Israeli democracy is fighting for its life

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The writer is a historian, philosopher and author

To understand the events in Israel, one question must be asked: What limits the government’s power? Strong democracies depend on a whole system of checks and balances. But Israel lacks a constitution, an upper house of parliament, a federal structure or any other check on government power except for one – the Supreme Court. On Monday, the Netanyahu government plans to pass the first in a series of laws that will neutralize the Supreme Court. If you succeed, you will gain unlimited power.

Members of Netanyahu’s coalition have already revealed their intention to pass laws and pursue policies that would discriminate against Arabs, women, gays, transgender people, and secular people. Once the Supreme Court is out of the way, there will be nothing left to stop them. In such a situation, the government could also rig future elections, for example by banning Arab parties from participating – a move previously proposed by coalition members. Israel will continue to hold elections but it will become an authoritarian ritual rather than a free democratic contest.

Government members openly brag about their intentions. They make it clear that since they won the last Israeli elections, that means they can now do anything they want. Like other authoritarian powers, the Israeli government does not understand what democracy means. It believes that it is the dictatorship of the majority, and that those who win democratic elections are thus granted unlimited power. I have spoken in recent months with many of Netanyahu’s supporters, and they truly believe that any restraint on an elected government is undemocratic. “What do you mean we can’t take away people’s basic freedoms?” they say. But we won the election! This means we can do anything we want! In fact, democracy means freedom and equality for all. Democracy is a system that guarantees all people certain freedoms that even the majority cannot take away.

The establishment of a dictatorship in Israel will have dire consequences not only for Israeli citizens. The ruling coalition is led by messianic religious fanatics who believe in an ideology of Jewish supremacy. This calls for the annexation of occupied Palestinian lands to Israel without granting citizenship to the Palestinians, and ultimately dreams of destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque – one of Islam’s holiest sites – and building a new Jewish temple in its place.

Jewish sovereignty is not a fringe idea. It is represented in the coalition by the Jewish Power Party and the Religious Zionist Party. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (of the latter) recently called for the destruction of an entire Palestinian town in retaliation for the killing of Jewish settlers.

Men like Smotrich now command one of the most powerful military machines in the world, armed with nuclear and advanced cyber weapons. For decades, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned to prevent Iran from going nuclear, warning the world of the dangers posed by a fundamentalist regime with nuclear capabilities. Netanyahu is now establishing exactly such a system in Israel. This could set the entire Middle East on fire, with consequences that will reverberate far beyond the region. It would be Israeli stupidity to do such a thing, but as we learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, human stupidity should never be underestimated. It is one of the most powerful forces in history.

The good news is that in recent months a strong resistance movement has emerged to save Israeli democracy. Demonstrating, protesting and resisting in every nonviolent way known to us, hundreds of thousands of Israelis reject the ideology of Jewish supremacy, and connect with the ancient tradition of Jewish tolerance. Since Friday, more than 10,000 Army reservists — including hundreds of Air Force pilots, electronic warfare experts and elite unit commanders — have announced that they will not serve a dictatorial regime and will therefore suspend their service if judicial reforms proceed. By this Tuesday, the famous Israeli Air Force – which relies largely on reservists – may be partially grounded.

To appreciate the magnitude of this step, we must remember that military service is a sacred duty for many Israelis. In a country emerging from the ashes of the Holocaust, and facing existential threats for decades, the military has always been left out in political controversies. This is no longer the case. Former commanders of the Israeli army, air force and security services have publicly called on soldiers to stop serving. Veterans of Israel’s many wars say this is the most important conflict of their lives. The Netanyahu government is trying to portray this as a military coup, but the opposite is true. Israeli soldiers don’t take up arms to oppose the government – they lay them down. Their contract, they explain, is with Israeli democracy, and as soon as democracy ends – so does their contract.

The feeling that the social contract has been broken has also led universities, labor unions, high-tech companies and other private companies to threaten more strikes if the government continues the anti-democratic power grab. Israelis understand the potential damage to our country. As the so-called Start-Up Nation shuts down, investors all over the world are cashing out. The internal damage is even greater. Fear and hate now dominate relations between the various segments of society, as the social contract is torn to pieces. Members of the government call the demonstrators and reservists “traitors” and demand the use of force to crush dissent. Israelis worry that we may be days away from civil war.

But with the hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets, we feel like we have no choice. It is our duty to ourselves, to the Jewish tradition, and to humanity to prevent the rise of the dictatorship of Jewish supremacy. We stand in the streets, because we cannot do otherwise if we want to save Israeli democracy.

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