Dr. Yedidia Stern, President, Jewish People’s Policy Institute
July 28, 2023
(By posting a guest’s views, CIE does not take a position on the contents, nor verify facts nor the assumptions presented.)
Israel’s political center is in a state of profound upheaval. Until the beginning of this year it had been hibernating, but in the past months it has been shaken awake and now there is a radicalization trend in some of its quarters. The radicalization of the center constitutes a tectonic change in the “Israeli situation.” It comes at a terribly steep price that is rising to a point of existential peril for the Zionist enterprise.
During its period of hibernation, the center was proud of its Israeliness and had a sense of partnership in the state’s successes and challenges; it was clear that Israel was “home,” not just physically but mentally as well. The key to the center’s sense of ease, its ability to maintain Israeli solidarity, was a basic, self-evident premise: Israel is a stable democracy.
The shockwaves that hit the center at the onset of the judicial reform, came because our democratic stability was thrown – for the first time in its eyes – into doubt. Even if the crisis passes with no major change to Israel’s reality, an entire generation of Israelis got a frightening glimpse of the possibility that what once seemed obvious – that it is a democracy with a Western-liberal orientation – was no longer so obvious. The democratic consciousness has been showing cracks.
This disruption of the center’s complacency has produced impressive displays of civic heroism. The hundreds of thousands who crowd the public squares every Saturday night, everyone draped in the Declaration of Independence, waving the flag, conducting themselves peacefully, careful not to fan the flames of hatred toward their brothers and sisters.
But, and here we come to the present moment, a palpable change is in the air. Before our eyes, another tragedy is unfolding: the radicalization of the Israeli center.
After months of inspiring protests, the threat to Israeli democracy remains. Proposed compromises were not accepted. I can personally attest to an entire range of sensible proposals that were raised, discussed, and in large measure agreed upon by the different parties, and yet the extreme elements that dominate Israel’s governing coalition managed to thwart them all. As part of the Deans’ Forum, I can report that we reached consensus with the chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on nearly all the issues, only to face rejection. In a joint effort, Adv. Raz Nizri and I proposed a solution to the reasonableness-standard dispute, which was adopted by the Histadrut, and accepted by important parts of the protest movement and opposition Knesset members. But it was torpedoed by the coalition, which chose instead to enact a particularly extreme wing-clipping of the Supreme Court.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the coalition is determined to proceed with its reform package despite surveys showing that the Israeli majority – aka the center, which includes at least a third of Likud voters – opposes further changes to the system without broad consensus. The Israeli center understands that in order to stand up against its determined ideological opponents currently holding the reins of power, it must fight as never before. But how?
Some in the center are choosing, or considering, extreme courses of action that, in my view, are destructive.
One prominent example of this is the long line of former leaders of Israel’s security forces – salt-of-the-earth Israelis who made the country bloom with their sweat and defended it with their blood – who have nevertheless chosen to employ a doomsday weapon: the cessation of voluntary IDF reserve service, or even refusal to serve altogether. This is an incomparably radical response, as it undermines our highest national interest: the combat readiness of the Israel Defense Forces – which safeguards this country’s very existence.
It is hard to believe, but the fact is that some of the former heads of the Mossad, the General Security Services (Shin Bet), and the IDF have decided to call for action that may topple the temple of mamlachtiyut (responsible statehood). With trembling but determined hands, thousands of reservists have decided on a devastating course of action. They realize that this is a weapon that other identity groups will deploy later on, and that what is being done today cannot be undone – and yet, fearing the loss of the state’s democratic character, they are willing to go to the extreme. And, in my view – beyond it.
Another manifestation of extraordinary extremism is the rush among academically trained professionals to emigrate from Israel. Prominent among them are physicians. The essence of their profession is to come to the rescue of others – yet they are announcing their intention to leave even at the cost of fatal harm to Israel’s healthcare system.
A third example is the call, emanating from parts of the Israeli center, for cantonization, i.e., the division of the country not between different nationalities but between different Jewish identity groups. A number of models exist for realizing such separation, but common to all is despair over the vision of a shared Israeli existence.
The radicalization of the center – the use of a doomsday weapon (by refusing to take up arms) to force capitulation, and the abject abandonment of the struggle (by leaving the country or dividing it into cantons) out of desolation over the very possibility of consensus – is a great threat to Israel’s continued existence. It is a boomerang that will come back to hit us all in the future, regardless of how the current crisis is resolved. The new radicals of the center are responding to the extremists dominating the coalition, but in their response, they join them in destroying the country.
The radicalization of the center could crush the Israeli backbone. If it spreads beyond the groups – significant, but still few in number – that have undergone it, it could reach a critical mass and bring an end to Israeliness as we know it.
Although the burden of addressing this danger lies first and foremost – without equivocation – on those who initiated the reform and those who hold a majority in the Knesset, the Israeli center also has a duty of care for the sake of Israel’s future. Its members must choose ways of resisting the reform that do not cause irreversible national harm. Those who believe that the current strategy of struggle, based on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, is insufficient despite its considerable successes, can find a wide range of protest methods that have been used in diverse contexts around the world. The methods used may be aggressive, if deemed necessary – but the protesters must not tread a path that endangers the Zionist enterprise.
From a mamlachti perspective, a protest effort that expresses readiness for personal sacrifice is preferable – Mahatma Gandhi chose hunger strikes – or protests that hurt the country’s economy, but not its institutions, such as organized strikes or, in the absence of a labor-union consensus, unauthorized popular strikes or work slowdowns. Those in despair to the point of refusing to serve would do better to consider protest methods like this, which, though extreme (and, in my view, unnecessary at the moment), do not threaten the country’s existence.
To this must be added a political consideration: the factor that will decide the future of the struggle is the centrist faction of the right-wing camp. This group will distance itself farther from the protest movement the more radical it becomes. It can identify with a protest movement that is prepared for self-sacrifice, but not with one that pulls the rug out from under the state.
Israel’s real hope lies in the preservation of the center’s enormous power – real and moral – and on the condition it continues to operate within a mamlachti framework and not against it. The center’s political leadership condemns refusal to serve and abandonment of the country, which is commendable. There is a range of possible action through which the Israeli center can exercise its power, without causing colossal damage to Israel’s future. It must refuse separation, abandonment, and dissolution. The future of Israeli mamlachtiyut is in the hands of the center.
* Yedidia Stern is President of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.