and now has been forced to reinstate him.

Last week alone, Netanyahu had to apologize to the Jordanian government because a different, one of his ministers gave a speech at a podium that had a map of Israel that included Jordanian territory. He then had to apologize the same day to the United Arab Emirates for comments by a different minister that threatened regional cooperation and the Abraham Accords, and who knows what has happened in the past hour on Twitter while we’ve been here.

You see, Bibi’s genius over the decades has relied on his ability to manage chaos and maintain discipline. Even at times in previous iterations of his governance, when radical legislation advanced out of his coalitions, he usually found a way to let it get through a few readings in the Knesset, get the attention that the extremists need to reinforce their base, and then find a way to get it back into the drawer.

He also relies heavily on the brand of protecting Israel’s security on Israel, standing in the OECD and on the reputation as being the regional peacemaker through the Abraham Accords. But now there’s a run of IDF reservists who don’t wanna serve in the Israeli military, which is a very big deal. And as a result, the IDF yesterday raised the threat level in the country. There are major threats meanwhile to Israel’s economic standing and its stability, and you have to imagine that the Saudis and Emiratis are wondering who’s actually in charge. It’s a dangerous moment. That reminds me a little bit of the Trump days.

Early in the Trump presidency, after he had basically eviscerated the civil service and put into power a whole bunch of ideologues, it felt a little bit like a Tinder box. And the only thing I can look back on January 6th and say positively is that it actually could have been a lot worse. This also means that Bibi might still be able to maneuver around this current crisis, but there could also continue to be government chaos in Israel for the duration of this term.

So finally, the sixth story, the story of us here from afar, and there’s always the case with diaspora Jews, not the most important part of the story of Israel, but not irrelevant either. That’s why I put it sixth. What’s happened in the American Jewish community over the past few weeks is pretty historic as well.

That American Jews stood basically wall to wall against the visit to America by the extremist finance minister Betzalel Smotritch was incredible to see. When even organizations like AIPAC and American Jewish Committee draw a line at meeting with an Israeli minister, it’s meaningful and maybe it’s precedent.

The AJC went further over the weekend praising Yoav Gallant for publicly dissenting against Netanyahu. The closest I remember to a mainstream pro-Israel organization, publicly criticizing the Prime Minister of Israel. We heard Zionist voices getting comfortable with some of the same tactics that we have repudiated for decades, like selling off our Israel bonds or withholding other forms of economic support.

And then you heard from prominent Israelis like Daniel Gordis, Mati Friedman, and my colleague Yossi Klein Halevi imploring American Jews to get angry after decades of telling us to settle down. But equally important is not just American Jewish protest and rage and these responses, but the public recognition now of the important role played by the Kohelet Forum, a right wing is Israeli think tank in advancing these reforms and writing this legislation. 

And the acknowledgment of the support that in that process they’ve received for American Jews. And this is important because for decades there’s been an imbalanced criticism against left-wing American Jews for overstepping our bounds with our philanthropy and worse our opinions in trying to reshape Israeli society. 

Well now it’s now finally more clear. We are involved as American Jews on Israel on both sides of the political map as it should be, as it has always been, and as it should remain. If one result of this moment is that we, American Jews, see ourselves fully implicated in the story and responsible and capable of taking direction and being in partnership with our Israeli allies, I think that ultimately is gonna be good news.

I never quite thought I’d see what Israeli Americans are doing right now en masse, showing up with Israeli flags and singing Israeli folk songs to protest Israeli policy in the American public. It’s about time. This seems like great news for years. I’ve argued that the spectrum of tolerable viewpoints in the American Jewish community about Israel should mirror that of the Nessa, and it shouldn’t be narrower as it now is.

I think that’s good for democracy, but also in the long run, I think that’s gonna be great for Zionism and its ability to keep more of us passionate and engaged. And I think we’ve turned over a new leaf here in the American Jewish community. We talked about the protests, we talked about the reforms. We talked about a doctrine of reasonableness. We talked about the Israeli chaos in the government. We talked about Palestinians. I’m sure there are other sub threads as well. 

But now I wanna ask what’s next? What can we anticipate? What should we look forward to in the next weeks and months? So I’ll tell you one thing that’s scaring me, and two ideas for what might be possible.

So tonight in Israel, as we are here online, literally happening right now, there’s a counter-protest being organized by a whole bunch of organizations on the right and being amplified by the coalition government. It’s the first such major effort as a counter-protest and the language that they’re using, including the phrase, don’t let them steal the election, is hauntingly familiar and deeply dangerous?

Of course there’s the right to protest, right? But I’m scared by this because while there are plenty of people on the principled right, and while I do think there are plausible, serious arguments for certain aspects of judicial reform, there’s also a subclass of people who this coalition relies on for support, who I imagine are also streaming into Jerusalem right now.

The moment something might give a lot of people feel this is a moment where there’s gonna be political change, could also be the moment that is most volatile. One of the things we as Jews do as an act of peoplehood from afar, when we can’t fully control the variables as we pray. Cause I would say if you’re a praying person, tonight’s the time.

But in terms of what’s possible, that’s what is concerning me. And I’ll tell you about what’s possible. Well, so going back to something I said earlier about the protests, if these protests are effective in the long run, it will be, I think, because they will have succeeded at reorganizing and mobilizing the Israeli electorate to think and behave differently than before.

It’s naive to think that Israel will shift left, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be new coalition possibilities either formally in government, or just ideologically among kindred spirits that would include individuals on the center-right to people on the left, all of whom might be able to share some consensus around basic democratic norms like due process and judicial review.

The fact that those ideas are now contested between right and left has the potential to reshuffle the deck of what people understand to be the actual difference between a principled right and a left. And there’s no doubt that the left will also have more to run on in future elections than anyone but Bibi, which has proved to be a failing and negative political strategy.

So that seems possible politically. We’ll go more than that. In November of 2020, Zaid Jilani wrote a piece for Tablet Magazine that was called, “Muslims not only survived, but we thrived.” Jilani argued that the Trump era, which started, if you remember, literally with a Muslim ban, wound up having a net positive galvanizing effect on the Muslim American community in terms of civic engagement and image and media strategy. You had Muslim protagonist characters in new shows on Netflix and Hulu in terms of political involvement and in terms of Muslim American institutional building. 

It doesn’t mean that being in the crosshairs of the American right was good for American Muslims. Nobody would want a repeat of that. But it was a good example of how an existential crisis could create the runway for opportunity for real societal transformation.

And in the same vein, I think it’s critical that this moment,  as we evaluate it, not hinge on whether or not the judicial reform passes because it could not pass now and pass later. I think that is one piece of the story. The whole thing hinges on whether the rules of the game can actually change.

Because look, if elections took place today, you’d probably have a different government in Israel, but it would be weak and we’d merely be burying the issues that divide us just below the surface. If you think that Biden’s victory here in America in 2020 was a definitive repudiation of Trumpism, I have some news for you about 2024. You’re gonna have to do a lot more ideological work to build from this moment, and most of it is long-term. 

One hope I have is that the majority of Israelis who now oppose these reforms, and let me repeat that, it is the majority of Israelis who oppose these reforms, do not immediately, following any short-term victory, turn on one another. Cause social change in the end, and this is a big idea, social change needs sprint strategies like protests, and it needs marathon strategies in education and civic engagement and changing a culture. 

Those strategies in the end are compatible even though they tend to detest each other. The short-termers, the sprinters, look askance at the people running next to them. They look down at them because they’re running slower, because they’re conserving their energy, and they forget to notice that they’re actually wearing the same uniform. How might we create an ecosystem for social change that can win not only in the short run but also in the long run? 

And by the same token, maybe this is also a window of opportunity for the ideology of Zionism as well. So the rise of extremists like Smotrich and Ben Gvir as public ambassadors for that ideology known as religious Zionism, which was once a humanist discourse, the members of Knesset who identified with religious Zionism would’ve characterized themselves as humanists. The fact that those individuals are connected to Religious Zionism as their front faces has actually revived interests by young people and by educators, both in Israel and here in the North American Jewish community to try to take back that conversation. 

There was a series of conferences on the loyal Israeli religious left that is an extraordinary moment, to notice, and it’s starting to happen here in the American Jewish community as well. Besides religious Zionism, it’s true also for liberal Zionism, which is the ideology that comes most close to what diaspora Jews believe about Zionism, about Judaism and liberal values.

This moment is all a gold mine. Maybe it took this crisis for us to ask the first principles question that we should have been asking all along, what was this project of Zionism and this Jewish and Democratic state of Israel all about? What were we trying to do here? What are the things that succeeded and what has gone off course? And how might a continued investment in that very conversation hold us tethered to Israel in the midst of a moment like this, even as the same work holds us accountable to build the Israel that’s meant to be. 

Rebecca, I’d love to get some questions from you. 

Rebecca: Okay. Thank you, Yehuda. It sounds like as you were speaking, Netanyahu actually paused the legislative process, so I think that’s, just know that much of the conversation was, was about that.

But a couple of wonderful questions. The first one has to do with, who is not protesting? Who is not out in the streets in Israel. And then also some questions around different types of things that people are seeing in terms of LGBTQ plus, pink flags, all kinds of different representations at the protests. So I think people were wondering if you could give some clarity on the types of conversations that are happening at protests and who may not be there. 

Yehuda: You know, it’s probably easier to try to get a map of who’s at the protests than try to theorize about who’s not. There’s no question that the dominant site of protests has been in Tel Aviv. That’s not surprising because Tel Aviv has for a long time been the kind of bastion of liberal Israelis and the left. So you would expect that some percentage of that population are people for whom, you know, they might have been protesting anything that came out of the Netanyahu government, although given the fact that we’d never saw anything like this before, even that population had to get animated to participate in response.

The more surprising sight of some of these protests, which I actually think may be statistically small, but still symbolically significant, is that you had protests taking place in Gush Etzion, as part of the settlement blocks, in the West Bank. Who are the individuals who show up for a protest in communities that voted overwhelmingly in favor of the religious Zionist parties, but who said in either I didn’t vote for them and now I’m making that clear to my neighbors. Or I might have voted for them because I identify with religious Zionism, but I didn’t want them to overreach the way that they have. Those, to me, feel like significant gestures.

I think it’s fair to say that whatever we understood about the protests prior to last night is gonna change significantly because the numbers went up so dramatically. That’s aided by the general strike. So one obvious theory is that part of the reason some people didn’t participate in the protest is because they didn’t have the luxury of doing so, but when actually everybody is able to do so, and the numbers go up, it’s not just everyone went on a vacation because of a strike, but the numbers went up, that indicates that it captured a wider swath of the Israeli population than anticipated. 

One of the controversial pieces of that story has to do with Palestinian flags. So Israeli flags have dominated the kind of iconography of it. It is not actually illegal but has been prosecuted as illegal to fly a Palestinian flag in Israel. So oftentimes the police respond to what they consider to be the trigger of a Palestinian flag. 

I am on the team of those who believe that to ban any flags in Israel is dangerously anti-democratic. But at the same time, going back to the effort by many of the protestors to paint their story as a Zionist protest, that’s where you discern some of the tensions between those who would characterize themselves as left and those who would characterize themselves as center, of not of the question of how much does this protest become about a generalized grievance against the government and how much of it is specific to this moment? 

So I think that’s how you explain that. But my Palestinian-Israeli colleagues say, yeah, we’re going to the protests we’re showing up in different ways. It may not be the majority of Palestinian Israelis, but it’s, they’re not not there.

Last thing I’ll say about the thing that just passed, in terms of the pause, there’s a story that I don’t, haven’t confirmed yet, which is that the deal that Netanyahu struck was with Ben Gvir, Itamar Ben Gvir, the Minister of Public Security with various and very dangerous concessions.  to Ben Gvir, including the right to set up a paramilitary of sorts, a militia. If that’s the case, if Netanyahu thinks that he will mollify the protests by giving more license to the extremists in his government to act in extra democratic ways, I would suspect that that will not have a major effect on slowing down the protest in Israel.

Rebecca: Great, thanks. There is another sort of body of questions around the piece that you, you talked about sort of the number six, the US North American response, sort of our obligation and uh, this moment of tension. I think people are wondering what you suggest in terms of the tide that you fall on. There is a lot of different advice about American response, and I think what I’m seeing in these questions is, what do you think is the best move forward? Especially as you mentioned in the beginning, we are, many of us feeling very disconnected and far away. 

Yehuda: I will say this. At the beginning of this process, a couple of months ago, I was very anxious and we wary about American Jews in getting involved in protest here.

And part of the reason for that is that it, it felt like new and uncharted waters. And candidly I will say part of what made me nervous was being in coalition with people who I think do not support a democratic state of Israel, but want to use protest as a means of arguing against the long-term legitimacy of a democratic state of Israel.

That I think has changed. I think I credit those who led these protests with the ability of changing that conversation. I think it’s noticeable, for instance, in Washington when Smotrich came, there were multiple protests against Smotrich and they didn’t group together. So the folks who were doing a kind of omnibus anti-Israel protest, also didn’t wanna line up with the quote-unquote Zionist protests. It was mutual that they didn’t want to be on the same side, so they were on the same side of the street, but literally there was space in between them. 

So I think that’s quite telling. That means that there is room to be able to articulate a position that says, I support a Jewish, democratic state of Israel. I do so from all of these principled places. And here’s how I speak out with clarity against the actions of this government. This, Rebecca, feels to me like a huge opportunity for American Jews who have struggled around this question for a long time. Those of us who identify as liberal Zionist have had to fight off the allegation that when we criticize the government, we are giving aid to Israel’s enemies.

It’s not true. We’re acting as a form of patriotic loyalty when you criticize a governmen. I think it’s good that that space is being created. I think one thing that we do as Jews in moments like this is we do something like this. 500 people come onto a webinar, we stay glued to the news, we follow what’s going on.

Another piece of this work is you stay connected to your friends and family in Israel. A number of people have said to me, should we really be coming to study at Hartman in Israel this summer? And I said to them, if you stay away, then your friends and allies who are equally angry and frustrated as you are, who are really concerned about the future of this country, will feel abandoned because by the way, those Jews who support judicial reform, or other aspects of kind of anti-democratic activity in Israel, they’re not gonna stay away. They’re gonna show their support. 

So actually, this feels like a moment to show up more than ever before and to signal to our friends and allies in Israel that we are with them. Rabbi Rick Jacobs went and spoke at the protests a few weeks ago, which is kind of an edgy thing to do for an American rabbi who leads the reform movement. And one of the things he reported was that many, many people came up to him and thanked him, not just for showing up, but for showing up in a way that said, I love you. I’m with you. I support you, and what’s happening here is not okay. 

So that’s not a full map of activity, but it is a way of saying, this is a moment for us to really lean into what it means to care about the future of the state of Israel to show that and to show that loyalty.

And let me add one more thing. You know, Julie Sandorf of the Resident Foundation wrote a piece in the Times of Israel about how, you know, she believed it’s the time to divest from Israel bonds. You could argue about whether that’s the right move financially or otherwise. But what was really clear in Julie’s piece that I wanna emphasize is, if you’re taking your funds out of Israel bonds because you’re protesting the fact that Smotrich a free hand in one way or the other, find another place to invest in it in Israel that would advance not only Israel’s economic strength, but might be leverageable to social change. And there is no limit on the kind of social impact investment that’s possible in the state of Israel and the need for it right now.

Rebecca: So I’m gonna extend the question to other foreign places. So, there’s quite a few people wondering sort of, you know, the security of Israel as in question. And it appears that, you know, there’s certain challenges with the police and the army. What does this mean for our relationships with other countries? The Abraham Accords, which you mentioned briefly? So a lot of questions around what this current situation could mean for future relations with foreign governments. 

Yehuda: I’m not gonna have a great answer to this. I defer to some of my colleagues in Israel who work specifically on the question of the Abraham Accords and regional cooperation. I think what I tried to point out is that when it looks as though the IDF is being challenged internally, that diminishes the resolve and the capacity of the IDF to focus on external threats, one would imagine that for a small country that has faced external and internal threats, and where the boundaries are so permeable between Israel and its neighbors, these kind of moments of hundreds of thousands of people gathering, create a lot of security anxiety for the state of Israel.

And I think that that’s been quite difficult. And obviously the most significant feature of this is when there is public dissent between the defense minister who oversees the army and the prime minister, that sows the seeds for a lot of uncertainty. I don’t know yet whether Netanyahu has restored Gallant, that may have happened in the last five few minutes. I think he’s probably going to have to, and I think that will go a long way towards tamping some of this down. 

And the regional question to me feels like it’s part of kind of issue number five. If the plot of Israel’s governance gets away from the prime minister, there’s a lot of wonky stuff that can happen to jeopardize these relationships. And I think that incident between the Minister Miri Regev that prompted the apology by Netanyahu to the UAE is a tell. Will the UAE care particularly about Israel’s dome domestic health? They might not. 

But if this continues to destabilize the country such that it damages economic relationships, it damages the, you know, trust in government, then who knows, there could be other ripple effects as well.

Rebecca: Okay. So I’m gonna try to compartmentalize some of the questions related specifically to the judicial reform issue at hand. What are the grievances that are manifesting as judicial reform and what are legitimate concerns from those who voted for this government that are being overshadowed, perhaps by this policy?

Yehuda: Right, so going back to the components of judicial reform, about the appointments of judges, the legal advisors, judicial review. And so, the standard of reasonableness and of course the override clause. Those are the kind of five main components of this reform. Like I tried to suggest at the beginning, I think there are plausible arguments that have come out of the right and center-right that have said, look, there’s a big overstepping that’s taking place here because of the Barak judicial revolution that took place back in the nineties where there was a recognition by the Barak Court and its allies on the left, that it was a tool to withstand a whole variety of social changes.

Now, in some ways, that’s inevitable whenever you have a balance of power, that’s why you have divided governments and a balance of power, that they are able to actually course correct on one side or the other. It’s no surprise, as a result, that right-wing governments came along and said, we need to hold back some of these instruments that the court is using that feel to them ideological and arbitrary.

The reasonableness doctrine is a good one, right? That’s a like, wait, if the court can just decide that something is not reasonable, that doesn’t register as being quote unquote fair. It was just so nakedly partisan, the way that this was done. When you say what, we need a different system by which to appoint judges and it should be a majority of the current ruling coalition, well, you see what’s about to happen is that they’re just gonna put the judges that they want in place. 

The 61-seat override is absurd from the standpoint of democratic governance. Would there have been a logical way to resolve this. Yeah. Probably. Could it have been 75 or 80 seats? Is that a fair kind of override clause? Yeah, that feels like it might have gotten a majority opinion. It just, my sense is that the judicial reform went so far in trying to correct on a problem that they perceived, that they essentially lost the public.

And I think everybody knows how this ideally would end. You would wind up with a negotiated compromise, which would look like the beginning of a constitutional process for the state of Israel, where you would get not only a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, but something much bigger.

Whether that can happen now under the gun following these types of protests with the degree of polarization. I don’t know, but that’s obviously what kind of should happen and should have happened. 

Rebecca: I think there’s an extension question to that, which is, what’s sort of the longer thinking longer-term between, you know, Jewish groups that are creating and promoting freedoms, equalities, liberal values, and then these other fractions that are growing in Israel that are nationalistic. And I think people are sort of asking in the chat for you to be a little bit of a predictor but what do you imagine going forward those relationships could look like? 

Yehuda: Well, I can tell you what I wish would happen. I mean, one of the things we’ve been talking a lot about internally at the Hartman Institute is that the coalition for democracy can be pretty broad, right? It can include folks who identify with democratic values as a center-right commitment all the way to pretty far on the left. The only question is whether certain aspects of those commitments are gonna go to war with each other. 

So for like, you know, the big one of course is Palestinians, right? You can get pretty broad consensus among many Israelis that the current status quo is not good, that there should be some change in outcome. But that differs very significantly from regime change overnight, declaring Israel to be an apartheid state and therefore illegitimate, appealing to an international community to remake the fabric of Israeli democracy, all the way towards the kind of soft right versions of ways of scaling back the occupation, changing the nature of it, the tenor of it, in service of a recognition that it’s a humanitarian crisis.

Now, the question becomes become a human psychological question. Does the fact that we all agree that this isn’t great mean we now identify potentially as being part of the same team who may disagree on some tactics in the short run, but could work together towards some long-term change? Or as most likely happens, even if I agree with people about the nature of the problem, my disagreement on urgency and tactics actually sets me against each other. And I fear that that may ultimately happen. 

I think the one optimistic story could be, could you find a way for what they manage to cobble together in the Lapid-Bennet stretch of time. You had a one-year change government, I think they had a lot of blind spots. I think they didn’t fully understand the things that were frustrating to them from their critics, but it was an experiment with a different type of Israeli political coalition building. 

So I, I guess what I would ask is like, what do we learn from that to build a different kind of version to that at scale that could withstand the kind of partisan moment that we’re in? 

Rebecca: Well, an extension to that, which a lot of people have asked is, you know, what about a constitution? Is it possible that, in fact, Israel could somehow come up with one? And then the other question that’s not exactly connected but sort of related is we know that North Americans especially have been having a very kind of more challenging relationship with Israel, American Jews, over the last, we’ll say decade, but maybe even longer. And I think the question is, what does that look like going forward? And has this moment sort of exacerbated that relationship?  What do you think? 

Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, it definitely could, I could understand why American Jews are watching this story and say, we’re out of it. I did a version of, a smaller scale version of this for my shul last week, and one of the questions basically said, maybe this is the time for us to find a new North star. And I find that to be a very sad conclusion for American Jews to draw right now. 

Number one, because the exit by liberal American Jews from this project guarantees that it gets worse. It guarantees that it gets worse. We take away our philanthropy, our support, our voices. It guarantees that the forces in Israel that want Israel to be what we would consider worse will, will ultimately win. So that’s number one. 

It also will feel like an abandonment of Jewish peoplehood, of the people who are there to fight on behalf of the Jewish people for the moral dreams that the Jewish people have built towards.

But I think there’s a bigger idea here as well, which is you don’t get to pick the era of Jewish history that you’re born into. You don’t. I happen to think that of all of them, this is probably the best one, right? Of all of them, this is probably the best one, but I understand why there’s a little bit of a temptation to say, I wish I was living in a different story, a different one, a better one than this. That’s what Jews have always done. That’s like, our messianic dreams are rooted in some mythic imagination, we dream of the future through a mythic imagination of the past.

Like we want to pretend that there’s some different version of history that we’re living in that never really existed, but might be better than this one. And that’s good. That motivates involvement and engagement in some ways, but I see why it also gets people out of the story. I wish I didn’t have to be troubled by this. And I kind of wanna say, yeah, these are the problems that come with being a member of the Jewish people today. This is it. This is the story that we have. It’s an extraordinary one, and it desperately needs us. 

So I really do hope that this moment, as turbulent as it, as hard as it is, is actually a motivator for a lot of people to say, okay, it’s not what it should be. What do you need from me? In, in some ways, like similar in my grandparents’ generation, the state of Israel was the, had a lot of answers to the question of, what do you need from me. And they stepped up. So now it’s not the same as what my grandparents did. It’s not just buy Israel bonds and name the park benches, you know, in public parks. It’s actually engage in the questions of liberalism and democracy to help the Israeli people wind their way out of this crisis. 

Rebecca: Right. And what you’re also saying is that we have an obligation in North America to sort of up our educational game as well.

Yehuda: Not just up our educational game, it’s to rethink it. I mean, if we can’t, we as American Jews, you can get in trouble in the American Jewish community in an educational institution if you don’t support Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

We hold to that standard even though we rarely teach people, what does it mean for Israel to be a Jewish and Democratic state? So we want the loyalty, but we haven’t actually given any tools or content to understand what’s actually at stake. 

This is a fascinating moment for Israeli democracy. Our kids, our peers, our Jewish communal professionals, they need to be inside this moment. They need to understand why it really matters. They need to be conversing with it. And to do so is not to, you’re gonna take the risk that someone may come to the conclusion that there are just pieces of Israeli democracy they don’t like and that they think are unredeemable.

That’s normal. It’s like if you read all of the Bible, you’ll find the parts that for whole variety of reasons, your teachers sanitized out of your education and upbringing and for good reason, they were bad. But then you’re actually a master of the material and you control it differently, and you can speak with more authority and more knowledge, and ultimately with more passion.

And I think the only way that we build a generation of American Jews who remain passionate about Israel that’s struggling is through a total overhaul of how we talk about this, these topics. 

Rebecca: I think we have time for one more, if you’re okay with that. There is one question on how you might foresee religious pluralism coming into focus in light of the current political climate, if you wanna talk about that.

Yehuda: Well, look, I think this is an interesting site because one, again, what I, one of the things I said earlier is that one of the reasons why, certain parties in Israel want, especially the Haredim wanted to see this legislation passed, is because they want to advance a whole bunch of draconian legislation that is anti-religious pluralism about, I don’t know, prohibiting chametz, so it’s, we’re right around the time of Passover, in hospitals and other public institutions. 

On all of these issues, the majority of Israelis oppose those laws. They have just been powerless to prevent them because of the nature of a coalition system. And at the same time, the only thing that’s held it in check is the mechanics of a coalition system in the Supreme Court. So part of the reason that many Israelis show up in the street is because they actually don’t want their rights taken away from them. Religious pluralism is one of the antidotes to religious hegemony. That’s one of the ways out of this. 

So there too, I feel like that awakening to, wait a second, they could prevent gay couples from having surrogate children. They could prevent public transportation in all parts of the country. They could do all of these things. We don’t actually wanna live in that society. And again, all the data we know is that Israelis do want religion in their lives. They want community, they want meaning, they just don’t want it through hegemonic state systems. And they don’t want it through the force of something like the rabbinate. 

So again, religious pluralism feels to me like it could be some of the stuff of the super majority. How the super majority actually becomes powerful is a question for political strategy. But could it be the stuff that constitutes kind of new coalitions? A hundred percent.

Rebecca: Great. Well, do you wanna just end with a and a couple sentences? Are you feeling?

Yehuda: You know what folks? I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the next hour. I truly don’t. And I don’t know what’s gonna happen in next week. I would just encourage folks to stay with the big stories. More than the little stories. Stay with the big stories, look at the threads of these issues as they’re materializing. Continue to watch this space and, listen, next week is Pesach, so maybe merit getting out of the wilderness together. 

Rebecca: Right. Well, thank you. And it’s very clear, we had a really, a sell out crowd here, meaning we had 500 openings for this Zoom call and that’s how many people were on. So thank you for doing this and we know it’s really important timing. And we just wanted to say thank you from the Hartman Institute and we will continue to respond and provide ideas and information for your learning and for your growth.

Thanks for joining us and have a wonderful rest of your day. Thanks, Yehuda. 

Yehuda: Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about or if you have comments on this one, please write to us at [email protected].

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The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics