Just a few months ago, Israelis were looking forward to the celebration of their 75th anniversary. After all, Israel’s history seemed almost magical. Time and again, ever since its founding in 1948, Israel had come seemingly close to the precipice of collapse.
Most obvious were the military threats. When five Arab countries attacked the new state in 1948, its ragtag army held on. Israel not only managed to survive, but expanded its borders. Nineteen years later, in June 1967, after Egyptian President Nasser had promised to “push Israel into the sea,” Israel won a lightening victory in the Six Day War and tripled its size. The 1973 Yom Kippur War, seven years after that, began terribly, and Israel retreated on many fronts. But the IDF managed to get the upper hand, and by the time the U.S. intervened to end the fighting, Israel had Egypt’s entire Third Army surrounded and could have marched all the way to Damascus, Syria’s capital.
Never again since 1973 has a standing Arab army attacked Israel. Unless Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Israel faces no existential military threats.
Economics also produced grave challenges. In its earliest years, Israel was out of money, had no way to feed or house the hundreds of thousands of Jewish displaced persons making their way to the young state from DP camps in Europe after the Holocaust or the approximately 700,000 Jews from Arab lands who were essentially expelled from North Africa and who then also came to Israel. Israel instituted mandatory food rationing. Poverty was rife: in the 1950’s, an Israeli’s standard of living was similar to that of an American in the 1800’s. Even after Israel climbed out of that challenge with the help of German reparations for the Holocaust ($8B in today’s money), financial woes were not over. In the 1980’s, the annual rate of inflation his 445%, and again, Israel seemed on the verge of financial collapse.
Those challenges, too, are gone. Privatization of national companies and better fiscal policy saved the economy, which is now robust. Today, Israel’s hi-tech sector is so powerful that Israel has more companies registered on the NASDAQ than any country outside the U.S.
Even Israel’s diplomatic isolation seems a thing of the past. For decades, Arab countries shunned Israel, refusing to sign peace treaties and refusing to engage with it in any way. In 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution saying that “Zionism is Racism,” prompting America’s UN representative, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to thunder at the plenum, ““The [United States] . . . does not acknowledge, it will not abide by it, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act. . . . A great evil has been loosed upon the world.” But Moynihan could not change the position of the world; increasingly, Israel was alone.
Today, Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, has normalized relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Progress with other African nations continues apace.
That, until recently, was the story that Israelis told themselves about their nation. It had made mistakes, it was still tragically stuck in a grueling and painful conflict with the Palestinians, it had not figured out a coherent policy with regards to the territories captured in 1967 – like all countries, it has massive policy issues to face. Still, Israel was a story of extraordinary national rebirth. Less than four years after Auschwitz, the Jews had founded a state, and within decades, they were at the forefront of economics, military might, technological innovation and cultural productivity.
How could May 2023 be anything but a great celebration?
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But then, disaster struck. When Israelis went to the polls for the fifth time in three years on November 1, 2022, Benjamin Netanyahu (now Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister) brought the right back to power. Almost immediately, his Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, began to push forward a legislative plan to dramatically alter Israel’s judicial system. Levin and his partners, who include Simcha Rothman, Chairman of the Knesset’s Commitment of Constitution, Law and Justice, as well as others, claim that it is time to defang Israel’s Supreme Court, which under Chief Justice Aharon Barak in the 1990’s had taken for itself almost unlimited power. Their reforms would give the Knesset, rather than an independent committee, control over the appointment of judges at all levels, and would virtually eliminate the Court’s right to Judicial Review.
While Levin and others saw these steps as a long overdue restoration of power to the Knesset, many Israelis on the left and in the center (and by now, many on the right as well), believed that what was being proposed was not judicial reform, but regime change. The planned changes, they argued, would render Israel either a non-democracy, or at best, an illiberal democracy like Poland and Hungary. Millions of Israelis grew terrified.
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If the government expected the opposition to grumble but then to let the reform pass, they badly miscalculated. Young Israeli professionals, long assumed to be nonchalant about the Zionist project of their grandparents and great-grandparents, took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, demanding an end to the proposed reforms. They blocked highways and wreaked national havoc. Reserve IAF pilots refused to show up for training and missions, even as matters with Iran are heating up. Hundreds of Israel’s leading economists warned the government that these reforms would essentially ruin Israel’s economy, and soon enough, Bloomberg, Moody’s and others had downgraded Israel’s ratings. The Biden administration expressed its concerns, Israeli hi tech companies began moving their assets abroad – all the military, economic and diplomatic progress Israel had made through the decades seemed to be slipping through the country’s fingers.
As Independence Day arrives, the Knesset is on recess, so judicial reform has been temporarily paused. But proponents of the overhaul, who say that they never made a secret of their legislative agenda and that they won Israel’s election entirely fairly (so that the left and center are really just protesting their loss in the election), have vowed to press forward when the Knesset reconvenes. If they do—and there is no reason to doubt them—the protests will undoubtedly grow, and the current crisis, which is by far the gravest internal crisis Israel has ever faced in its history, will only deepen.
What Israelis understand now is that the issue is no longer really judicial reform. What have emerged now are two camps. Though they are not homogeneous at all, one is largely describable as European (Ashkenazi), secular, middle to upper class economically, and “privileged” in the eyes of the other. The other are those more religious, from the Levant (Mizrahi, from Muslim lands) and more challenged economically, who see this rupture as being about finally getting the rights they deserve in Israel, restoring elements of religious Judaism to the center of Israel’s far-too-secular and western public life, and ending what they see as the continued dominance of the descendants of the European founders of Israel.
What Israel now faces is thus a divide between two radically different populations, both animated by a love of their country, but also by a deep resentment of the other side, which has a very different vision for the kind of country the Jewish state should become now that it is seventy-five years old.
Many worry that Netanyahu, a master politician, has lost control not only of the country, but of his own party, too, and that there is no one positioned to prevent an even deeper rupture in Israeli society. Others fear that though there has been no looting, almost zero police use of force and millions protesters have come and gone peacefully, it is only a matter of time until someone resorts to violence. The last time Israel experienced hateful rhetoric of this sort, in 1995, Prime Minister Yitchak Rabin was assassinated. Could Israeli society survive yet another such rupture?
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Israel is about to celebrate what may the strangest Independence Day in its history. Israelis will do their best to celebrate decades of extraordinary accomplishments, but they will do so knowing that it is only a matter of weeks before mass protests resume, when two visions for the Jewish state will continue to battle each other, with increasing determination.
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