A religious woman walks with her children past Israeli activists protesting in front of Har Hamor Yeshiva, a religious seminary in East Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood, on July 30, 2023


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Among the Protesters

The fundamental question isn’t whether Israel should be a democracy. It’s whether it should be like everywhere else.

Antonio García Martínez
August 24, 2023
A religious woman walks with her children past Israeli activists protesting in front of Har Hamor Yeshiva, a religious seminary in East Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood, on July 30, 2023


I’m jet lagged and jostled, in the back of a Maserati SUV driven maniacally by a guy named “Shay” on Israel’s Highway 1 between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Next to me, also crammed between shrink-wrapped cases of drinking water, is Maya Zehavi, a member of the Israeli crypto community and the reason why I’m here. Riding shotgun is Sarit Radman, the mother of Moshe Radman, one of the handful of ad hoc leaders of Israel’s protest movement around a judicial reform bill that has divided the nation. The goal is to deliver ima Radman to her son at the head of the procession for the big photo op as they enter Jerusalem.

The Radman-finding challenge is made harder by the fact that the protest, a snaking, chanting mass absolutely festooned with Israeli flags, is hogging up most of the highway save for the left-most lane which is bottlenecked with cars. Wedged between police motorcycles and howling protesters, even Shay gunning the Maserati’s sonorous V8 engine gets us nowhere.

Eifo Radman!? Eifo Radman!? (Where is Radman?) our driver Shay yells at random mishtarah who’ve dismounted their motorcycles and are trying to channel the chaos. The sun is broiling, and some of the marchers have walked all the way from Tel Aviv, over 60 kilometers away. Many are soaked in sweat, holding homemade signs, and chanting slogans with transported looks on their faces. The march to Jerusalem was concocted, Arab Spring-style, in a WhatsApp group a few days ago, but the emotion culminates months of Israeli political infighting and cultural clashes between the secular left and the religious right.

Surprisingly, one of the police responds with directions to Radman, and Shay hurls us through a gap in the flag-waving bodies toward Jerusalem. We drop off ima Radman for the photo op—soon to be shared on WhatsApp and thence Twitter and the mainstream media—before packing into Shay’s Maserati again and roaring up the rolling Judean Hills toward Jerusalem proper.

We stop in the protest’s staging area: under the monumental Calatrava-designed Chords Bridge, where Ben-Gurion Boulevard becomes Weizman Boulevard in front of the institute dedicated to Rav Kook (the founder of Religious Zionism). The irony of the secular revolt against religious rule happening in front of Mossad HaRav Kook, itself surrounded by housing blocks full of religious families, isn’t lost on me. Orthodox families linger around, contemplating the gathering mob in mute bemusement on their day of rest.

We walk up the light-rail tracks of the bridge—we won’t be run over since the trains don’t run on Shabbat—to catch the bird’s-eye view of the unfolding scene. Maya’s shirt shouts SAVE OUR STARTUP NATION and she too is carrying an Israeli flag. Beneath us, there’s a pooling mass of people as the torrent of highway protesters crests the last hill into the “City of Peace.”

“OK, Maya, you absolutely insisted I come to this straight after my flight. I know the background story here, but why are you panicking?”

Then Maya hits me with a phrase I’d hear (and read) a lot in the ensuing weeks: “if we lose, then all of Israel will be like Jerusalem.”

I’m looking around at the spectacular Calatrava bridge and Jerusalem stone buildings stretching in all directions across the Judean hills, and not getting the dystopia vibe.

Right that second, HaShem strike me blind if I’m lying (and I’ve got the photo to prove it) a Chabadnik, holding one of their מָשִׁיחַ flags, walks past a protester waving a Pride flag. They utterly ignore each other. “OK,” I say to Maya, “I’m waiting for the theocratic fascism here.”

“You have no idea how hard it was to do a Pride Parade in Jerusalem this year, she replies.

This business of Jerusalem being a horrifying warning of what’s to come if the judicial reform goes through was a recurring refrain in both my time there, and after. Two weeks later, Haaretz writer Chaim Levinson continued the trope with his thundering prophecy: “Jerusalem’s Crumbling Present Is Israel’s Likely Future.”

To Levinson’s view, Jerusalem once had history and culture, but no longer: There were intelligentsia and journalists [i.e., people like him]. People would come to clubs from all over the country to get their freak on. There were alternative bands, independent record labels, DJs, and artists.

“Culture,” to Levinson, is of course the cosmopolitan salad bar of restaurants and musicians and media, a consumable good with accompanying Yelp reviews, a nonbinding spectacle in an otherwise atomized life with individual choice as the only moral good. Culture is most definitely not the kumsitz at the Kotel on Tisha B’Av singing "MiMaamakim” shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of American Modern Orthodox kids and a few settler youth (as I did, or tried to, with my terrible Hebrew).

With such a superficial notion of culture, Levinson is mystified why diaspora Jews want to spend time there: “[Jerusalem] lives on immigration from France and the U.S., where people are so homesick for the motherland that they are blind to its flaws,” he writes. Levinson describes his flight to Tel Aviv like an exodus from a crumbling failed state to the sunlit uplands of cosmopolitanism (“moving to another country would have been more difficult”).

Let me tell you what Tel Aviv feels like to a longtime resident of that same nomadic cosmopolitanism: It’s a rough-on-the-edges Miami with a high-rise office park of startups plopped into the middle of it. Israelis should feel rightly proud of building such a metropolis out of nothing, but it’s like every other city in the global Borg now: Third wave coffee, craft beer, Asian fusion, artsy tattoo studios, “coworking” spaces, techno-capitalism driving skyrocketing real estate … the full liberal catastrophe.

As I stood in Sarona, in a street scene that resembled Miami’s Brickell, it occurred to me: What the moneyed Jew in Paris or New York can’t find anywhere other than Israel is precisely that Kotel scene in Jerusalem that I experienced. That’s why diaspora Jews buy in Jerusalem instead of Tel Aviv: They don’t want a slightly Jewy version of Soho or Oberkampf. They want the historical capital of the Jewish people. They don’t want what you can now get everywhere from San Francisco to New York to London, even in stops like Boise or Reno. The Borg’s inhabitants—the professional-managerial worker bee, the sociopath startup founder, the leftist activist, the suave VC, the tattooed baristas, an overworked underclass—are the same the world over: the bugman with a thousand faces. They want something else altogether.

Other American parallels came to mind: This business of denigrating the opposition’s home turf as pathetically backward and benighted sounded eerily familiar. The number of times I’ve had to bite my tongue over the past few years while some Californian explained to me how DeSantis has subsumed Florida into knuckle-dragging fascism—imagine being in Miami and thinking “fascism!”—is beyond recall at this point.

I’m wary of analogizing foreign politics to the American domestic political sphere—the classic mistake of the American provincial. But as my time among the protesters wore on, the Israeli drama felt more and more like a remake of the same American Netflix show—just with different actors, backdrop, and plot details.

“[T]he facts,” Levinson intones, “point to Haredi cities not being particularly attractive … It may be a matter of priorities: Synagogues instead of theaters, mikvahs instead of soccer fields, cholent shops rather than haute cuisine.”

Every secular Israeli in Tel Aviv, attempting to frame the political problem to me, would do the same: The entirety of their political opposition, and the problem bedeviling Israel, was the benefits-consuming, military-service-avoiding Haredim. But the problem is, the 13% of the Israeli population that’s Haredi isn’t enough to get you the 64 Knesset seats in the current ruling coalition.

It’s exactly what happened with the American left after Trump’s electoral victory, somehow thinking that there are enough bucktoothed racist rednecks to win 46% of the popular vote. You see, if we just didn’t have these Haredi deplorables, matters would be just fine, goes the standard line. It’s best to pretend one’s enemies are backward, knuckle-dragging zealots, rather than your fellow citizens who simply aren’t buying the political future you’re selling. That’s a much more bitter pill to swallow, and one the Israeli left finds as unswallowable now as the American left did in 2016.

So what does the secular Israeli left do instead?

It proclaims that the end of their political regime (at the hands of democracy) is the end of democracy itself, with unbridled horrors to surely follow. This is the panicked death rattle of every liberal elite confronting an electoral revolt: après moi, le fascisme! That the anti-judicial reform protesters should call themselves “pro-democracy” is ironic doublespeak: By any objective description, what the anti-reform crowd wants is a check on democratic power via an unelected judiciary. That’s a valid political prerogative, and one that many constitutions (including the American) enshrine, but let’s be clear what the goal here is. They want that democratic brake for a good reason: Their side is destined to lose many elections to come.

Here, the Israeli remake of the Netflix show deviates a bit from the plot of the American original.

While right-wing populism might win here or there—Trump in the U.S. or Bolsonaro in Brazil—it’s mostly an electoral fluke that gets reset in the next election, as it has with Biden and Lula retaking power in their respective countries. Israel however, unlike almost any other democracy, has only gotten more religious and moved more to the right in recent years. The answer to “why? is so simple I can answer it anecdotally: When I had Shabbat dinner at my secular Israeli friends’ house, they’d introduce me to their two or three children. When I broke the Tisha B’Av fast with my Orthodox friend, his children numbered eight. In a democracy, demographics have a way of becoming hard politics very fast, which is what we’re seeing in Israel now. Democracy is removing the old secular Ashkenazi elite from power, which is why they must cry “Democracy!” as they mobilize to avoid their own political demise.

This reality gives the anti-reform movement in Israel an authentic “last stand” quality, unlike the hysterical doomerism of the American left, which fancied itself an insurgent resistance (#RESIST!) while having the entire corporate, political, and media establishment on its side. Israel really, really is going right-wing and religious, and unlike a podunk country like Hungary, Israel actually matters in the world.

Here, the political parallel with the United States partly reasserts itself: “Moving to Berlin” is the Israeli version of “moving to Canada,” the last-ditch threat of the left-wing refusenik. Many in Israel told me they were prepared to do just that. Unlike all those Americans who never really moved to Vancouver, Israelis do pick up and go: In a recent poll, a large percentage of Israeli startups said they’d moved either money, offices, or headcount abroad as a hedge to the political risk. In an even bigger move within the Israeli political zeitgeist, many military reservists have said they’d refuse to serve under the new judicial regime, something of existential importance to a country perpetually at war.

This is all very self-fulfilling: If you pull all the capital and talent out of Tel Aviv’s startup scene, that tech scene will indeed die or at least be hobbled. If protesters refuse to serve in the military, an existential matter for Israel, the viability of the state is indeed thrown into question. Therein lies the problem: the reaction to a thing is very often worse than the thing itself, and that overreaction will produce the very outcome the bad thing is feared (and eventually blamed) for having caused.

Put another way, startup founders and fighter pilots bailing on the Zionist project will do more harm to Israel than the putative policies the right will attempt to pass under a changed judiciary. In the ’67 war, Israelis dug trenches in their front yards to die defending Israel, and now they threaten to leave and take their startups with them if the politics don’t go their way. That actually is what may destroy the Jewish state: the current elites kicking over the Israel chessboard because they lost the last game and are likely to lose a few more.

Jerusalem was so terrible—so “poor, ugly, boring, bereft of hope and a future”—that I went back after Tisha B’Av. To be candid, I found where I was staying in Florentin, Tel Aviv’s version of Miami’s Wynwood, somewhat poor, ugly, and boring too. So I walked down Levinski Street to Ha’Hagana station, and took the impressively sleek train to Jerusalem, a shorter and easier commute than going from the Silicon Valley suburbs to San Francisco. Then I hopped on Jerusalem’s equally sleek light-rail, and soon found myself getting shooed out of the way by the entourage of some Greek Orthodox cleric emerging from New Gate.

The sun blazed relentlessly and the Jerusalem stone was blinding in the mostly empty streets of the Old City as I meandered toward the Jewish Quarter; even the tourists seeking salvation couldn’t deal with it. The Kotel itself was practically empty except for an old Jew in a black coat and tallit who was davening in front of stones laid in Herod’s time. His observance seemed inhuman in its doggedness, unearthly in its persistence. And yet, two millennia of such doggedness is what had kept the Jewish people alive through the harshest of trials, from the destruction of the Temple through the Holocaust.

Following my 98-degree Fahrenheit encounter with the shekinah, I was dying for a cold beer, and decided to walk back to Mahane Yehuda. In my looming heat stroke, I got lost in the Old City and deviated into the Muslim Quarter, where I joined a crowd of Arabs that materialized out of nowhere and seemed to be heading west toward Jaffa Gate. In that unique way you see among the faithful of different religions in Jerusalem, we completely ignored each other—not even making eye contact or acknowledging the other—as we shared the same path toward different destinations.

Mahane Yehuda market on erev Shabbat resembles a mosh pit at a Nirvana concert in the ’90s, but filled with Orthodox families and American Jewish kids on summer holiday. I’ve conceived children and had less body contact than I did with half of Jerusalem elbowing my way up and down Etz Hayim Street. The Orthodox women were the real professionals, using their baby strollers as battering rams to cut a path for themselves and their broods through the jostling mayhem. The American kids, still starry-eyed at all this Israel stuff, clustered in unhelpful groups with matching colored T-shirts, blocking the way. The only square foot of free space was around the Chabad cart, where shluchim tried lassoing in people with their tefillin, causing the crowd to keep some distance.

If this is Jerusalem being “abandoned,” I can’t imagine what it was like before.

I bought some yaprakes and olives and found the craft beer spot in the market where an enormous Israeli flag hung over the many beer taps. Kippah-wearing Americans in their 20s were, I kid you not, having a debate about the whole trans thing next to me at the crowded bar. After pouring me a lifesaving wheat beer, my young (male) bartender abandoned his post and took up a stool next to a group of convivial Israeli women who ordered a round of shots (this tendency of Israeli bartenders to flip to the other side of the bar if the action there is more interesting seems universal).

Watching merchants busily packaging their spreads for sale, the bartender flirting with his clients, the mothers efficiently rounding out their Shabbat shopping lists while somehow minding their children, I thought: This is altogether different than San Francisco, where I recently witnessed a group of 30-somethings throw a birthday party, complete with balloons and decorations, for a French bulldog; where autonomous vehicles with startup logos navigate through empty streets around homeless encampments filled with drug zombies; where the local Lego store doesn’t gift wrap purchases because it’s mostly adults buying Lego sets for themselves. That modern Borg that secular Israelis keep billing as a liberation from the straitjacket of religion contains its own horrors—ones that many would trade, in a heartbeat, for the supposed flaws of Jerusalem.

One senses the real problem with Jerusalem is that the Israelis who fled (or will flee) to Berlin or Brooklyn will find it supremely awkward and embarrassing to explain everything the Israeli capital represents, from the davening old Jew at the Wall to the soldiers to the Arab population and its neverending issues. They want Israel to be, as Liel Liebovitz memorably put it in these pages, “a country like any other.”

What Jerusalem beams into your soul, from every sun-baked block of meleke at the Western Wall or on Jaffa Street, is that it’s a place like no other with a people like no other. And that brand of stiff-necked particularism is a hard sell back in the Borg, across the fashionable restaurant table from your new friends in Cobble Hill or Prenzlauer Berg. That’s what everyone using the “Israel will be like Jerusalem” line really means with the phrase: Israel will no longer be like everything else in the West, where all the secular pretty people live, whose women don’t wear headscarves, whose men don’t face Jerusalem in ecstatic prayer, and whose young men and women aren’t willing to die to defend a national ideal.

If they win, all of Israel will be like Jerusalem.

My pint glass sits empty, and the hour grows late. The last train back to Tel Aviv is at 15:39, and after that you’re stuck in Jerusalem until after Havdalah on Saturday. If I’d had a Shabbat dinner invite and a couch to crash on tonight, I would have stayed in Jerusalem, but I had to get back to the tattooed hipsters of Florentin. I begin to cross the light-rail tracks on Jaffa Street … and am almost instantly flattened by a Haredi kid zipping down the tracks in an e-bike, tzitzit flying, also hurrying back before Shabbat.

At the entrance to Jerusalem’s Yitzchak Navon Train Station station, a blue-uniformed policewoman eyes me up and down while signaling at me to put everything through the X-ray machine. Hand resting on the 9 mm carbine slung around her neck, her face announces she’s Beta Israel, a descendent of the Ethiopian Jews evacuated clandestinely in one of the Israeli state’s many logistical coups.

I descend the station’s impossibly long escalators, passing an immense set of steel doors: The train station doubles as a bunker against nuclear or chemical attack, and can provide shelter for thousands of Jerusalemites. On the train platform, men and women in Israel’s citizen army get off from the last train from Tel Aviv, backpacks and rifles slung over their shoulders, rushing to make it home for Shabbat. An Orthodox teenager in a black hat, no older than 16, faces Har HaBayit in prayer while the crowd streams busily around him.

Once out of the deep tunnels under Jerusalem, the train slices through rolling, green Judean hills, the biblical landscape of the imagination. We’re headed back to the “Tel Aviv spirit” of gleaming office towers among crumbling modernist low-rise, a skyline that could exist anywhere.

The train takes little more than a half hour to go from the City of David to the city of Startup Nation, the opposing poles of Israel’s smoldering identity crisis.

As history has shown repeatedly, from the war of David against the house of Saul, to the infighting during the siege of Jerusalem that led to the Temple’s destruction, to the Altalena incident in 1948, the great threat to Jewish autonomy in the ancestral homeland is as much strife with fellow Jews as any hostile outsider.Don’t you realize that this will end in bitterness?” we read in II Samuel 2:26. “How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?”

Indeed, what’s funniest about a very serious situation, having spent most of the week with both secular and religious Jews, is that they’re actually not that different. Supposedly secular Israelis still do a Shabbat Kiddush with kippot, and dedicate their Saturdays to family and friends; “secular” Israelis are more observant than your average American Jew.

They’re also socially conservative in a very un-self-conscious way. At a tableful of Israeli startup bros, almost all will be married and likely have kids, unlike the typical situation in the U.S., where no tech bro is married and children are a distant abstraction (if they’re thought about at all). The real difference between the supposedly secular and religious Israelis is whether they have three kids or eight, but come Friday evening, both are sitting with family and friends at a Shabbat table, whether in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

When the Jerusalem protesters got to the Knesset, their first act was to collectively sing “Hatikvah” while waving their nation’s flag. By contrast, Americans aren’t able to collectively sing anything anymore other than Taylor Swift songs, and good luck hanging an American flag inside a Valley startup without a bitter debate in the company Slack. Red and blue tribes in the U.S. inhabit separate and irreconcilable moral and social universes; the U.S. is no longer a single country.

The difference is that the United States can afford such a fractious political climate and such a threadbare (to not say nonexistent) social fabric. Favorable geography that puts all enemies at ocean’s length, plus a mammoth amount of economic inertia, means there’ll be no serious threats to America anytime soon. Lots of empty space and a federal system means Nevada can live like a libertarian right-wing paradise next door to the most progressive state in the union, California. American youth can grow fat and lazy shooting fictional M4s inside Call of Duty knowing they’ll never have to carry a real one at a West Bank checkpoint.

Israel lacks the luxuries of space and federalism; it also lacks the luxury of distant enemies. A country that must build nuclear bunkers into its train stations is a country that can’t afford showy acts of refusal and abandonment by its elites. It’s a country that can’t afford the corrosive effects of a contemptuous political dialogue that treats the opposition as beyond the pale of reason and solidarity. If Israel becomes more like Tel Aviv, and the wider liberal world that city aspires to emulate, there are dangers lurking there too, dangers that may prove fatal to a country in such exceptional circumstances. Israel is not, nor will ever be, “a country like any other,” no matter how much its secular elites may wish it to be. If instead Israel looks a bit more like Jerusalem, and avoids the secular malaise currently afflicting the world’s democracies, the Jewish people have pondered far grimmer futures.

Antonio García Martínez is a technologist and the author of Chaos Monkeys, a memoir of life inside Facebook and other startups.