EXTRA: "ANARCHY" IN ISRAEL
A brief note on the week ahead from State of Tel Aviv Editor, Vivian Bercovici
The Netanyahu government continues to bulldoze the judicial “reform” legislation through the Knesset at a pace that is injudicious, to say the least.
And Israeli society is being torn apart.
Last Saturday night, shortly after 7 pm on Saturday, I left my home in central Tel Aviv. Over my shoulder, like almost every single person, I carried a bamboo pole with a large Israeli flag flapping. It was a breezy, cool early spring evening.
As I walked the kilometer to “Kaplan” – the Tel Aviv intersection which has become ground zero for the demonstrations – the single became a few, which became a flowing crowd, which became a densely packed convergence of 250,000 people. Throughout Israel another 250,000 gathered in various cities and towns to protest.
The distress over Israel’s crisis – perhaps the most intense since the aftermath of the 1973 war – is visceral. This is about whether the country will continue to be a liberal democracy.
For months now, Israel has been hurtling towards the brink, on which it hovers precariously.
But two weeks ago, when 37 top tier reserve air force combat pilots stated they would refuse to attend one day of training (among many) the country became unhinged.
It began with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slagging them as “anarchists.”
Particularly given his personal and family background serving in elite combat units, this brazen, coarse slap-down convulsed the nation.
These air force pilots and elite combat soldiers – devote their lives to defense of the country and (contrary to what the PM and others in his extremist government would have you believe) are of all political stripes and ethnicities. In civilian life they are overwhelmingly highly-educated and super successful. They are also deeply devoted to the nation and service is embedded in their DNA.
To call the Prime Minister’s outburst shocking doesn’t begin to describe it.
His profound betrayal of what many Israelis regard as the backbone of the country – the sons and daughters who literally put their lives on the line – set off a thermonuclear chain reaction.
Oren Shvil, a 52 year old father of three, husband, independent businssman and Lt. Col. (res.) in an elite combat unit, still does reserve duty, even though he is no longer legally compelled to do so.
People like Oren are what Israelis call – “salt of the earth.” The best of the best.
In fact, yesterday evening a prominent and very experienced television anchor was shocked by what he heard when interviewing Likud MK Danny Danon, who was parroting the stock Likud lines about the controversial legislation actually enhancing democracy and confirming that the government had no intention of slowing down or reconsidering. Anything.
And Oded Ben Ami, a seasoned professional, could not mask his shock and dismay.
“You are talking about the salt of the earth. Do you not hear them? Do you not see what is going on?”
It would appear that Danon, and his Likud colleagues, do not.
Oren Shvil is the furthest thing from an activist. He is not “political”, aside from the fact that he votes. We met at his home in a small, quiet community last Friday to discuss how he has emerged, quite unintentionally, as a central figure in organizing these grassroots protests across the country. His testimony and experience – and disillusionment – are devastating and inspiring.
And he says this is the most important battle of his life.
In recent months, I have spoken with hundreds of Israelis – from all walks of life – to try to understand the various perspectives on this roiling crisis.
When I launched this publication, I emphasized our commitment to pluralism and liberal democracy. The resonance of that stand takes on a “next-level” meaning these days in Israel.
In light of the extreme urgency and impossible pace of developments here STLV has decided to hold our planned content drops and are instead producing two important podcast episodes in the next week.
The first will focus on the spontaneous transformation of the country’s top warriors into its feature activists. As many have said to me, this crisis has awakened a long dormant beast in Israel; the quiet majority that serves in the army, pays taxes, does reserve duty and rarely complains.
So many aspects of this government and the judicial and legislative reforms, however, have pushed Israeli society too far. And the backlash, should the reforms be implemented, could and would likely transform the modern miracle into an autocratic state with a heavy element of theocracy. Not only would this vibrant society wither but the economy would unravel. In fact, early signs of both quite extreme consequences are flaring – warning signals. We will hear from the elite fighters in Israel – without whom Israel’s military and security capability disappears; why they are so outraged and determined to ensure that their home remains a liberal democracy.
Our second podcast this week will take a hard look at what exactly the Kohelet Forum – the independent “think tank” that drafted much (if not all) of the judicial reform legislation – does and is doing.
For a decade now Kohelet has been promoting what it characterizes as a “libertarian” agenda. Others – like me – see it very differently. Their significant funding has always been kept secret but was recently exposed to be provided by two hedge fund billionaires residing in Philadelphia.
Last Thursday, Kohelet offices in Jerusalem were targeted in the protests, which caused their two top representatives in Israel to lash out in indignation at the protesters in an op-ed that ran in an American publication.
We will hear what many Israelis think of Kohelet’s role in this crisis and also from legal experts on the soundness of their comparative legal analysis, which is the basis of the proposals they have drafted for the government’s convenience. Hopefully, Kohelet will respond to the invitations extended by State of Tel Aviv to explain matters from their perspective.
In the meantime, it was wonderful to be interviewed recently by my friend, media entrepreneur and public intellectual extraordinaire, Rudyard Griffiths. You can listen to our discussion about this moment in Israel here: munkdebates.com/podcast/vivian-bercovici-dialogue in the latest episode of the Munk Debates Podcast, dropped yesterday.
This moment is critical for Israel’s future as a liberal democracy, tech innovation powerhouse and beacon of possibility in middle east.
It is that fundamental and existential. There is no middle ground.
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So, now that the Knesset has passed a law preventing the indictment of a sitting Prime Minister, will Netanyahu back down with the judicial reform? I realize this is an extremely cynical question, but then cynicism has become the armor of the day when discussing politics, Israel, or Canada.