In the early morning of Monday, March 27, 2023, former Israeli minister of diaspora affairs Nachman Shai was interviewed on the country’s public Hebrew-language news channel. The interview was part of live coverage of events unfolding since the country’s minister of defense had been fired the night before. The latter decision, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spurred an upsurge in the street protests and public upheaval that had taken hold of the country since the government had proposed a judicial reform package about three months earlier.
Shai, who is just a little older than the State of Israel itself and has therefore consciously lived through most of its history, claimed that he had never experienced anything similar to what was going on. Indeed, not only had tens of thousands spontaneously taken to the streets and blocked a main artery in Tel Aviv for several hours, the country’s largest trade union Histadrut was about to announce a national strike, with academia, healthcare services, air traffic, and the diplomatic corps joining the movement to different extents. All this was just the culmination of a massive protest movement that had taken root after a far-right government had been sworn in following four years of inconclusive elections and political instability.
The immediate steam was let off on Monday night, after Netanyahu temporarily shelved the contentious bills and when clashes between demonstrating supporters and opponents ended without major injuries. Still, the temporary truce does not mean that the country is on an easy track to deal with the questions it faces. First of all, the composition of the current government is not one that seems conducive to compromise, either internally or with the opposition, as the judicial reform saga has made clear. Also, while Netanyahu is known for the tricks he usually has up his sleeve, his coalition partners’ ideologies and motivations for joining the government may well require particular skills if the coalition is to hold. More fundamentally, however, both the government and the opposition, and Israeli society in its entirety, still need to come to grips with some basic questions that have accompanied the country since it was founded almost seventy-five years ago.
First, the relations between the very diverse groups within Israeli society, as well as their rights and duties, have not been the object of a fundamental legislative process as in many other countries with a “Western” tradition. Although the Israeli Declaration of Independence of May 15, 1948, stipulated that a constitution would be adopted no later than October 1 of the same year, such a foundational document never saw the light. As a result, many fundamental institutional changes—which elsewhere would require specific procedures or special majorities—can be carried out by a simple parliamentary vote. And such changes are increasingly being proposed and discussed because of demographic and societal developments that reshuffle the ways in which the different components of society interact. Indeed, several internal divisions exist within Israel’s Jewish population, of which the distinctions between Ashkenazi and Sephardic/Mizrachi, and between secular and religious are the most obvious. During the country’s first decades of existence, its institutions (government, judiciary, media, academia, etc.) were mainly shaped by Ashkenazi, secular left-wingers. The Sephardic and Mizrachi communities, however, started claiming more visibility and influence, especially since Menachem Begin’s electoral victory in 1977, while the (strictly) religious population has grown slowly yet steadily. These evolutions have raised fundamental issues about the place of tradition and religion in public life: does “religious conscience” trump anti-discrimination rules? Is gender segregation in civic spaces allowed? What is the role of strictly religious Torah scholars, who often do not work and usually do not serve in the army? Despite the blurring of old distinctions after decades of interaction as well as the arrival of Ethiopian and former Soviet Jews, questions like these revive the feeling of a real or perceived overlap between intra-Jewish faultlines, in which the left-wing, Ashkenazi, and secular oppose the right-wing, Sephardic/Mizrachi, and religious. Importantly, all these oppositions seem to have gained prominence in the Israeli debate of late, especially during Netanyahu’s time in power. In such a context, it was not surprising to recently hear several of the judicial reform’s proponents fume against the “elites,” in a reference to the circles that were in power following the state’s foundation. As long as this kind of history is part of the national (sub)consciousness, mutual understanding and conciliation tend to be fragile, certainly in the context of deeply divisive legislative proposals.
Another issue intrinsically linked to Israel’s founding is the standing of its Arab citizens, who make up about a fifth of its population. While they enjoy full civil and political rights like all other Israelis, relations between them and Jewish Israelis can take many different forms in practice, from collegiality and close friendships to mistrust and—in rare cases—outright violence. Arab Israelis, internally probably as diverse as their Jewish counterparts, collectively face a number of serious issues, such as internal violence and limited political representation. These matters are of an intricate nature and neither the Arab-Israeli communities themselves nor the Jewish-majority institutions can be held entirely accountable for them.
A second important observation is that large numbers of Arab Israelis take advantage of the opportunities the state offers to all citizens, yet many do not feel represented by the same state, a situation that probably originates in a shared responsibility as well. Tellingly, the waves of blue-and-white flags at the recent mass protests engulfed very few Arab citizens. Last week on Monday, while the Hebrew-language public broadcaster covered developments in a more than twenty-four-hour livestream, nothing similar was available at its Arabic-language counterpart. However, much more is needed—in education, media, and political debate—to bridge the gaps between Jewish and Arab experiences as well as narratives. While language, religion, and traditions are clearly distinct, a minimal extent of shared belonging and mutual awareness is necessary to prevent that divergences in interests or viewpoints escalate into violence, as painfully recalled by the May 2021 Jewish-Arab riots.
Violence has also been a regrettable characteristic of Israeli-Palestinian relations during most of Israel’s existence. While political negotiations between both parties have often been impossible, controversial, or difficult, the legal status of the territories in question—the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and (except in most Israeli views) East Jerusalem—remains unclear. Whereas Israelis regularly consider “Judea and Samaria” as a “part” of Israel (without specifying what that entails), the area in question was never annexed and Israel finds itself in a situation in which its borders are neither fixed nor internationally recognized. For the Palestinians, this state of affairs has produced, because of Israeli rule and control, huge consequences, that many Jewish Israelis are—willingly or not—unaware of. Still, for military, legal, and budgetary reasons, the Palestinian question also continues to influence life and politics within the Green Line. Therefore, beyond the obvious fact that improved Israeli-Palestinian relations are likely to lead to more security and better lives for all involved, progress regarding the Palestinian issue is also crucial for appeasement within Israeli society.
Nearly seventy-five years after the country’s founding, it seems that Israel is in dire need of true dialogue between the population groups within and outside its official borders. Such a dialogue, however, is not straightforward when schools, media, and religious institutions are operated in siloed ways, as is often the case in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Also, realities in the Middle East reinforce a political and societal culture that invests more in immediate reaction and stopgap measures than in in-depth debate and long-term planning. Nevertheless, the latter may be the only way to get to grips with some of the country’s fundamental choices. Interestingly, following the uproar last week on Monday, both a government and an opposition Knesset member claimed that the people are superior to specific points of contention. Moshe Solomon from the National Religious Party did so in a television interview from the Knesset, while opposition leader Yair Lapid used similar language in his address at a rally in Jerusalem. Following the latest developments, however, it remains to be seen whether people are indeed drawing lessons and whether citizens and their leaders are capable of opening up breaches in the ideological walls that have been separating them.
Dr. Alexander Loengarov is a Senior Affiliated Fellow at the Institute for International Law at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven, Belgium), as well as a former official of the European Economic and Social Committee of the European Union.
His writings reflect solely his own views, and not those of the European Economic and Social Committee or the European Union, which cannot be held responsible for any use made of it.