Inside Israel's ongoing battle for its own democracy

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Israeli police intervene in a protest as Arab-Israelis and a group that supports them march from Habima Square to Kaplan Street on August 26, 2023. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Israeli police intervene in a protest as Arab-Israelis and a group that supports them march from Habima Square to Kaplan Street on August 26, 2023. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Long after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in passing his massive judicial reform law, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are still protesting what they see as a threat to Israeli democracy, and their personal freedom.

"We have a liberal awakening that we never witnessed in Israel's history," says Nadav Tamir. "People who were always indifferent woke up and they're demonstrating in the streets for 34 weeks, which is unheard of."

Dahlia Scheindlin says one of the big fears is whether there will be violence.

"Every small scuffle between protestors and police raise is the fear that violence will spread. Nobody's been killed, thank God, but all of these things put everybody very on edge," Scheindlin says.

But some Israelis see cause for hope.

"In the U.S. you needed a civil war in order to save you from slavery. I think in Israel it can happen without a civil war," Tamir says.

Today, On Point: The latest on Israel's battle for its own democracy.


Nadav Tamir, Executive Director of J Street Israel. Former diplomat who served under three foreign ministers.

Also Featured

Dahlia Scheindlin, Public opinion researcher and international political strategist. Columnist at Haaretz. Author of The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel: Promise Unfulfilled.

Sally Abed, Political activist and leader at Standing Together, the largest Jewish-Arab grassroots movement in Israel.

Josh Drill, American Israeli who served as a platoon commander in the Israel Defense Forces, now a spokesperson for the pro-democracy protest movement.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: In late July, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed the first part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sweeping reforms to completely overhaul the nation’s judiciary. The reform limits the Israeli Supreme Court’s power, and effectively delivers a powerful tool for far-right lawmakers to reshape Israeli society.

The measure passed despite massive and historic protests. In January, hundreds of thousands of Israelis flooded into the streets to oppose Netanyahu’s plan. Eight months later, the weekly protests are still going on.

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN: A lot of Israelis asking questions they haven't asked in the past about what democracy really means. What are the policies that contradict democracy?

CHAKRABARTI: Dahlia Scheindlin is a public opinion researcher and a columnist for the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. She first joined us in March of this year, to provide analysis on what she sees as the deep historic roots of Israel’s current political crisis.
We connected with her again this week to better understand how the protest movement has evolved.

SCHEINDLIN: We don't know exactly how representative they are because nobody's going around with proper sampling methods at the demonstrations, trying to figure it out. But we do know from survey research that over 20% of Israelis say they've participated in the demonstrations, which is remarkable for public demonstrations. Usually in most countries we would see somewhere, in the very low single percent, maybe three or 4% in total say they generally go demonstrate.

CHAKRABARTI: That means 20%, or one in five Israelis have taken to the streets to protest their sitting government, which, they fear, will turn Israel into a hard-right fundamentalist state. But how widespread is this fear?

SCHEINDLIN:  The protests are not a fully representative sample of Israeli society. For one thing, they're heavily Jewish. There are very few Arab citizens, Palestinian citizens who participate. They're certainly skewed towards centrist Israelis by their own self-definition and left-wing Israelis, and to some extent there are moderate right-wing Israelis, but there is certainly some representation of religious people, of people of Mizrahi background.

There are different class levels despite the government's best efforts to vilify this as some sort of upper crust, 1% elitist protest. It's absolutely not the case. They are largely middle class. Certainly, we have representation of a whole spectrum of professional communities, community organizations, schools. Representatives of medical organizations, unions, I mean, there are such a swath of society that even if it's not representative, there is a big and unusual cross section of the population.

CHAKRABARTI: Scheindlin says this raises the question – when protestors say they’re fighting to protect Israeli democracy, does that include the rights for non-Jewish citizens, Israelis who are Arabs, and other Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza?

SCHEINDLIN:  It's very hard to say because we would need in-depth survey research to try to figure that out. But I think we're all going based on what we see and feel, and what I've seen in surveys showing that I don't see a dramatic shift in the general orientation of the Israeli public when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What we do have is many Israelis, including in the mainstream center, and even to some extent on the moderate right, are asking, "Is it a coincidence that this government is trying to undermine judicial independence and constraints on the power of the government?"

And at the very same time, expand settlements, you know, in an extreme way and expand Israel's annexation and put pressure on Palestinians and support, essentially support settler violence against Palestinians, which members of this government openly do. And I think as a lot of Israelis are starting to realize, that's not a coincidence.

CHAKRABARTI: Now members, or leaders, I should say, will continue with their weekly demonstrations for as long as it takes. But with the successful passage of the first part of the judicial reform plan, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli right see no reason to relent. Scheindlin says that makes Israel’s future fragile and uncertain.

SCHEINDLIN: Nobody's willing to place bets on what will happen. But I would say one of the big fears hanging over everybody's mind is whether there will be violence. Every small scuffle between protestors and police raises the fear that violence will spread. There have been attacks by pro-government supporters on the demonstrators. Nobody's been killed, thank God, but all of these things put everybody very on edge, and I think that is one of the biggest concerns.

CHAKRABARTI: Dahlia Scheindlin is a public opinion researcher and a columnist for the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, and incidentally she's also author of the forthcoming book, "The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel: Promise Unfulfilled." She’s in Tel Aviv.

Well, September will be a critical month for the nation of Israel, for several reasons. Including the fact that there are several lawsuits challenging Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan. Meaning, the very laws designed to radically restrain the judiciary’s power and independence will land before the Israeli Supreme Court itself.

Nadav Tamir is a former diplomat who served under three foreign ministers, as political officer in Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C. and as Consul General for New England. Today, he’s executive director of J Street Israel, a liberal pro-peace advocacy organization. And he too joins us from Tel Aviv. Nadav, welcome to you.

NADAV TAMIR: Thank you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: I'd like to first pick up with you where Dahlia left off, and that is how serious are the concerns about potential violence as this ongoing, I don't even know if I can call it a stalemate, but the protests continue, and it seems as if Netanyahu and his supporters are still pushing through other aspects of their judicial reform plan.

TAMIR: I don't think we will see violence in the measures that we see in many other countries when you have demonstrations and riots. So far, we didn't see much. Of course, it's a concern, because everybody are concerned by violence. I think that most likely, the conflict will be between the Supreme Court and the Attorney General and the government, which will lead to a constitutional crisis.

Because when the Supreme Court will decide one way, and the government will decide not to abide or to go another way, then the police, the military, the Shin Bet, the Mossad, everybody will have to decide what side are they on. I have no doubt that the most important sectors in Israeli society will abide by the law and not follow the politicians.

And I believe that will bring a crisis to this government, especially to the Likud party, the largest party, Netanyahu party within this coalition.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, when you say the most important segments of Israeli society amongst the ones that you just mentioned, including the military and Mossad again, I'm asking you to peer into a crystal ball here, Nadav. But do you think that those groups or institutions, I should say, will align themselves as you said, with the law and not far-right politicians?

TAMIR: Yes, I have no doubt. And they already gave some indications. The leaders of the brass and the working level, of course, not the politicians and also the startup nation, the economy, the very strong sectors, the academia in Israel society. I have no doubt that will be within the side of the law. And I think that will stop the attempt of this government to move ahead. On top of that, of course, that the economic situation of the country is going down, the international status of the country.

And many people speak about security threats when many in the very important units, pilots, and others are saying that they're not going to serve in a dictatorship. Either that will break Likud from within, or if they decide not to move, that will make the relations between Netanyahu and his coalition partners very tense. Because this is not what they promised to their constituencies.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I'd like to just take a moment to dig a little deeper into what's going to happen in September specifically, as we've been discussing. First of all, there are at least three challenges to the judicial reform plans that Netanyahu managed to pass in the Knesset. I should note that it passed because the opposition parties left the Knesset, physically left the room.

So I should say the overwhelming vote for the plan was because it was the remainder of the Knesset that supports origin coalition with Netanyahu. Okay. So on September 7, there's a particular challenge coming to the Israeli Supreme Court. On September 12, which I believe people are saying is the most important, there is that direct law to the challenge of the independence of the Supreme Court, that same court will have to rule on.

And then September 28, another challenge to a new policy that says Prime Ministers can only be removed from office for physical or mental health reasons. So that's what could happen over the next, that's going to happen over the next month. Give me your analysis, Nadav, for just a moment, of how, of the fact that it's the Supreme Court itself that's going to be asked to rule on, as laws do function in Israel, but on a set of laws that threatens its own survival.

TAMIR: Yeah, those are unprecedented times in Israel. Because we don't have a constitution. We passed, during the years, some basic laws that were supposed to eventually create a constitution. And now the coalition is trying to use those basic laws in order to claim that if you passed this basic law, the Supreme Court is not entitled to change them.

But the problem is that you could actually create a basic law just with two against one in the Knesset, because we don't really have a a clear mechanism of how to create a basic law. So in those three cases that you mentioned, one of them is, the biggest one is on the reasonable standards that the Supreme Court could say that a law is not constitutional if it is not reasonable.

The Supreme Court president invited all 15 members of the Supreme Court, which never happened in Israeli history. Because it's such a dramatic event when they going to decide on something that is so basic for our structure as a democracy. And the two other cases, the one of incapacitation of the Prime Minister, which the appeals are claiming that he's in a conflict of interest and he could not legislate laws that are personal about him. So the Supreme Court might decide to just delay it to the next Knesset. And the third one is committee that elect judges.

CHAKRABARTI: Nadav, I'm so sorry to cut you off there. It's just that we have a few seconds before we have to take a break. So we'll pick up this conversation when we come back, this is On Point.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we're trying to understand what might happen in Israel next. As prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's massive judicial reform plan faces three distinct legal challenges that will unfold before the Israeli Supreme Court next month, which means that very court will have to determine the fate of laws that have been designed to restrain the court's independence.

Now, Ron Dermer is former ambassador to the United States and now Minister of Strategic Affairs for Israel. He told PBS NewsHours' Nick Schifrin that the Israeli government's changes to the Supreme Court is, in fact, the will of the majority of Israelis who voted for Netanyahu's current government. And therefore, he believes it's the protesters who are behaving in an anti-democratic manner.

RON DERMER: In Israel, you cannot replace the will of the public through their elected representatives with 15 unelected judges to decide that this is reasonable or unreasonable.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Since you've been pushing this through, there have obviously been massive, unprecedented protests across the country. The shekels lost value. Private capital inflows are down, Israel startups are registering abroad.

Moody's, S&P have warned about investing in Israel, and of course the military in Israel have repeatedly warned there is a crisis of readiness because of the fissures your reforms have created in society. And because reservists are now threatening not to show up, so is that not a failure of leadership by Prime Minister Netanyahu?

DERMER: No, I don't think so.

CHAKRABARTI: Again, that was Minister of Strategic Affairs for Israel, Ron Dermer on the PBS NewsHour. Nadav Tamir, it's hard for me to fully get a grasp on how widespread or not public support is for Israel's, for Netanyahu's judicial reform plan.

Obviously, the protestors are strongly opposed to it, hundreds of thousands of them. As Dahlia said a little earlier, one in five Israelis have said they have protested in the past year, but does that necessarily mean that the opposition to those laws is extremely widespread in Israel or not?

TAMIR: We also have data from some survey public opinion polls that shows that the majority of Israelis are unhappy with this, what they call judicial reform and what the opposition and the demonstrations call regime coup. We also saw some prediction for elections if they were to happen now and Likud would shrink dramatically.

And this coalition will not stay in power if there were elections tomorrow. So it seems that even within his own base, within his own party, people did not expect that. They never heard that this is what is planned after the elections, and they don't understand why it has to be conducted in such a unilateral way without trying to create a consensus.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Let me take a step back here because perhaps another way to read if and how much support for the judicial reform plan exists is to remind ourselves of what happened back in 2022. I believe with the last Israeli elections because the Times of Israel at that time described the defeat of anti-Netanyahu parties as a self-exacerbated defeat, because there was just such a small margin between them and the pro Netanyahu parties.

But given the way the parliamentary system works, it meant that that Likud et al actually captured an eight-seat majority in the Knesset, but it would turn, when it comes to actual votes, it was roughly 50-50.

TAMIR: Yes. Just like your electoral college, some elections in Israel are not always exact on the popular vote.

And what happens in Israel is that you have to have a threshold of 3.25% in order to get into the Knesset. And if you don't get it as a party, then all those votes are going to waste. So two parties from the Netanyahu bloc actually did not cross the threshold.

But I would add to that that the change now is not only that probably the left or the center left will be more organized as a lesson, but this energy in the streets among liberals or for years were completely indifferent. And waiting for their exit of their startup. Enjoying the culinary scene in Tel Aviv, are now, are into the legal issues and can quote Montesquieu, that's a huge change because for so many years the energy was on the other side.

CHAKRABARTI: So you're saying there's been an awakening of the center left in Israel?

TAMIR: Absolutely. And that is unprecedented in Israel's history.

CHAKRABARTI: Let's again hypothesize what might happen after September because the Israeli judiciary, the Supreme Court, is bound both by law, tradition and history to offer ostensibly decisions based in Israeli law.

So it is possible that if they possess fealty to how the judiciary is supposed to work, that the Israeli Supreme Court may not decide against Netanyahu's plan. Okay? I don't know what's going to happen, but we have to leave open that possibility. If that does occur, where does that mean the protest movement goes next?

TAMIR: I think that the decisions of the Supreme Court will not be black and white. I think they will try to delay, they will try to ask the government to come with some explanations. They might wait with the decision until actually the government is doing something that is unreasonable, firing the Attorney General.

I'm not sure that the crescendo will happen in September. But I think that if the Supreme Court will decide on the side of the government, that will take a lot of the steam out of the protests.

CHAKRABARTI: Now we're goanna hear from an Arab-Israeli voice in just a moment. But Nadav, I wanted to get your sense as to how the protest movement itself in Israel has evolved or changed.

Because looking at it from afar, it's maybe too easy for us here in the United States to come to the conclusion that the movement is made up almost exclusively of let's say, middle- or upper-class liberal Israelis from Tel Aviv where you are right now, but has the makeup of what the protest movement stands for, believes in, the concerns they have regarding rights and who even is there expanded to include non-Jewish Israelis?

TAMIR: So there is a process, in the early days when there were some Palestinian flags, everybody got paranoid about it and said, "This is going to be used by the other side and it'll tear the unity of the liberals from within because there are some soft right people."

And the tendency was to reclaim the flag and the national anthem and the Declaration of Independence. So I think that the Arab population did not feel very invited. And also the leaders of the demonstrations wanted to focus just on the Yariv Levin, minister of Justice. And Rothman, the head of the committee.

Judicial moves are not on occupation or the situation of the Arab Society, but I do see a change. I see that more people who moved out of their comfort zone are starting to understand that democracy is not only for Jews. And that there is a connection between what's happening in the territories and what's happening in Israel.

It's still not where I would like it to be, but I think that you see a movement in the last demonstration in Kaplan, in Tel Aviv, which is the biggest one. Even though there are demonstrations all over the country. The speaker, the main speaker was the mayor of a city that is of Palestinian citizens of Israel who spoke about the issues of the Palestinian society.

And I think that you're starting to see a movement to that direction. But I'm really also curious to hear what Sally Abed will say about it.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So we're going to hear from her in a second, but to summarize what you just said ... and Dahlia essentially said the same thing, that perhaps there's a growing awareness that if the Israeli government can behave anti-democratically in Gaza, the West Bank, that it's not such a leap for this particular government in the eyes of protestors to behave anti-democratically within Israel itself and to Jewish Israeli citizens.

Nadav, you mentioned Abed. We did speak to her. She is an Israeli and an Arab-Israeli. She's also a political activist and a leader at Standing Together. It's the largest Jewish-Arab grassroots movement in Israel right now. So does she think her Jewish fellow citizens are beginning to see any connection between the rights they fear losing and Israel's treatment of Palestinians?

SALLY ABED: I was very skeptical at the beginning. We were the very first ones to open this wave of protests and we put the occupation on the table, right? And back then the question was, "Should the occupation be part of the question, or should it not be during those protests?" And now it's not even a question. Of course, it's part of the conversation. Of course, the settlements are part of the conversation when we talk about the judicial overhaul. And of course, the occupation is one of the major roots and causes of the deterioration of the democratic institutions. It's a very interesting process that the Israeli public is going through.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, this doesn't mean that Sally Abed sees a critical mass of Jewish Israelis suddenly defending the rights of Palestinians. However, she believes that does not necessarily preclude change.

SALLY ABED: We're not anywhere near there. As a community organizer, we look at things differently. We look at the spectrum of support, right?

And we are looking at the people who were maybe a little bit in the center and are now like two clicks to the left, and people who were one click to the right. And they're now on the center, these are major deep processes that are necessary for us to go forward.

CHAKRABARTI: Meanwhile, Palestinians are experiencing a terrible crime wave in their communities.

The rise of, further rise of organized crime, murders. Sally Abed says that comes about because of the system that's been in place long before the Netanyahu government came into power.

ABED: I really think it's an extension of the system of oppression. In the West Bank, it's a military occupation. In Gaza, it's a siege, and in Israel, the Palestinians just are suffering from constant discrimination, poverty, very high levels of poverty, of political persecution and complete negligence of crime for years, and it's flourished. It has completely flourished. Organized crime has taken over every single aspect of our lives today. We have zero safe spaces. Political. personal, social. We have zero safe spaces as Palestinians in Israel.

It's yet another extension of the oppressive Israeli system. Yeah. On Palestinians.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Sally Abed. She's a political activist and leader at Standing Together, the largest Jewish-Arab grassroots movement in Israel. So Nadav Tamir. Sally there in that last bit took this broader perspective of the reality for Palestinians and how that may be informing the evolving thinking amongst protesters.

I'm wondering if you could help us understand a little bit more the plans that the Netanyahu government has, for example, the West Bank and what's been going on with the Israeli military in those places, specifically through the point of what does the judicial overhaul further allow the Israeli government to do in Palestinian Territories?

TAMIR: Yeah, it's important to remember that the judicial reform, as they call it, was created in order to make this government or this coalition, to enable them to pass many clauses within the coalition agreements that has to do with so many things in Israeli life and also in the territories.

It is actually a coalition of the ultra-Orthodox who have their own sectorial issues and don't want the rule of law because they want their own benefits. And also, the messianic setters who want, who know that the Supreme Court could prevent them from doing what they want in the territories.

And while we are witnessing, and most of the attention is on the judicial reform, there is another revolution happening in the territories. With the minister of finance, but he's also a minister within the Minister of Defense, is actually changing the rules of the game in the West Bank.

And actually, instead of the military being, holding the situation because the occupation's supposed to be temporary, He's actually saying, "No, the occupation is not temporary. And I'm moving the whole thing into civilian hands, which is completely against international law." And has a lot of consequences that I'm afraid most demonstrators don't even realize.

So the situation on the ground, which is, they did not invent the occupation. It's happening for 56 years. But what they're doing right now is tearing the masks that the occupation is temporary and that we are actually looking for a partner for two-state solution, because this government has no intention.

What they really want to do is annex big chunks of the West Bank.

CHAKRABARTI: So then, but then tell me more about how that, like you said, that tearing off of the mask might be being received by the Israeli Jewish public at large, because as you pointed out, this has been going on for decades.

Why now?

TAMIR: First of all, as I said, people moved out of their comfort zone, and they become more attentive to what's going on and listening to the news. And many people that in the past, I used to tell my Telavivian friends that they're enjoying the jacuzzi on the Titanic when they ignore what's happening in the West Bank.

But now I think they're awakened. And another thing is that settler violence and the defense that some of the Jewish supremacy ministers in this government are backing is outrageous. That even people who in the past did not really care much about what's going on there, are starting to pay attention.

And to that I will add that because of the international law consequences, we might reach a situation where the protections that Israel had, because we had an independent judiciary, is going to be removed. So soldiers, politicians who are actually acting in the West Bank are going to be vulnerable to the international courts, for example.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. Nadav Tamir, stand by for just a moment. We've got much more to try and understand when we come back. This is On Point.

Part III 

CHAKRABARTI: Today we are talking about what may lay ahead for Israel and Israeli democracies as protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial reforms continue to flood into Israeli streets eight months after they began.

Now, we've already talked a little bit about the role that major institutions in Israel are playing right now, and that includes the military and intelligence agencies in Israel. So Dahlia Scheindlin, the public opinion researcher we heard at the top of the show, says it is striking how many top-level folks in those same institutions have backed the protest movement.

SCHEINDLIN: Much of the resistance to the government's policies has come from within the security services, the army, the air force. From the very early stages. there were figures within the Mossad, employees of the Mossad who wanted to participate, the head of the Mossad had to give them approval to allow them to participate in demonstrations.

The police are much maligned by all sides, frankly. But to be honest, They have been doing a pretty good job of protecting hundreds of thousands of protesters, making sure everything goes off smoothly, closing down roads in major cities, especially in Tel Aviv. And it's true that they have sometimes used a heavy hand, but I think for the most part, the police have fairly balanced sense of how to manage security and society, and I don't think they would accept orders to go overboard with that.

CHAKRABARTI: Again, that's Dahlia Scheindlin, public opinion researcher in Tel Aviv. As she said, some members of the intelligence community and the military not only wanted to participate in the protests, they have sometimes refused to do their duties as ordered by the Netanyahu government. So one person who is vocal about his support for the anti-Netanyahu protest is Josh Drill.

He's Jewish American, now, an Israeli citizen, and he joined the Israeli army, became a platoon commander of the storied Golani Brigade, and he told us that experience changed him.

JOSH DRILL: I became an officer and was stationed with my platoon in the heart of Heran. And I was not really prepared for what we would be doing, entering Palestinian homes on a weekly basis in order to guarantee the security of these 800 Messianic settlers living in the heart of Hebron.

And there was one particular raid that I'll just never forget. We entered the house at around two o'clock in the morning, and we had to separate men into one room and women and children into another room, so we could start searching the house. And there was this boy around seven or eight years old and he was just peeing his pants.

I just remember looking at the boy and having this kind of almost out of body experience, realizing, "Oh my God, I could be that kid and that kid could be in my shoes."

CHAKRABARTI: Josh also says that Israelis tend to play down the settler movement, but he has protected and spoken with settlers, and he says these experiences have made him believe that the settler movement is a much bigger problem for Israel than other Israelis might believe.

DRILL: I discovered for the first time as an officer about the dangers of Messianic settlers who seek to turn Israel into an apartheid state. While I was there as an officer, I could hear what they were talking about. There's different thought leaders in Hebron that would talk to me and talk to the soldiers.

Very racist, very ultranationalist ideologies. And they were always, I think, hushed to the side. Put to the side and said, "Oh, that's only a little minority. That's not, that doesn't represent Israeli society." And now we see, we now need to deal with the implications of this.

CHAKRABARTI: One more thing, Josh says, of course, because of the historic persecution of Jews, that many Jews and Israelis are reflexively protective of the settlers, however, he sees that as changing.

DRILL: I can tell you that for Jews and lovers of Israel all over the world, there has always been a natural inclination to want to defend the state of Israel, to defend what Israel represents and what the Israeli government is doing. There's also a shift in that now because of the fact that people like Ben-Gvir, and these Messianic Extreme international settlers are now in power.

We have no longer any motivation to explain or to try to justify the actions of what this government is doing.

CHAKRABARTI: Again, that's Josh Drill, former member of the Israeli military. So he's describing there what he sees as fundamentally wrong, and even anti-democratic actions that he had to take as a member of the Israeli military.

However, it is obvious that Prime Minister Netanyahu's government sees the protestors themselves as behaving in an anti-democratic way. So once again, here's Ron Dermer, Israeli government minister responding to that issue. He was on PBS's NewsHour speaking to Nick Schifrin.

RON DERMER: Unfortunately, some of these protesters have crossed lines that should never be crossed.

We're a citizen's army in Israel, the Army should have never been brought into it. And I think --

SCHIFRIN: Wait a minute, wait. Are you criticizing individual members for don't protesting at all? Is that what you said?

DERMER: No, of course not. The protest is a fundamental right in every democracy. What I don't think you should do, military reservists should not come to an elected government and say, if you don't adopt this or that policy, we're not going to serve democracy.

SCHIFRIN: But you have Israeli military leaders warning the Prime Minister that this is a readiness issue. That's more than just the question of individual reserves.

DERMER: Because the military reservists have decided that they're going to dictate the policy.

SCHIFRIN: And the leader, and the military leaders have said there's a significant --

DERMER: But the people who make decisions in a democracy are not military reservists or military officials.

It's the elected branch of government and that's Israel's democratic leaders that have to make that decision.

CHAKRABARTI: Again, that was Ron Dermer, government minister on PBS's NewsHour. Nadav Tamir, I still want to get some clarity here about what the role that the military here is playing in Israel, because isn't it entirely possible that the Israeli military, that the parts of it that have spoken out against the reforms, aren't necessarily doing that because they're suddenly having a crisis of conscience regarding what the military is doing in the West Bank and Gaza, but rather it's for the military's own integrity.

And that should the judicial crisis ebb away here, that that would calm the concerns of the Israeli military, but not necessarily change anything in what's happening in the West Bank and Gaza.

TAMIR: So there are different layers to what's going on. Some of it is because people said, "Listen, we signed up to serve for our country, because we believe in the principles, in the declaration of principle of independence, which is that Israel is a democratic liberal democracy, the democratic covenant of the Jewish people.

And what this government is doing is changing, the government, the state, in a way that it's not the contract that we signed on. Another aspect is that some people say, "Listen, we might actually pay the price if we do things that are unlawful." And the international law says Israel doesn't have an independence judicial system to actually take care of those issues on its own, then the international courts will deal with it.

And the other thing is more awakening, that I spoke about before, and Josh Drill also spoke about it, that people are starting to ask questions that they didn't ask in the past. And that goes also to the ongoing occupation, and where does it lead Israel and that the occupation actually cannot survive in a democracy.

Even if we achieve democracy for the Jews, we will still have the occupation, which means that so many Palestinians are under military occupation and that is not democratic.

CHAKRABARTI: So let's hear what Sally Abed, the Israeli-Arab activist has to stay about that.

ABED: It's quite obvious for Israelis that the occupation has a very heavy moral toll.

I don't think that's something that you can hide. I do think that it was necessary though, to build a narrative that justifies the oppressive system, by saying it's either them or us. If they don't suffer, like, we will die. So it's a very interesting moral dissonance that Israel has so successfully built.

It's an amazing achievement almost, the amount of dissonance they were able to maintain for 75 years, for 100 years. But I do think that something is happening.

CHAKRABARTI: Sally Abed, the Israeli-Arab activist there. So something is happening, she says, but the question is what really is happening? And that brings us back to something that we began to tangle with at the beginning of the show.

What could happen next? Where does the standoff between the government and the protest movement in Israel go from here? So once again, here's Dahlia Scheindlin.

SCHEINDLIN: I'd like to think we're not headed towards civil war, but as to whether Israel now moves ahead to strengthen its democratic institutions, deepen the understanding and education for democratic values, putting together new kinds of political and social coalitions between, for example, Jewish and Arab citizens or other historically marginalized populations, including within Jewish society, or whether the government eventually has its way, lets the protests run its course.

Annexes the West Bank, formalizes, institutionalizes, the existing inequality between Israeli citizens and everybody else, that right now, I think, nobody can predict. And I'd like to say it would be the former, but it very easily could end up being the latter.

CHAKRABARTI: Nadav Tamir, I want to just check ourselves here for a moment. Because I think we could say that we've heard voices including yours of very cautious optimism.

But again, underscoring the cautious part. But is there not also reason to actually be quite pessimistic about the degree of change that might happen in Israeli society over the coming months, years, or even decades? Because Dahlia there was talking about, this may be an opportunity to strengthen Israeli democratic institutions.

But as we've seen right here in the United States, once those institutions are weakened, it is very hard to rebuild them unless there's overwhelming support amongst the people for a stronger democracy. And my view here in the United States is that perhaps there isn't overwhelming support in this very country to strengthen the pillars of democracy here.

So does that not justify some degree of pessimism regarding Israel's future?

TAMIR: We all know that nobody could predict the future. And we all know that in times of crisis, and Israel is indeed in times of crisis, there is a lot of anxiety, and many people are very concerned. The reason why I'm optimistic is that I believe that Israel was on a very problematic course, even before this awful government that we have now.

But because the liberal majority was asleep it just went this way and there was no way to change course. And now because this government went so assertively, they awakened the liberal majority. And that is an opportunity to turn this crisis into a change. Because Israel really need a constitutional framework.

Israel need border between the majority and the rights of the minority. Israel needs a border between state and religion. And Israel needs, badly, a border between us and a Palestinian state. And I do believe that this crisis might bring about some change. I don't know if the change will be exactly the way I want it, but I believe that it's better than just going on in the status quo that we had before.

CHAKRABARTI: To wrap up the conversation, Nadav, in a sense as one does on a public radio show like this, we have been talking somewhat abstractly about these concerns regarding rights that protesting Israelis have. But have there been concrete changes so far? On the ground in the lives of Israelis, regarding say far right-wing strictures, in their lives or not? Is it still just an abstract concern?

TAMIR: You do see more and more cases, for example, where women are told that they have to go to the back of the bus and the LGBTQ people, and of course, the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, are suffering for a long time. But they never saw the actually fascist that is an Israeli version of a Ku Klux Klan in the government. We're not where it could go yet. But I do believe that, for example, in the territories, with the feeling of many of the settlers, that they have the backing of the ministers and there is much more violence.

I do believe that the change is already felt, but I think it is still reversible. And it is, I think, also a time for American Jews and also for the American administration and Congress to understand that the fight for democracy is not only in the U.S. and it's not only in Hungary, it's everywhere in the world.

And liberal should hold hands together to fight for our democracies together.

CHAKRABARTI: I have five seconds, but I want to get clarification. The women being forced to ride in the back of the bus, is that happening only in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods or more broadly in places like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem?

TAMIR: Of course, more in more traditional places, less in Tel Aviv, but it did even happen in Givatayim, which is a very liberal city, and there are several other incidents like that.

This program aired on August 31, 2023.


Headshot of Stefano Kotsonis

Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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