When tens of thousands of Israelis marched on Jerusalem this weekend to protest the far-right government’s plan to curtail judicial power, many were driven by an urgent fear that the government is trying to steal the country their parents and grandparents fought to build against the odds.
“There’s really a feeling of looting, like the country is their spoils and everything is theirs for the taking,” said Mira Lapidot, 52, a museum curator from Tel Aviv. This desperate march, in the heat, over the 2,400-foot mountains that lead to Jerusalem, was “a last chance to stop it.”
The government’s supporters – many from more nationalist and religious backgrounds – mostly believe the opposite: that the country is being stolen by a political opposition that has refused to accept its losses, not only in a series of democratic elections but also through vast demographic and cultural changes that have challenged its once dominant vision of the country.
“It should be called a coup, not a protest movement anymore,” said Avi Abelow, 49, a podcast host from Efrat, a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. “They are willing to destroy the unity of the Israeli people, wanting to destroy the unity of the Israeli army – and destroy Israeli democracy – in order to hold on to their power.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is poised to pass a law on Monday that will limit the ways in which the Supreme Court can overturn the government. Its plan has become a proxy for a broader emotional and even existential battle over the nature of the Israeli state that governs it and that shapes its future.
The dispute reflects a painful schism in Israeli society – between those seeking a more secular and pluralistic country, and those with a more religious and nationalist vision – over how to preserve Israel’s self-image as a Jewish and democratic state amid disagreement over what both of those concepts mean.
The law, which comes up for a final vote on Monday, is significant in its own right: It would prevent the court from using the contentious legal standard of “reasonableness” to block government decisions, giving ministers greater freedom to act without judicial oversight.
The government says the change would strengthen democracy by making elected lawmakers freer to do what voters elected them to do. The opposition insists it would harm democracy by removing a key check on government overreach, paving the way for the governing coalition – the most conservative and nationalist in Israel’s history – to create a more authoritarian and less pluralistic society.
Those fears ignited 29 consecutive weeks of mass protests that culminated Saturday with tens of thousands of demonstrators marching on Jerusalem, some of them walking for days to get there.
More than 10,000 military reservists, among them the backbone of Israel’s air force, have threatened to resign from duty, raising fears about Israel’s military readiness. A group of 15 former army chiefs, intelligence service directors and police commissioners accused Mr Netanyahu on Saturday night of causing “serious harm” to Israel’s security.
Hours later, at the height of this national drama, Mr. Netanyahu was rushed to the hospital for an emergency heart procedure to implant a pacemaker.
Emotions could hardly be higher.
Over the weekend, an opposition lawmaker broke down in tears during a speech in Parliament, a former head of the Israeli air force erupted during a TV panel discussion and a top doctor broke down during a prime-time interview.
“I look at this and I don’t believe it — I don’t believe it,” shouted the lawmaker, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, as she stood at the Parliament podium on Sunday morning.
Then she began to shake and sob, unable to finish her point.
“There is a process going on here that there are still no words to describe,” wrote David Grossman, a leading Israeli novelist, in a column published Sunday in Haaretz, a leftist newspaper. “Now the ground is falling from under our feet.”
The bill under debate has caused such chaos and pain because it is rooted in a much deeper divide between competing sections of Israeli society over what it means to be a Jewish state.
In its early decades, Israel was dominated by a secular, leftist elite that sought to create a country that was Jewish in culture and character but largely unregulated by religious law.
As the country matured, however, other groups swelled in size and political significance—including religious nationalists, settlers in the occupied West Bank, and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Although allies, they do not share an identical agenda but collectively form a growing right-wing bloc that presents a challenge to the social groups that have long ruled Israel.
The settlers seek to divert more funding, resources and legitimacy to securing more land in the occupied West Bank, cementing Israel’s hold on the territory.
The ultra-Orthodox – the fastest growing section of the Israeli population – seek greater subsidies for their religious schools and greater control over Jewish practice, while still maintaining their community’s exemption from conscription so they can study religious law.
For decades, these rival factions have maintained a balance of power: The right has led Israel for most of the last four decades, but always in coalition with parts of the center or left.
That changed last November, when Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc won enough seats in Parliament to govern alone. The bloc is now using that power to promote profound changes unilaterally to Israel’s judicial system, frightening opponents who see it as a project to fundamentally change the character of the country.
“This is a symbol or a manifestation of a serious, deeper lack of trust between parts of Israeli society,” said Yedidia Stern, a law professor involved in last-minute efforts this weekend to broker a settlement.
Mr. Stern described Israel as a country of four tribes: religious nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Jews and Arabs — the first two of whom are now in power. “And this is a risk for the other tribes,” he said. “Liberal and secular Israelis feel that the balance we had before has been shaken.”
The supporters of the government see this as the right of the majority. “Democracy is ruled by the people,” said Rafi Sharbatov, 38, a barber from Jerusalem. “You can say the people are stupid or messed up. But the people elected a right-wing government led by Netanyahu.”
For the opposition, however, this risks undermining the rights of the minority. Mr Netanyahu says individual rights will be respected. But protesters fear a religious takeover of public life, with some predicting that shops might be forced to close on the Jewish Sabbath, or that women and men might have to sit separately on public transport.
“We made this country because we wanted some place for Jews” to live in safety, Navot Silberstein, 31, said as he hiked through the mountains outside Jerusalem over the weekend. “What we are seeing is an attempt to impose Jewish law on other people.”
Mr. Silberstein hastened so hastily to join the march that he had no other clothes than the sweat-soaked clothes he had entered. But such was his anger with the government that he still planned to camp outside Parliament when he reached Jerusalem, instead of returning home to rest and shower.
“We will not live in a country where the government has too much power over us,” he said, before rejoining the thousands marching along the main highway to the capital.
The deepening rifts in society are driven in part by Mr. Netanyahu’s personal problem. In 2020, Mr Netanyahu chose to remain in politics despite facing prosecution for corruption – a decision that shocked moderate political allies and prompted them to leave his bloc.
Although secular and socially liberal himself, Mr. Netanyahu was then forced to retain power by allying himself solely with ultra-nationalists and ultra-conservatives – reinforcing their importance and accelerating a clash between secular and religious visions of Israel.
His cabinet colleagues include a minister for national security who has several convictions for racist incitement and support for a terrorist group, and a finance minister with a history of homophobia and a desire to rule by religious law.
Underpinning all this is age-old ethnic and socio-economic tension between the secular elite and the ascendant right.
The Israeli Jews who dominated the country in its earliest decades were generally those of European descent, or Ashkenazim. Jews of Middle Eastern descent, or Mizrahim, faced widespread discrimination and were often sent to live in impoverished communities far from urban centers such as Tel Aviv.
This social gap has been narrowing for decades, and intermarriage has, in any case, softened the ethnic divide. But many Mizrahim continue to feel a sense of grievance against the Ashkenazim, who continue to rule over vital institutions.
The judges of the Supreme Court are mostly from Ashkenazi backgrounds, while the pilots of the Israeli air force – who led the reservists’ protest against the government – are often seen as the epitome of the Ashkenazi elite, even if there is no data to reinforce this stereotype.
Against this backdrop, some Mizrahim perceive the judicial review as a sledgehammer to any remaining Ashkenazi privilege and view Mr Netanyahu – though an Ashkenazi himself – as the man wielding that hammer.
“I see it as a class struggle,” said Herzl Ben-Asher, 69, the editor-in-chief of a regional newspaper in a majority Mizrahi town in northern Israel. “It’s nothing else, just a fight for power and control.”
Fearing the loss of their social influence, “that strong class, the aristocratic class, took to the streets,” added Mr. Ben-Asher.
In an extreme example of Mizrahi outrage, a prominent Mizrahi activist recently used anti-Semitic slurs to criticize anti-government protesters in northern Israel.
“You whores, burn in hell,” Itzik Zarka shouted at the demonstrators. “I wish another six million would burn,” Mr. Zarka added, referring to the six million mostly Ashkenazi Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
The effort to stop the Supreme Court is also considered by many in the opposition as an act of revenge by the settlers.
While the court has largely supported Israel’s settlement of the West Bank — several of its judges even live there — settlement leaders see it as an obstacle to their most ambitious goals. In particular, the court blocked a law that would have legalized Israeli settlement on private Palestinian land.
The court also supported the expulsion of some Israeli settlers from the occupied territories – especially the removal of several thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005 – an episode that remains traumatic for a large part of the Israeli right.
Mr. Grossman, the novelist, concluded that the crisis “brings to the surface of Israeli existence its lies and secrets, its historical insults that have been suppressed, its lack of compassion and its reciprocal acts of injustice.”
Mira Noveck contributed reports from Jerusalem, Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel, and Aaron Boxerman from London.