Ten terrifying anti-democracy trends in Israel this week
This week, as the weather broke records with crushing heatwaves , the current Israel government broke bits of democracy in ways that may be hard to restore.
For people who are concerned about things like humanity, freedom, and the planet, these are hard days. Very hard. Our concerns are split between so many incomprehensible events in different corners of this world, each one deflecting our attention from other. It’s unbelievable, really. And although I would to take a break from talking about Israeli democracy just to focus on climate change, for example — because if our planet becomes inhabitable by humans, all else will be irrelevant — I cannot ignore some of the absolutely terrifying things going on in Israel at the moment.
As the Knesset was pushing through some more anti-democratic legislation this week — some of the 140 bills aimed to undermine protections, civil rights, accountability, and more — hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy/anti-government protesters all around Israel took to the streets. The goal was to up the tone of the protests that have been taking place weekly since December, to reflect the urgency of what we are up against. Tuesday was declared a “Day of Disruption” in which protests took place in nearly every corner of the country.
In response, the government, rather than heed the voices of its people, used this as an excuse to attack anyone who disagrees with it in a myriad of terrifying ways, and devolve closer and closer to tyranny.
Here are ten ways that the situation in Israel is deteriorating:
(1) The government is violently targeting protesters — officially
Itamar Ben Gvir is now controlling the police. The man whose ideas about violence made him unfit to serve in the IDF, the man who idolizes racist mass-murdering religious fanatic Baruch Goldstein and Meir Kahana, the man who describes some of the most extreme settlers as “nice kids” and who blithely defends Jews who went on violent rampages in Arab towns — he is now in charge of how the police is responding to the protests. Police chief Ami Eshed resigned this week, citing his inability to fulfill Ben Gvir’s expectations. “Ben Gvir would have us fill Ichilov [hospital in Tel Aviv],” with protesters, he said as he exited his job. That tells us everything we need to know about how the government is now responding to protesters.
Violence against peaceful protesters
Many cabinet members have been openly pushing for the police get more aggressive with protesters, regardless of whether they are doing anything violent or illegal — and in fact that’s what we saw. Take a look at this video of how the police actively attacked an elderly man who was doing nothing other than standing on a street holding a flag. He had every right to be there, was doing nothing, and the police randomly went over to him and begin pushing and shoving him. (Warning, disturbing images.)
Here is another video of a policeman randomly running over a peaceful protester with his horse. (Warning, disturbing images.)
The police also adopted a new policy of using water cannons to disperse anti-government protesters. These water cannons were not used only against protesters on the highway, but in cities across Israel.
The police until now has had supposedly had a policy not to harm protesters. But if that policy once existed, it is gone now.
Reserve general, pilot Udi Ori, sustained serious injury to his eye last week when a water canon aimed straight at him.
Protest groups have begun sharing instructions for how to respond if the police use water cannons or teargas.
And it should hardly be surprising that people copy police behavior: private cars ramming into protesters is a trend that also began this week. Of course — if the police and the government can label protesters as criminals, then anyone can.
In fact, MK Simcha Rothman, who is also one the people most adamantly pushing for dictatorship, physically attacked a protester in New York. If he can do it, anyone can, right?
Arrests of protesters for doing nothing other than exercising their basic rights to protest
Just a reminder: the right to protest is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Yet, Ben Gvir and his posse have been demanded arrests of protesters — and that is what happened.
Last week, Moran Zer Katzenstein, the leader of he group Building an Alternative Bonot Alternativa that has been actively rallying women (wearing red “Handmaiden’s Tale” outfits) across the country, was detained by police. Across the country last week, peaceful protesters were arrested while doing nothing illegal or violent — including several women from the Bonot Alternativa group here in Modi’n.
And so it began. On Tuesday this week, over 70 protesters were arrested, many of whom were hurt by police in the process. The woman in the photo below was arrested and charged with attacking a police office — which witnesses say she absolutely did NOT do. (As per the video above, it is clear that the police are fabricating stories.) Some of those arrested were released, some were sent to prison, some stayed in prison overnight, all of them were arraigned the following morning as protesters lined the streets around police stations and courthouses. Some protesters were given suspended sentences, while the police tried to appeal in order to worsen their conditions. For the most part, the judges have been siding with the protesters and dismissing demands of the police to harshly punish protesters. In at least one case, the police appeal to worsen the sentence resulted in the judge dropping all charges.
(2) The government is trying to break the justice system
The protests are not just about judicial reform on the level of the supreme court. The attempts to break the justice system and make the courts an arm of a dictatorship are happening on all levels.
Pressure to dismantle basic rights
Ben Gvir has been pressing the government to allow arrests of civilians and incarcerations without charge. Bills to these ends are being proposed and discussed, which would dismantle some of the most basic civil rights of any democratic country — and the absence of which is a glaring sign of dictatorship — which is the right not to be randomly arrested and imprisoned for no reason. We know how this goes. It has to do with silencing and removing people deemed non-loyal to those in power. We know this story. And the drive towards this reality is happening right now.
I would like to note that while the protester movement is vehemently opposing this measure, it is already being used — only against Palestinians. The army uses “administrative detentions” against Palestinians they label as potential terrorists, which can be anyone they choose. There is no requirement for evidence or due process. People in this situation can be held without charge for six months at a time, renewed indefinitely, and the army can bar them from access to information about their own charges. I sincerely hope that these protests will finally get Israelis to understand how terribly Israel treats Palestinians — and that if actually care about Israeli democracy, we need to address Palestinians’ basic rights. Without that, this protest movement is a bit of a farce.
Right now, the judges are mostly protecting protesters against violence by police. But Bibi’s government — Justice Minister Yariv Levin especially — is fighting very hard for the right to appoint judges. He lost his attempt to own the Committee to Appoint Judges in a wildly embarrassing Knesset spectacle followed by an election by the Bar Association to choose a pro-democracy representative to the committee.
In response Levin is now trying to circumvent his loss by failing to convene the committee, by simply adding another member to the committee. and by forcing a bill to completely replace the Bar Association that has passed its first reading. The opposition is aggressively trying to stop Levin from destroying the justice system, but it’s like watching a game of tug-of-war over a fire pit. It can go any way right now, and the stakes are very high.
(3) Women’s rights are rapidly regressing and even disappearing
I have already written extensively about the ways in which this government threatens women’s basic rights, including: weakening the supreme court, which is one of the few places in the government that protect women’s rights; firing female directors and thus bringing the number of women government directors to zero; and moves by religious extremists in government to legalize gender segregation. In case that wasn’t enough, three new events this week have solidified the impression that the government has a clear agenda to trample women’s rights.
Bill to eliminate the Women’s Equality Authority
The Knesset passed in a first reading a bill to eliminate the national body dedicated to gender equality. The move was introduced by MK Limor Son Har Melech, a religious, racist MK who believes that violence against random Palestinian civilians is a great thing (who also stars in the next item about gender). This move came after after her colleague, Minister for Gender Equality May Golan, another vehemently racist MK whose entire platform is about expelling non-Jewish immigrants, had already fired the head of the Women’s Equality Authority and effectively made it defunct. The bill would create a new authority to be run exclusively by Golan.
What would Golan do with such authority? Golan has no feminist history or commitment to advancing women (other than herself). In fact, she was given this position — despite her obscene lack of credentials and over the fierce objections of feminist activists — because Netanyahu had promised her a position for her loyalty. Unfortunately (for her), a series of positions he previously offered her, such as consul to New York, proved untenable because of her overt racism. But I guess it’s easier to throw women under the bus….. by appointing a racist anti-feminist woman in charge of advancing women.
The answer to the question, what she will do with this power, was quick to follow.
Women promoting women’s exclusion
These same two women working to destroy decades of feminist work were busy this week with another mind-numbing initiative: They held a Knesset forum, supported by the new “Lobby for religious women” titled, “Women’s Rights to be Segregated.”
As if that weren’t enough, the conference organizers refused to invite women’s organizations — the very women’s organizations that have been fighting for women’s rights for 30 years. Attorney Nitzan Caspi-Shiloni, a lawyer with the Center for Women’s Justice that has been on the forefront of protecting the rights of agunot and other women in Israel — herself a religious woman who has participated countless times in Knesset meetings on behalf of women’s rights — was refused entry and told explicitly that she wasn’t invited.
I would like to point out that for many years, the rights of haredi women have been protected in the Knesset NOT by religious parties but by feminist activists — often non-religious, and even non-Jewish MKs. One of the greatest advocates for haredi women in previous Knessets was MK Aida Tome Souleiman, two-time head of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, who regularly called for emergency discussions on issues such as haredi women’s health and mikveh rights. And in fact, when she called meetings to discuss haredi women, famously not a single haredi lawmaker (from the all-men haredi parties) attended. Not one.
I would also like to point out that while women absolutely have a right to all-female spaces for issues of safety, empowerment, health, education, and/or freedom from patriarchal dynamics, NONE of those issues are what motivate the religious parties in excluding women. There is a HUGE difference between women’s protections and women’s exclusion. I explained this difference at length here.
Women’s protections are rapidly devolving and disintegrating — in processes often led, mind-bogglingly, by women.
Male only: Gender-neutral language has been cancelled
Daniel Hershkowitz, the head of the Civil Service Commission, has announced that the heretofore illegal practice of posting announcements in all-male language will now become standard practice. He said that gender-neutral language is too big of a pain, and anyway lots of people think that the male form is the neutral form.
I realize that in the context of current events, this may seem like a little nitpicky thing. But it’s not. Representation in language matters, as an abundance of research consistently shows (Chaya Gorsetman z”l and I collected much of that research for you here.)
But think of it intuitively. Imagine reading a job posting: “Men needed for position of CEO.” What are the chances that a woman will understand that she is ALSO included in that invitation?
Male language is NOT gender neutral. We would not say, “Rachel was the first man to swim across the Atlantic.” Man is not gender neutral, nor is he or him — not in English nor in Hebrew. So this is just one more step in erasing women.
I realize that this blog is getting very long. It was meant to be a little listicle, and I sat down at my computer four hours ago thinking I would just knock off a quick list of ten things going on this week. It’s not quick, and it’s not short, and Substack is telling me that my post is too long. So I’m going to do the rest of this list as briefly as I can and expand on it another time.
(4) Racism has become the new normal
Anti-Palestinian statements have become legitimized (maybe on some level they always were). One outrageous example from this week: Journalist Arnon Segel was one of several high-profile kidney donors this week — and he proudly posted that he agreed to donate his kidney as long as it want only to a Jew. For example.
(5) The criminals are coming back: The right to “defy reasonableness” is now law
The “reasonableness law” is on its way to being cancelled. “Reasonableness” is the legal standard meant to keep convicted criminals — like Aryeh Deri, and potentially Bibi — from running the country. One has to wonder what “unreasonableness” is so coveted by the government. The bill passed its first reading, and if it continues, it will not only allow criminals to be Prime Ministers, it will also mean that a minister can fire any professional with no cause or oversight, can replace government professionals with political appointees again with no oversight or process such as the Tax Authority director, or make appointments in all kinds of positions based on loyalty rather than any kinds of credentials.
We know where this is headed. Again, it reflect a cornerstone of dictatorial regimes: loyalists only. The rest can go to hell, or to prison.
(6) Isolationist, ultra-nationalistic hubris has taken over
As the world is noticing that Israeli democracy is rapidly deteriorating, ministers and coalition members have responded by digging their heels in even further. One of the worst is Minister of Diaspora Affairs (!!) Amichai Chikli, whose glowing resume includes: giving crude gestures to American Jews; dismissing Antisemitism Envoy Professor Deborah Lipstadt as a “nice lady”; and telling the US ambassador to “mind your own business”. This week Chikli dismissed both protesters and Democrats by pushing an outrageous conspiracy theory that America is driving the protests. (It is not.)
Chikli is certainly not alone. His nationalistic, gaslighting hubris suggesting that the ultra-right Israeli government doesn’t need American Jews, democrats, or leftists, perfectly reflects what this government is peddling.
(7) The land is being sold to the highest bidder
Quietly, and far from the news media, one group of people who are benefitting from this government are real estate developers for whom climate change and the environment are irrelevant. Among the 140 laws being pushed are several that would remove environmental protections and enable land to be exploited fast to the highest bidder. And Environment Minister, Idit Silman — the very one who single-handedly brought down the previous government and whose willingness to give Bibi this gift landed her this cushy ministerial job that she is completely unqualified for and uncommitted too — has done nothing to protect the environment and instead meets with climate change deniers. I had a long chat this week with a colleague at the Adam, Teva, V’din environmental organization about some of the ways that this government is sending us environmentally backwards. It is deeply disturbing. I will write more about this another time.
(8) Bibi’s trial has imploded
Meanwhile, we all know that Bibi is pushing these items for the most part in order to avoid consequences of his own corruption. That is, to avoid going to jail — and to avoid having the country even talking about the fact that he is STILL ON TRIAL. But this week, the drive for integrity in governance took a hit when the key witness for the prosecution flaked out. Milchen — the guy who was (allegedly!) peddling Bibi’s political interests while providing Bibi with cigars, champagne, and unfettered access to money — reversed his testimony mid-course. Apparently this was because Sara Netanyahu was sitting in the pews smiling at him while he was testifying. The prosecution is trying to fix this by having the court review his original police testimony. But we can count this is a win for Netanyahu — both of them — and a loss for the rest of us.
(9) Palestinians are rightfully the most terrified
In the meantime, the ones who have the most to lose throughout this process is the Palestinian community. As all this has been taking place, the IDF stepped up violent military action in Jenin — to levels that we have not seen in 20 years. People are suddenly concerned about Palestinians being killed in Israel by other Palestinians, but meanwhile, more Palestinians have been killed by the IDF in the same period. Former PM Naftali Bennett went onto BBC to say that all the people that the IDF killed were terrorists. But that, in fact, is not true — many were children. But as we know, Bennett is excellent at gaslighting the Palestinians. Last year, he vehemently claimed that the IDF did not kill Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akhleh, and accused the whole world of being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. A year later, the IDF finally admitted that the world was right. The IDF apologized, but did Bennett apologize? Of course not. He doesn’t believe in apologizing. (BBC did apologize, btw, though Bennet still considers himself the victim here.
And so here we are. Our violence is quietly increasing, our language of ‘They’re all antisemites’, our tactics of gaslighting are becoming increasingly effective — and the people most vulnerable to losing all civil rights in Israel are Palestinians.
(10) The rest of the world knows about all this — and Bibi’s government doesn’t care.
And the big news for some people is that, according to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, America is “reconsidering” its relationship with Israel.
It is of course public knowledge that the Biden administration is openly critical of Israel. How far that will go is still a question. But of course, the Israeli-gaslighting-hubris-extremist-fascist-isolationist response is to reclaim victimhood and dig its heels in. Rather than say, ‘Hmmm, maybe we’re doing something wrong here,’ the Netanyahu world is using this to prove that the world hates us. That leftists are anti-Israel and antisemitic. That antisemitism has taken over the Democratic party. That Israel has to act alone because the world hates us. It is used as fodder to justify this whole thing.
We — those of us who care about democracy, human rights, and doing the right thing — are in a lose-lose situation.
We’re getting a glimpse of the government’s endgame
In a healthy democracy, an elected government recognizes that it represents the entire nation, even those who didn’t vote for them. In fact, one of the key differences between democracy and dictatorship is that in a dictatorship, those who are not deemed as ‘loyal’ to the government are branded as enemies of the state — and anything done to them is fair game. Enemies of the state can be silenced, delegitimized, harangued, harassed, imprisoned, deprived of all rights, and even killed.
We are very clearly on the way to that in Israel. Enemies of the state have been clearly marked: Palestinians, leftists, feminists, American Jews, Democrats, certain members of the media…..
And in fact, last week, Justice Minister Yarin Levin — one of the key enforcers of the strategy towards dictatorship — gave a long angry rant in the cabinet meeting in which he explained his end game very clearly:
We won’t be here forever…..
This is a historic opportunity to make permanent changes to the judicial system that those who come after us will not be able to switch back.
This is the endgame. It’s to ensure that a less right-wing government will not have real power. And that the system will be permanently altered — broken forever
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