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Proudly part of Israel’s ’madding crowd’



“What are you doing this Saturday night?” For many Israelis, the answer is simple and obvious.

It’s a long time since so many thousands upon thousands of Israelis collectively knew in advance how they were going to spend their Saturday nights. Whether in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheba, Haifa, or my home city of Kfar Saba, it won’t be inside, visiting friends, or at restaurants or pubs, but outside to city crossroads screaming “de-mo-cra-tia” (democracy) and “busha” (shame), while holding aloft Israeli flags. These crossroads are a metaphor of where the country is today – at a crossroad. Anxious about the future character of their country as it threatens to mutate into something dreaded, people of all ages in chilly weather will stand for hours on the soles of their feet for the soul of their country.

I’m proud to be one of them.

People say, “What’s the point of protesting?”, “What do you hope to achieve?”, “They’re just going to ignore and proceed anyway. Why bother?”

Well, for one thing, a lot of important folk have joined in “bothering”. These include judges and jurists; Israeli generals and former security chiefs; bankers; titans of hi-tech; and leaders of Israel’s opposition parties, joined by world leaders like the presidents of the United States and France. All have one thing in common – they have Israel’s interests at heart. They can’t all be “misguided”, as I have been called.

On the contrary, more and more think the prime minister and his government are “misguided” in forcing the country down a dangerous road with a reckless driver behind the wheel. Whether reckless or proverbially carjacked with a gun to the head from coalition partners, the prime minister is seemingly disregarding all the warning signs, reminiscent of one Marie Antoinette, blinded to the reality outside the palace walls and arrogantly saying, “Let them eat cake.”

We know how that story ended!

And then – news flash – the state president, from his residence in Jerusalem, announced that he was going to address the nation.

When? We learned only hours away, at 20:00, in what his office called “a special address to the nation … in fateful days.”

“Fateful days” in Israel is war talk, but we’re not at war. Or maybe we are – at war with ourselves.

We feel that we’re in uncharted terrain. The situation must be beyond serious if the president, knowing that he didn’t have the approval of the prime minister or any in his coalition to proceed, was still determined to do so. The state of the nation, he felt, demanded that he intervene. It was largely unprecedented in Israeli history for a president to address the nation and warn the people not against a foreign danger, but a danger from within and from the highest echelons of power – the prime minister and his coalition government!

People across Israel sat glued to their TV’s when President Isaac Herzog walked solemnly up to the podium.

I reflected as he began to speak that this was a far cry from when on 17 March 1949, Chaim Weizmann was sworn in as Israel’s first president. Recognising that his coattails were somewhat clipped by Ben Gurion and that his position was largely ceremonial, he was heard to quip cynically, “The only place they will allow me to poke my nose into is my handkerchief.”

Breaking the protocol of the presidency, Herzog was undaunted about poking his nose into Israel’s current affairs of state. On 12 February 2023, Israel’s state presidency was as far removed from ceremonial as it has ever been in its history of 74 years.

In his prime-time address to the nation, the president made a passionate appeal to the government less to halt – noting that “change” and “reform” were legitimate pursuits – but more to suspend its hurried legislative process to pave the way for negotiations with the opposition on a broad compromise.

With deepening rifts between right and left, secular and devout, the president cautioned, “I feel – we all feel – that we’re a moment before a confrontation, even a violent confrontation. The powder keg is about to explode, and brothers are about to raise their hands against brothers.”

In his heartfelt address, he brought the full weight of his office in his appeal to a government hellbent on bulldozing its judicial overhaul and imposing it on a highly polarised Israeli society. In urging a pause to the judicial shakeup, the president proposed a five-point plan.

The immediate reaction from the government wasn’t encouraging. Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is the prime minister’s point man to drive this judicial overhaul, sounded more like the proverbial Marie Antoinette when he shrugged off the president’s appeal on Channel 13, saying the legislation wouldn’t be halted “even for a minute”.

Herzog reiterated his calls to calm public discourse around his proposal.

Where is this leading?

Well, if the government was ignoring its state president, not so former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who called for a presidential committee on the government’s proposed judicial “reforms” that should begin with a 60-day freeze on all legislation connected to it. Addressing the Knesset, Lapid said, “Sixty days is the blink of an eye in the life of a democracy”, and called for a “proper process” for how such a committee would work. “We waited 74 years. Nothing will happen if it takes another few weeks, during which we will save the nation of Israel from a terrible crisis.”

Also positively responding to the president’s call to save the nation from “a terrible crisis” were 400 ex-senior security officials, including former heads of the police, Shin Bet, and Mossad, who signed a letter urging Herzog not to agree to any laws that contradicted Israel’s core democratic values as part of his efforts to mediate a compromise. The letter reiterated the president’s concern that the proposed legislative steps would “constitute a judicial revolution that will cause damage for generations to come”.

Signatories to the letter of appeal include former Shin Bet Chief Nadav Argaman; former Mossad directors Tamir Pardo and Danny Yatom; former Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki; and former National Security Adviser Uzi Arad.

Is this government even ready to listen?

If not, it will probably also ignore the full-page personal appeal appearing in Israeli newspapers addressed to Herzog by seven Jewish Nobel Laureates – six of whom are Israeli. They are Professor Aaron Ciechanover (2004 chemistry); Professor Avram Hershko (2004 chemistry); Professor Daniel Kahnerman (2002 economics); Professor Roger Kornberg (2006 chemistry); Professor Michael Levitt (2013 chemistry); Professor Aryeh Warshel (2013 chemistry); and Professor Ada Yonath (2009 chemistry). Their appeal is based on the negative impact Netanyahu’s government’s proposed legal “reform” will have on scientific research and higher education.

“We call on the president of the state of Israel to take a clear stance against the proposed changes, on the prime minister to return to the positions he himself advocated until recently, and on the members of the Knesset to hear our voice and halt the proposed changes to the legal system,” they wrote.

How is it that Israel – the “Start-up-Nation” – prides itself on being such a small country with so many Nobel laureates, but when the time comes that these same prized laureates warn the country, this government ignores them because it believes it knows better?

These are troubling times if every Saturday night in the calendar is blocked off to go and protest. After seven consecutive weekends of protest, at the latest demonstration in Kfar Saba, addressed by former deputy prime minister and former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, it was announced that almost a quarter of a million Israelis were joining in the demonstrations at more than 60 sites across Israel. This includes the almost 135 000 people in Tel Aviv, who marched from Dizengoff Center to Kaplan Street.

Where to next?

The setting reminds me of two great medieval armies standing ready on a European battlefield, only a brief gallop apart.

To avoid an impeding societal clash, we hope the wise appeal of the president will prevail in time.

Is Israel unravelling? There are enough people who love it to ensure it doesn’t. In the meantime, the protesters will continue and I will be among them as a proud Zionist.

  • David E. Kaplan is a freelance writer, public speaker, editor of magazines, and the cofounder of multi-media platform Lay of the Land, in which this article first appeared.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Choni Davidowitz

    February 26, 2023 at 4:48 pm

    The biggest existential threat to the people of Israel is the Supreme Court. This must change. Only this “new” government can do this. Furthermore the Arabs within Israel are killing thousands of Jews. THEY MUST GO. Only this new government can implement a policy to transfer all hostile Arabs from Eretz Yisrael.

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