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Israel's Liberal Patriots
How ongoing protests against the Netanyahu government show that Israeli liberals may be down but they're far from out
What image better defines liberal patriotism than hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets, protesting in defense of liberal democracy with their national flag proudly held aloft above their heads?
That's been the scene every week in Israel for the past few months. When the government tried to ram through a series of changes which would transform Israel from a liberal to an illiberal democracy, tens of thousands of Israelis spontaneously took to the streets. Week after week, the numbers continued to grow—reaching over a quarter of a million people every Saturday night at locations across the country.
To understand the reaction to the attack on Israeli democracy, it's important to go back to the country's Declaration of Independence—the foundational document of the modern state of Israel. It is a beautiful document which succinctly makes the case for Zionism both as a response to the horrors the Jewish people had suffered but also as an act of national self-determination for the Jewish people in their homeland. Within that document, written in 1948, there is a paragraph which lays out the values of the state of Israel.
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
That paragraph encompasses liberal patriotism of the Israeli variety. It embodies the national collective consciousness of the Jewish people and a deep commitment to liberal values. That is the balance that Israel has always strived for—a state that is both uniquely Jewish and determinedly democratic. Through existential military threats, a never-ending struggle against terrorism, extreme economic uncertainty and waves of dramatic population growth, Israel maintained its character as a Jewish and democratic state while striking an always imperfect balance between civil liberties and security, and between a diverse population and national identity.
The actions of the current Israeli government were seen by many as an attack on the democratic part of the Israeli equation. And the response was emphatic.
The government (which it's important to note came to power in free and fair elections, a fact no one disputes) seeks to fundamentally alter the balance of power between the legislative and the judicial branches. As a unicameral parliamentary democracy, Israel’s prime minister is drawn from its legislature and the speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is nearly always from the same party as the prime minister. As a result, there’s almost always little if any tension between the two branches and very few real checks and balances between them.
That leaves Israel's judiciary as the primary check against the otherwise unbridled power of the majority. The changes proposed in January included effectively giving lawmakers the ability to select their own judges, weakening the judicial review powers of the court and giving parliament the ability override court decisions with a simple majority—just 61 out of 120 total Knesset members.
Add in a government with an unhealthy trade in conspiracy theories, extremist ministers who attacked the rights of women, minorities, and the LGBT community as well as, of course, an unrelenting campaign against the media, judges, and civil society. Taken together, it proved too much for Israel's liberals. Any concern opposition leaders had about political fatigue or apathy from a public that had been dragged through five national elections since April 2019 quickly dissipated.
Israel's broad liberal camp, from the left to the center-right, recognized the potentially historic nature of this moment and understood the impact would be felt for generations to come, so they mobilized like never before.
When protests began, the Netanyahu government pulled the illiberal playbook off the shelf and set to work. Its attacks on protesters included every classic illiberal populist tactic one after the other: it accused the media of overhyping protests and inflating the numbers as part of an anti-government agenda, for instance, but the enormous scale of the protests became impossible to deny and the government’s tactics shifted accordingly.
There were those in the government who insisted the protests were foreign funded and orchestrated by an imaginary enemy abroad. If it was anywhere except Israel, they’d probably have blamed a shadowy Jewish conspiracy—but this time the blame was laid at the door of the Biden administration and the CIA. These accusations were met with a stiff response from Washington and largely laughed off at home.
Then the government accused the protesters of being anarchists. Here too, reality proved hard to overcome. The protesters are made up a rich tapestry of Israeli society including women's groups, military reservists and veterans, the high tech and business sectors, academics, and economists. Every protest is filled with families and friends gathering together with homemade signs and Israeli flags on broomsticks. The majority of those attending the protests are from Israel's moderate center: they are hard-working, taxpaying, middle-class Israelis who served in the army as part of their national service and now send their children to do the same. It's true that the protests included blocking roads and disrupting speeches by those leading the attack on Israeli democracy; Netanyahu's trips abroad were marred by loud protests. But violence has been almost non-existent.
There was one accusation, however, that had more impact than most—but certainly not in the way Netanyahu and his ministers intended. Government spokespeople spent the first weeks of the protest looking for Palestinian flags at the demonstrations because, in their eyes, a Palestinian flag flying at anti-judicial overhaul protest would be proof that these were just the usual left-wing protesters hiding behind a more convenient cause. It was a crass attempt to discredit the protests and drive patriotic Israelis away from them.
It failed—spectacularly. Protesters began bringing Israeli flags to demonstrations, and soon the national flag of Israel, with the blue and white stripes and the Star of David, became the symbol of the protests. More and more Israelis began hanging flags off their balconies or out of their car windows, as both a mark of protest and of patriotism. In a country where a fifth of the population isn't Jewish, the flag became a symbol of inclusive liberal patriotism rather than the exclusionary, illiberal nationalism peddled by Netanyahu and his political allies. For liberal nationalism to succeed in Israel, the proud reclamation of national symbols alongside a respect for minorities is a critical element.
The weekly demonstrations began to include the singing of Israel's national anthem, HaTikvah. When terrorist attacks took the lives of Israeli citizens, demonstrations began with a minute's silence. When Israel's Remembrance Day came around, every leader of the opposition insisted that the day remain free of politics. And when a military conflict broke out in Gaza, organizers suspended the protests for a week.
The protests peaked with the attempt by Prime Minister Netanyahu to fire his defense minister and senior member in his own Likud Party, Yoav Gallant. His crime? A television address warning of the national security implications of the judicial overhaul and the divisions it had already created in Israeli society. The announcement shocked the Israeli public, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis flooded into the streets on a Sunday night with no prior planning.
In a country where national security is personal, firing the defense minister for doing his job was a red line. As the country came to a standstill, news began to break that the major trade unions and business leaders planned to call a general strike. Netanyahu began to backpedal but the Rubicon had been crossed. Though the Knesset was meant to vote on the first part of the judicial overhaul, it never happened.
Instead, the judicial overhaul was frozen in favor of compromise talks under the auspices of Israel's figurehead president. Today those talks are frozen once again as the coalition looks to advance the legislation unilaterally through committee once more, with members of the coalition looking to pass elements of the overhaul before the end of the Knesset’s summer session in July. If successful, these moves would end any hope for compromise and building consensus—a result that would prove nothing less than disastrous.
The future remains unclear and Israel could be headed for a challenging summer. Protests continue week after week, markets remain shaky, the shekel—Israel’s currency—is weaker than it should be, tensions in the country are high, and the opposition is fierce.
Israel's liberal camp has used the opportunity to put forward a positive agenda and make the case for a patriotism that embraces the complexities of a country like Israel. It is an unapologetic embrace of both the unique Jewish identity of the country and its core democratic values, most clearly expressed through the calls for a written constitution for Israel. More than anything, the situation in Israel has led to a passionate and renewed commitment to the core liberal values which the current government rejects—a free press, the right to protest, independent courts, women's rights, LGBT rights, protection of minorities, and equality under the law. These may seem like battles that were won long ago, but perhaps the unbridled attack on our institutions was a necessary reminder that these basic rights and principles should never be taken for granted.
The defense of liberal democracy and the defense of the heart and soul of Israel have become deeply intertwined. Israel's liberal majority rose to defend the values on which the state was founded—and did it wrapped in our blue and white flag.
Yair Zivan is diplomatic advisor to former Israeli prime minister and current leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid. He has worked with Mr. Lapid since 2014 and previously served as international media spokesperson for Israeli President Shimon Peres.
He writes in his personal capacity and the views expressed here are his alone.