The Israeli Protesters Deserve Our Support

The Israeli Protesters Deserve Our Support

A free judiciary is a prerequisite for ending Israeli domination over the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Arab Israelis and their supporters march from Habima Square to Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv on August 26, 2023. (Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In March, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the shekel had “weakened to its lowest level in four years against the dollar.”

CNN pointed to another sign of economic distress in Israel in August: “A recent poll from the non-profit ‘Start-up Nation Central’ (SNC) found almost 70% of more than 500 startups surveyed are taking steps to shift money, workers and even their headquarters outside Israel. . . . Some are even laying off staff.” 

Are these developments the result of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which seeks to put international economic pressure on Israel to secure freedom for Palestinians? Not at all. Nearly two decades of BDS solidarity efforts across the globe have had almost zero impact on Israel’s economy. Until the protests that began last winter in response to the government’s proposal of a new law that essentially eliminates judicial review, the shekel was a relatively strong currency. Its collapse is the result of the Israeli government’s attempt to decimate the Supreme Court, and the extraordinary mobilization in the streets to counter this action. International companies are reconsidering whether to invest in Israel’s vaunted technology sector. Meanwhile, business leaders inside Israel are meeting with the head of the national trade union, the Histadrut, to prepare for a general strike without end if, as anticipated, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to adhere to a court ruling on the new law expected this fall.

While we don’t yet know whether the court will rule against the government, it is a strong possibility. The fact that Supreme Court President Esther Hayut has ordered the entire fifteen-person court to hear appeals on September 12, rather than the typical three-person panel, signals something out of the ordinary. To date, Netanyahu has not said in certain terms that he will abide by its decision. By contrast, most major figures who run various defense and security ministries, or lead public and private sector firms, have intimated that they will support the court.

Meanwhile, the massive public protests have been unrelenting. What began as a single protest in the heart of Tel Aviv this past winter has blossomed into a movement in which roughly 7 million people have demonstrated in over 4,000 locations across Israel each Saturday night.

It’s an imperfect movement. Much of the leadership is motivated by the corruption they see in government, and nothing else. They argue—I believe mistakenly—that their battle for democracy has nothing to do with the Israeli occupation over the Palestinians. Nonetheless, it is a struggle that deserves the left’s support. A free judiciary is a prerequisite for advancing democracy, which includes fighting for equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, and for sustaining a movement to end the occupation. A vibrant left can only grow in Israel if there is a rejuvenated center.

 

The symbol of the protests is the Israeli flag. Large demonstrations begin with the singing of “Hatikvah,” the national anthem. This is an intentional decision by a movement that aims to reclaim the notion of patriotism from Netanyahu and his allies. The organizers understood that if they were to capture the streets, they also had to capture the state’s symbols.

There is no doubt that the presence of thousands of Israeli flags with the Jewish star and other overtly Jewish state symbols alienates the 21 percent of the Israeli citizenry that is of Palestinian or Arab origin. But this may be changing. As of this writing, at least 170 Arab citizens of Israel have been killed in shootings in 2023—violence caused in large part by the fact that Arab Israelis have been forced to turn to the black market in the face of discrimination. The tragic levels of violence within the Arab community, and the issues that have caused them, are gaining traction in the protests. In late August, the mayor of Tira, a mid-sized Arab city in central Israel where gun violence took the life of the city manager, spoke on the main stage at a Saturday night demonstration in Tel Aviv. In Haifa, a mixed city of Jewish and Arab residents, Arab activists have spoken more frequently at the demonstrations, denouncing the “discrimination and abandonment” they have faced from the Israeli government.

The horrific crime wave isn’t the only reason Arab-Jewish equality inside of Israel should be a part of the demands of the demonstrators. I have argued for changing the state’s symbols, increasing national holidays, and revising the narrative of the state to include all of Israel’s citizens. And none of this can happen without a free judiciary.

Similarly, the success of the current protest movement is central to the goal of ending the occupation. Where the peace movement in Israel could once garner a demonstration of hundreds of thousands of people, the occupation has essentially disappeared into the background of most Israelis’ lives. Meanwhile, the occupation and the Jewish settlers’ movement are integral to the judicial coup by the Netanyahu government. Three of the politicians leading the charge are settler leaders: Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, and Simcha Rothman, the legislator who leads the pivotal Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee in the Knesset. The demands they are making on top of their attempted destruction of the legal system include excessive building and funding for more and more settlements. If the protest movement fails, the occupation will deepen in an even more dangerous fashion for both peoples.

 

There is a left in Israel that the international left can and should support. It is the task of that left—with its allies—to argue for a democracy in Israel that embraces all Israeli citizens and that seeks an end to Israeli domination over the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Part of that left can be found in the country’s universities, which have played an important role in these protests. In March, when Netanyahu tried to fire his defense minister for opposing the judicial overhaul, nearly all research universities inside of Israel declared a general strike against his government. (The only university not to join the strike was Ariel University, which is located in a Jewish city in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.) University presidents sent notices to faculty and students alike encouraging a day of political action. They posted the following announcement:

We, the heads of Israel’s research universities, presidents, rectors, and management, will stop studies in all of Israel’s research universities starting tomorrow morning, amid the continuation of the legislative process that undermines the foundations of Israeli democracy and endangers its continued existence. We call on the prime minister and the members of the coalition to stop the legislation and immediately enter talks in order to reach a broadly agreed upon outline.

University heads have also sought to protect Arab students against the rampant racism of this Israeli government. They have taken legal action to support freedom of speech for Palestinian students, and support for funding for educational efforts inside of the university system to promote equity with Palestinian students—all issues that have been raised during the tenure of this government. Recently, when Finance Minister Belazel Smotrich made the bogus claim that Palestinian or Arab university students were fueling terror cells in order to justify cutting state subsidies to an East Jerusalem pre-university program, Hebrew University President Asher Cohen told Israel Radio, “Smotrich’s remarks on that issue lack all basis. . . . An attempt is being made here to discriminate against Arabs from East Jerusalem.”

In a March 2023 opinion piece for Inside Higher Education, Ron Robin, president of Haifa University (where 40 percent of the student body is Arab), explained the university leaders’ mobilization:

Israeli universities are . . . at risk of losing their autonomy, and the united front that we present to the general public is now more important than ever. Universities are the engines of the middle class, driving democratic values in our society. In Israeli society in particular, universities are surrounded by entities that think differently and do not necessarily embrace democratic values. The proposed judicial overhaul process placed an inordinate amount of influence in the hands of such entities, endangering our foundational values as we know it. As academic institutions, it was incumbent upon us to take a stand firmly and decisively in the way that we did. . . . Compromising the country’s democratic values will harm the fortitude of Israel, its academic freedom and the well-being of Israeli academia. We won’t sit back and watch that happen.

Instead of solidarity in their struggle against the authoritarian right, Israeli universities have received less than nothing from their U.S. counterparts. This past July, the American Anthropological Association voted through a BDS resolution against Israeli universities in the heat of the summer uprising. The timing was tone-deaf and revealed the blindness of the BDS strategy. 

The philosophy behind BDS is one-sided. It fights for the liberation of one people—the Palestinians—in a struggle that includes two peoples. It is also ineffective. It has never had an impact on the very thing it meant to change: Israel’s hold over the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Since BDS was founded in 2005, the occupation has gained ground, Israel has made global security agreements with numerous Arab nations, and the Palestinian people remain isolated.

Right now, Israeli activists are taking to the streets to challenge authoritarianism. The success of this movement is a prerequisite for equality for Arab citizens inside of Israel and to end the occupation. It’s incumbent on those of us who care about democracy to promote the mobilization inside Israel and support efforts to deepen it.


Jo-Ann Mort is a member of Dissent’s editorial board who writes frequently on issues related to Israel/Palestine.