By Jonathan S. Tobin
(MARCH 31, 2023 / JNS) In the aftermath of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s waving of the white flag on his government’s efforts to pass judicial reform, his opponents have been taking some victory laps. Those who took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands, blocked highways, pulled money out of the country or refused reserve duty—bolstered by those who cheered them on from the sidelines—all believe they’ve done a marvelous thing.
From their point of view, they’ve not only defended Israeli democracy against the threat of authoritarian or dictatorial rule at the hands of the coalition that won last November’s election. They also think that their protests were, in and of themselves, a beautiful demonstration of the splendor of democratic culture. In this telling, “the people” rose up and made their voices heard and made the powerful listen.
There’s some truth to that even if much of it is being expressed more as an exercise in virtue signaling than proof of their devotion to democracy. But as much as the right to peaceful protest must be protected along with the rights of citizens to petition their government for a redress of grievances, the notion that this was nothing more than a debate about whether Israel is to remain a democracy is disingenuous.
A great many Israelis were appalled at the notion of Netanyahu returning to power and that he would be forming a government by allying with the religious parties.
That prospect outraged the liberal secular sector of society that largely makes up the media, cultural, business, legal and academic establishments in Israel. Even scarier for them was the prospect that the chances of the parties of the left ever being able to form a majority seemed to be getting smaller with each passing year as the religious population continued to outgrow the rest of the country.
So while judicial reform was the excuse, the goal of the demonstrations was, at its heart, overturning the results of the November election their side had lost. As such, it has been not so much a protest movement over a specific issue but something akin to the so-called “color revolutions” in former Soviet republics that aimed at toppling regimes.
It also has a lot in common with the protests that began in January 2017 after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The Women’s March that was held the day after his inauguration, as well as subsequent demonstrations, was purportedly about protecting the right to abortion. But it was far more than that. It was, as the demonstrators and their cheerleaders in the corporate media and pop-culture programs claimed, a “resistance” that eschewed the role of loyal opposition in favor of an effort to treat the winner of the 2016 presidential election as both illegitimate and a threat to the nation that should be expunged by any means possible.
It was that attitude that spawned the Russian collusion hoax that convulsed the nation for three years and did much to hinder Trump from governing. And it helped legitimize efforts by the media, and their Big Tech and social-media company allies, to help ensure that Trump was defeated.
In turn, that has created a parallel movement on the right since 2020 that, egged on by Trump, believes that Joe Biden is also an illegitimate president with obvious and tragic consequences on Jan. 6, 2021.
While the Israeli demonstrators and their American admirers think that what they’ve done is very different from both of those resistances, they are deceiving themselves. What just happened in Israel is just another iteration of the same trend in which democracies devolve into bifurcated societies where neither side thinks their opponents are legitimate or possessed of good intentions. It is a mindset willing to take any issue and twist it into an existential struggle not just for power but survival.
This goes beyond the usual penchant to turn differences into life-and-death struggles over basic principles of governance. In the last two years, that has played out in the United States as Democrats falsely portrayed voter integrity laws passed by Republican legislatures as “Jim Crow 2.0” and depicted their conservative opponents as “fascists.” Both claims are lies, but the fallout from their hyperbole goes beyond the hard feelings that often result from the dirty tricks that are an inevitable part of normative political warfare. They’ve bred a belief on the part of Democrats that Republicans must be defeated at all costs and a parallel conviction on the right that Democrats are ruthlessly determined to steal elections and imprison opponents. The attempts to jail Trump by Democratic prosecutors have only validated these beliefs.
That same sense of bad faith is at play in Israel.
The protest movement was galvanized by arguments—bolstered by the largely monochromatic Israeli mainstream media, which, with very few exceptions, leans even harder to the left than its counterpart in the United States—that claimed that judicial reform would inaugurate a right-wing “tyranny of the majority.” To them, that correlates into liberal, secular Israelis being oppressed by their right-wing and especially religious compatriots. That was an unfair characterization of a set of measures that sought to establish some checks on the power of a left-wing dominated Israeli Supreme Court that recognized no limits to its power to obstruct and overrule the legislators and government elected by the people.
Toppling the government
But this “resistance” wasn’t born on the day the judicial reforms were presented to the Knesset. It began the day after the Nov. 1 election when, to the surprise of their opponents, the Likud and its allies broke the three-year-long political stalemate and won a clear Knesset majority.
The notion of the man that the left had taken to calling “crime minister” after the trumped-up flimsy corruption charges that a left-leaning legal establishment had used to try and take down Netanyahu, leading the country again was bad enough. But the accession to power of the Religious Zionists Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir was simply too awful for many to tolerate.
As former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a supporter of the protests made clear in a recent talk in London, the notion that these protests represent the views of the majority is a myth. As he made clear, a dedicated and radicalized minority, if, as was the case in Israel, strategically placed to do the most damage, could overthrow an elected government.
While the claim that judicial reform meant dictatorship may have been sincerely believed by many Israelis, the real goal of the protests was to topple the government. Even if judicial reform is eliminated, some other issue—likely linked to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and their efforts to combat crime or terrorism—will soon replace it.
The left has already convinced themselves that following normal democratic procedures and waiting until the next election isn’t a sufficient response to Netanyahu’s government. That’s why the chances of going back to playing by the rules remain slim. And having already established that it’s permissible to try and sabotage the economy or refuse military reserve duty because you don’t like the government of the day, the notion that these tactics won’t be employed again is unlikely.
Nor should we expect that those celebrating the protesters as heroes of democracy will treat their opponents with the same respect. Pro-government demonstrators who have been belatedly mobilized to protest the invalidation of their election victory aren’t also being referred to with similar deference. The coverage of the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations emphasized the fact that the majority of those participating were peaceful and downplayed any incidents of violence or attacks on police. But the opposite will be true of most stories about right-wing or religious protestors in which violent or threatening outliers will be featured and the peaceful majority treated as insignificant.
As with the violent crackdowns on right-wing demonstrators against the Oslo Accords and the Gaza disengagement in the past, the smearing of those who actually represent the majority who voted only four months ago will breed further resentment and cynicism on the right.
This means that it’s a given that no matter who wins the next election in Israel, the other side won’t accept it. They will do all in their power by means fair or foul to undermine it, even if it hurts the national interests, as those who are being acclaimed as avatars of the democratic spirit have just done. And it will only get worse if a resentful right-leaning electorate elects another government that horrifies the liberal establishment. In that case, it will be the tyranny of the minority that Barak talked about that will be the issue, not the bogus claim that letting the majority govern is the path to tyranny.
It can happen here
Nor should those looking on at events in Israel from America think this can’t happen here. As we saw in the summer of 2020 when the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off a summer of “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter riots and launched a moral panic that is still distorting discussions about race, left-wing protests are treated differently than those conducted by the right.
Should a Republican win in November 2024, we should expect the same kind of massive resistance to allow them to govern, even if the next president isn’t named Donald Trump.
So, while taking to the streets to demonstrate is a legitimate form of democratic discourse, what has happened in both Israel and the United States is not the glorious exercise of freedoms that those celebrating the Israeli protests claim it to be. Rather, it is the fruit of a new and toxic culture on both ends of the political spectrum that is not so much rooted in the glories of democratic culture as it is in delegitimizing and demonizing political opponents. Rather than bolstering democracy, it is ultimately antithetical to the functioning of one. It is a path that leads inevitably to violence and further division, not a glorious victory for enlightened thought.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
This op-ed was originally published in JNS and can be viewed here.