This summer I spent several days in Israel talking with people who were afraid for their country’s future. They were not, at that moment, focused on terrorism, Gaza, or Hamas. They feared something different: the emergence of an undemocratic Israel, a de facto autocracy. In January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his justice minister had announced a package of judicial “reforms” that, taken together, would have given their coalition government the power to alter Israeli legal institutions to their own political benefit. Their motives were mixed. Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, was eager to stay out of jail. Some of his coalition partners wanted courts to stop hampering their plans to create new Israeli settlements on the West Bank, others to maintain military exemptions for Orthodox religious communities. All of them were interested in doing whatever it would take to stay in power, without the hindrance of an independent judiciary.
In response, Israelis created a mass movement capable of organizing long marches and enormous weekly protests, every Saturday night, in cities and towns across the country. Unlike similar protest movements in other countries, this one did not peter out. Thanks to the financial and logistical support of the Israeli tech industry, the most dynamic economic sector in the country, as well as to organized teams of people coming from academia and the army reserves, the protests kept going for many months and successfully blocked some of the proposed legal changes. I was trying to understand why these Israeli protests had succeeded, and so I met tech-industry executives, army reservists, students, and one famous particle physicist, all of whom had participated in organizing and sustaining the demonstrations.
After the surprise Hamas attack on southern Israel earlier this month, I listened again to the tapes of those conversations. In almost every one of them, there was a warning note that I didn’t pay enough attention to at the time. When I asked people why they had sacrificed their time to join a protest movement, they told me it was because they feared Israel could become not just undemocratic but unrecognizable, unwelcoming to them and their families. But they also talked about a deeper fear: that Israel could cease to exist at all. The deep, angry divides in Israeli politics—divides that are religious and cultural, but that were also deliberately created by Netanyahu and his extremist allies for their political and personal benefit—weren’t just a problem for some liberal or secular Israelis. The people I met believed the polarization of Israel was an existential risk for everybody. [Continue reading…]