Opinion: I'm one of the Israeli protesters. This is why

·5 min read
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament in Jerusalem on March 27. (Mahmoud Illean / Associated Press)

A few minutes before midnight on March 26, my wife and I got out of bed, dressed, and marched up the hill to join thousands of other protesters outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. It was my 13th protest since the movement began and my wife’s 25th.

What caused two people in their 60s to take to the streets 38 times in two months? Nothing less than the evisceration of our democracy.

First, let’s understand what Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government has proposed to do. The main elements of the legislation to overhaul the judiciary are de facto elimination of judicial review of legislation; politicization of the judicial appointment process; cancellation of the High Court of Justice’s right to intervene in government decisions based on a so-called standard of extreme unreasonableness; politicization of ministerial legal counsels, career civil servants who provide an important check on government overreach; and a law whose immediate effect is to allow Arie Deri, the former health and interior minister, to serve as minister despite his criminal record.

In addition, the Knesset has already passed a law to cancel the prerogative, currently held by the High Court and the government legal counsel, to declare the prime minister unfit based on, for example, a felony conviction. Since our prime minister is currently on trial, the net effect is to place him above the law.

These changes are devastating to Israel’s democracy, which is fragile compared with the more robust version in the United States. Here are some of the checks on power in the U.S. that Israel does not have: (1) a written constitution; (2) a bicameral legislature; (3) a head of executive branch is often different from the head of the majority party in Congress; and (4) a federal system with states’ rights. Israel has none of those things.

The prime minister is also typically the head of the coalition’s largest party in parliament. There is no written constitution. There are no states. The only check on absolute government power is our High Court. For that reason, Israelis have always revered and safeguarded their High Court of Justice in the way Americans revere and safeguard the Constitution.

To add to this crisis, in less than four months in office, this government’s efforts have gone entirely toward the benefit of its members. Nothing has been done to mitigate the Iranian threat, improve domestic security, reduce Israel’s outrageous cost of living, or sign new peace treaties with Arab nations, although the prime minister touted precisely those four issues in his opening speech to the new government. These are a small sample of the problems this government is ignoring while it focuses instead on securing unlimited power.

Instead of working toward these lofty goals, the government has managed to bring the Israel Defense Forces to the threshold of an unprecedented crisis, to reduce foreign direct investment in Israeli high tech to near zero, and to threaten our status as the lone democracy in the Middle East.

From the beginning this protest has had a uniquely Israeli vibe. The prime minister’s pitiful attempt to delegitimize hundreds of thousands of protesters by calling them anarchists got a powerful and passionate video response from a clean-cut, 20-something combat reservist who asks, “You’re calling me an anarchist?” Women all over the country began marching in Handmaiden’s Tale costume. The high-tech game company Playtika placed a giant sign in Herzliya reading “Democracy is not a game.” Someone even put a sticker on the trash bin outside my house: “No throwing Democracy in the garbage.”

The middle class and high-tech communities who bear the brunt of the tax burden are not willing to go back to the status quo, not willing to support stipends for the ultra-Orthodox who choose not to work, who get sweetheart tax treatment, don't serve in the army, don’t study a core curriculum including citizenship, don't learn any marketable skill in school, can’t do simple math, can't speak simple English. Nor are they willing to risk their children’s lives to protect messianic West Bank settlers who want to kill or deport Palestinians.

This government has lost its right to exist. No government can attempt to institute dictatorship, fail and keep on governing. We need elections and a coalition drawing support from both the traditional left and right. We need to change the definitions of left and right and stop making our legitimate security needs an excuse for ignoring all other issues.

We need to focus on a sustainable society founded on a constitution; social justice; a core curriculum in education, including citizenship studies for everyone; fair sharing of the burden of army service; and an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the moral acrobatics that allow people to think that they can live in freedom while a few miles away, people lack basic civil rights.

As someone once said, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Israel’s zombie government and its apologists toss around many explanations for why this naked power grab is a good thing. As a protester, I’m only interested in one thing: democracy. I’ll be on the street again screaming it this Saturday night.

John E. Golub, a physicist, has worked in academia and the high-tech industry in Israel since 1990.  


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.