How Israel’s Far Right Is Prompting Outrage from the Jewish Diaspora
A protest about democracy in Israel takes place in London's Parliament Square on March 12, 2023. Credit - Matthew Chattle—Future Publishing/Getty Images
The gathering of hundreds of protesters outside U.K. parliament on Sunday was a pro-Israel demonstration unlike any other. Speakers—among them British lawmakers, pro-Israel advocates, and Jewish community leaders—decried the Israeli government as the recently re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moves to weaken the country’s independent courts, a key tenet of any democracy. Attendees wielded Israeli flags and homemade posters chanting “democracy” in Hebrew. One sign, featuring Netanyahu with a crown on his head, read, “save our democracy,” and another, “time to go, Pharoah Bibi,” referencing Netanyahu’s oft-used nickname.
“They [the government] don’t have any approval here and they don’t represent the Jewish community or Jewish values,” says Yoav Ginat, a dual British and Israeli national, who is one of the demonstrators. Our conversation is briefly interrupted by loud cheers from the crowd—a mix of Israeli expats and British Jews, religious and secular, young and old—and chants of busha, or shame. “They alienate Jews, but I also think they alienate other supporters of Israel as well.”
In January, Israel’s most right-wing government in history unveiled plans to make it easier for lawmakers to influence and even overrule Supreme Court decisions. The country has since been mired in a democratic crisis—one that has cost it the support of the majority of Israelis, parts of the Israeli military, and, increasingly, the wider Jewish diaspora, with which Israel claims a close relationship. Pro-Israel organizations and advocates in the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere have come out against the judicial overhaul. Meanwhile, scores of Israel supporters are taking to the streets in cities around the world to express their solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in the country—which have spurred some of the biggest protests Israel has ever seen—and to voice their own dissatisfaction with the country’s illiberal turn.
The stakes of a judicial reform are higher in Israel because, unlike many democracies, the country does not have a codified constitution. Instead, it has a set of Basic Laws that are interpreted by the Supreme Court. By asserting greater influence over the makeup of the court and hobbling its ability to make decisions, critics say that the government is removing the sole check on its power.
“We are in really uncharted waters here”
At the demonstration, a small share of the protesters pointed out the incompatibility between Israeli democracy and the country’s repressive treatment of Palestinians. “As long as there’s an occupation, it cannot be a democracy—not a real one, not a just one, not for everyone,” says Keren Segal, a demonstrator. She carried a sign that read, “democracy and occupation cannot co-exist.”
That the Israeli government is prompting so many of Israel’s supporters to speak out against its actions—including in some cases the treatment of Palestinians—represents what some observers see as an unprecedented fissure in Israel-diaspora relations. This has been particularly pronounced in the U.S., where scores of American Jewish organizations, leaders, and business executives—many of whom typically refrain from criticizing Israel publicly—have expressed alarm over the proposed judicial overhaul. Many more have spoken out against the Israeli government’s extremist members. “We are in really uncharted waters here,” says Susie Gelman, the chairwoman of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) advocacy group, which is dedicated to advancing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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That this is happening within American Jewry isn’t entirely surprising. Most American Jews still identify as liberal. The current Israeli government—an avowedly right-wing, ultra-nationalist, and religiously-exclusionary coalition—is anything but. Among its most powerful ministers is Bezaelel Smotrich, an Israeli settler in the occupied West Bank and a self-described “proud homophobe” whose apparent endorsement of the deadly rampage on the Palestinian city of Huwara earlier this month prompted 150 American Jewish leaders to sign onto a letter calling for their community to shun the finance minister during his recent U.S. visit. Another minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a former member of Kach, an ultra-nationalist party that was banned for incitement to racism.
The IPF’s Gelman warns of a “rupture between the American Jewish community and Israel” if the judicial overhaul goes ahead. That could upset the long-standing relationship between the U.S. and Israel at a time when Israel is losing support among younger Americans. “The U.S.-Israel relationship has always been based on common values, not just common interests,” Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, previously told TIME in January. If those values are no longer seen to be shared, support for Israel among its stalwart defenders may not be as automatic as it once was. For many Democratic lawmakers, that is already the case. Shifting attitudes toward Israel invariably impacts that calculation, Indyk added. “They see that their base is moving away from Israel.”
For many supporters of Israel, this is a watershed moment for Israeli democracy—one that liberal Israelis and its allies in the Jewish diaspora will not be able to ignore. “In showing its contempt for anything liberal, [the Israeli government] has actually managed to awaken the bear of the Israeli liberals,” says Nufar Galin, an Israeli expat living in London, and another one of the demonstrators. “It’s a huge risk, but also a huge boon in the sense that maybe they’re going a step far enough to be held accountable … for Israel to be saved from itself.”
“There is no turning back anymore,” says Segal. “It sounds a bit weird, but sadly I’m happy that it’s been going on, because finally people are waking up.”