The Elephant at the Pro-Democracy Protests

23 February 2023
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Israel’s pro-democracy protests reached a new fever pitch this week, as the Knesset advanced legislation that would effectively end judicial independence. As I’ve written in this column before, the proposed bills would effectively end judicial review and the Court’s independence by allowing the Knesset to override the Supreme Court and by giving politicians control of the process for appointing Israeli judges. 

These judicial reforms are undoubtedly a dramatic step towards autocracy, and I’m proud of the vigorous opposition to them that the New Israel Fund is supporting. But I want to talk about the elephant in the room when we discuss Israel’s democracy — the occupation. 

A faction of protesters marching each week in the streets and in Tel Aviv hold up signs that say “No Democracy With Occupation”. These protesters — many of them organized by our grantees, like Omdim Beyachad-Naqef Ma’an (Standing Together) and Mehazkim — point out that Israel’s democracy does not extend to everyone living under its control. There are millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem who have no say in the government that controls their daily lives. 

Just today, the Ministry of Defense signed a deal which handed over certain administrative powers in the West Bank to a civilian minister — the virulently racist and homophobic Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party. But when Israel exercises civilian control over the West Bank, it can no longer be said to be occupying it militarily. It is, said Michael Sfard, Israel’s pre-eminent human rights lawyer, nothing less than de jure annexation.

Meanwhile, inside Israel proper, many of Israel’s Arab citizens feel that they are second-class citizens — indeed, I’ve written for the LA Times about their fear that another Nakba may be on the horizon. All of this is why many Palestinians are choosing to sit the pro-democracy protests out — they see the protests trying to save a democracy that has never really worked for them.

Today, we are releasing the first episode of the latest season of Groundwork, a podcast produced by NIF and our friends at the Alliance for Middle East Peace. The first episode dives into just this issue. It follows Eran Nissan, CEO of NIF grantee Mehazkim as he works to build a joint Jewish-Arab, pro-democracy, anti-occupation movement. Click here to listen. 

This episode provides a window into the work that activists are doing on the ground to unite the inextricably linked issues of occupation, anti-Palestinian racism, and Israel’s accelerating slide into authoritarianism. Because — as the episode’s title exclaims — “there is no such thing as a partial democracy.”

Peter Beinart wrote compellingly about this in The New York Times on Sunday this week, pointing out that many of the political leaders opposed to Netanyahu’s proposed reforms have no real interest in democracy for all. As Beinart pointed out, Lapid tweeted in 2019 that he has been “against any kind of ‘state of all its citizens’ my entire life.” 

But, as Beinart says, if Israel’s pro-democracy movement is built on Jews and Palestinians working together for a real democracy for all, the movement will be stronger for it. And that is what the New Israel Fund’s work is about — building Jewish-Arab partnership for equality, justice, and democracy for all, not some.

That means supporting activists like Eran Nissan (he’s the one on the new episode of Groundwork I mentioned), who is working to build a pro-democracy movement that represents everyone living in Israel and under Israel’s control.

In response to this moment of crisis, we’ve bolstered our emergency grants pool, supporting the activists and organizations working to expand the base of people advocating for equality, justice, and democracy. One example of a grant I’m particularly proud of is our allocation to the Bloc Against Occupation, a coalition of anti-occupation organizations taking part in the protests. Each, in their own way, is working to expand the base of support for Israel’s pro-democracy movement.

As I often say, this work is not a sprint, it’s a relay race. Each group has its role to play in Israel’s pro-democracy movement — LGBTQ+ people, Arab citizens of Israel, and residents of Israel’s geographic periphery. But it’s vital that we pay attention to who is excluded from the mainstream movement and to support those who are working to build a more inclusive pro-democracy movement that demands equality, justice, and democracy for all.