Israeli Parliament (Knesset)/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Yair Lapid (rear right) and Benny Gantz (rear left) attend a voting session in the Knesset on March 27, 2023Israeli Parliament (Knesset)/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Israel’s Civil Rights Movement

How the elite defense of ‘our democracy’ became a mask for ethnic prejudice

Gadi Taub
June 08, 2023
Israeli Parliament (Knesset)/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Yair Lapid (rear right) and Benny Gantz (rear left) attend a voting session in the Knesset on March 27, 2023Israeli Parliament (Knesset)/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At the end of March, Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the hotly contested package of judicial reforms that his government proposed back in January would be put on hold. The mainstream press, in Israel and abroad, was quick to declare a victory for democracy: An outraged public, we were told, had taken to the streets to defend their freedoms—and defend them they did. Liberté, égalité, fraternité!

One Shabbat eve, the protesters even stormed the Bastille. After one of their own was arrested in a riot on April 14, hundreds of protesters laid siege to the police station where their hero was detained until, after 10 hours, he was released. Their hero, however, was no sans culotte. His name is Dan Orenstein, and he is the CEO of Champion Motors, Israel’s largest Audi-Volkswagen dealership.

This is not an incidental fact, because Israel’s “resistance” movement is not a popular revolt. It is the revolt of Israel’s elites, out to protect Israel’s peculiar oligarchic structure of government. The Supreme Court, which holds more power in Israel than any court in any Western democracy, has allowed Israel’s liberal elites to rule from the bench even as they keep losing elections. They will not give up this arrangement without a fight.

The protest movement was, accordingly, lavishly (and in part internationally) funded. It was well organized by people who have both the time and the skills for such a large-scale operation, and it was cheered on, rather than covered, by the mainstream press. It also helped, of course, that Israel’s “democratic resistance” movement was politically supported by the Biden administration and its ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides. Nides did not shy away from publicly taking sides, and, tossing diplomatic protocol to the wind, called on PM Netanyahu to “pump the breaks on judicial overhaul.”

The class aspect of all this would probably not surprise readers across the West. It is a local manifestation of the same political tensions we see in other Western democracies: a struggle over power between progressive elites and the rest of their societies. As elsewhere, progressive elites in Israel are outnumbered, and so attempt to subvert democracy while claiming to defend it, using courts, international institutions, and the administrative state to advance their agendas.

But there is something unique to the case of Israel: Class intersects with race in a way that would confuse your average professor of postcolonial studies—the progressives behind Israel’s anti-reform movement seem to be perfectly comfortable with weaponizing race in the service of the privileged, rather than the marginalized. Imagine an America where the “MAGA deplorables” are African American, and you have a good idea of what’s happening in Israel. Netanyahu’s voters are typically darker-skinned Mizrahi Jews, and so Israel’s progressives often play on ethnic and racial stereotypes to express their scorn for the right.

Here’s an example. I spent hours debating on Israeli TV with Haaretz pundit Uri Misgav. After we learned that pilots were threatening to walk out on their reserve duty if the reform was not paused, Misgav came up with what he thought was a winning argument: “The pilots will leave,” he said, “those who serve [in the army] will leave. Who will you be left with? Shlomo Karhi?”

Shlomo Karhi is Israel’s current minister of communications. He is the first of 18 siblings. His father is a rabbi. He was a yeshiva student and he served in an IDF combat unit. He is a father of seven. He also holds a Ph.D. in engineering and has published research in applied mathematics and computer science in academic journals. Why then would his example be a self-evident insult in the eyes of an Ashkenazi kibbutznik like Misgav? Because, it seems, as any Israeli would know, Karhi is a dark-skinned, kippa-wearing, religious Jew who speaks in a pronounced Sephardic accent.

When they aren’t using their army of advertising agency professional and political strategy consultants, the protesters are unapologetic about their elitism. Minister of Justice Yariv Levin had only just unveiled the plan for the proposed reform when pundits began calling on high-tech entrepreneurs to put their foot down and save us from the reform. Then came a barrage of petitions from members of prestigious professions: physicians, university professors, pilots, captains of industry, former Supreme Court justices and attorneys general. The message was clear: Everyone who matters opposes these reforms.

That this tactic was condescending in the extreme to supporters of the reform mattered not a bit. The goal of the petitioners was to rally their own troops, not to reach out to the other side. And to do that they had crafted a message that would transform elitist exclusion and a defense of privilege into a “struggle to save democracy” from the unenlightened hordes.

All this was to be expected. But then things took a more ominous turn. Former senior brass—retired chiefs of police, IDF generals, and heads of Shabak and Mossad—chipped in. They issued a veiled threat, disguised as a warning: Obeying a criminal “dictatorship”—meaning the country’s elected government—is a crime, they said. If the country reaches a constitutional crisis, said the former chiefs, then the police and security services must abide by “the rule of law.” What they meant was that the judges were the law. From the start, the anti-reformers had begun to call the normal, completely legal legislative process by which the reform was to be enacted a “coup d’état,” and so the brass’s call for an actual coup d’état could in turn be presented for a defense of “the rule of law.”

Such absurd twisting of vocabulary was only possible with the connivance of the press, with Haaretz playing the local role of The New York Times. It first made sure that no dissenting voices were heard by its readers. For the occasion, my own column in Haaretz was terminated for expressing support for the reform, citing the need to “defend democracy.” The paper also apparently forbade its writers to call the reform a reform, and directed them to call it a “coup d’état”—which is, regardless of opinion, a blatant lie.

The irony is that what eventually stopped the reform was not the demonstrations but something close to an actual coup. Sporadic reservists declaring that they would not “serve a dictatorship” did not make a huge impression, but when the press reported that 37 reserve pilots from an F-15 front line combat squadron vowed they would not report to training, that was an entirely different matter. Though technically reserve pilots are volunteers—and although they said they would report to active duty if called for actual combat service—this smacked of mutiny. It could have been nipped in the bud if the commander of the squadron or one of his superiors had acted swiftly and decisively, but instead they extended an olive branch to the rebels, and so the mutiny soon spread to other elite units, whose demography closely resembles that of Israel’s other elites.

The reform was on the verge of collapse when Minister of Defense Galant pushed it over the edge, declaring that if the bills are put up for a vote without pause for negotiations with the opposition he would not support them. It has become, he said, a divisive issue, threatening Israel’s security. Israel’s minister of defense, was, in fact, supporting rather than suppressing a political mutiny in the army. Netanyahu eventually fired him. But this was too little, too late. The dismissal announcement, eventually retracted, was the spark that lit the fire. Things now quickly spiraled out of control. There were riots in Tel Aviv throughout the night. And in the morning, when bonfires on the Ayalon Highway had faded away with daylight, the coalition started to buckle under the pressure.

Captains of industry chimed in with anti-reform forces with threats of paralyzing the economy, the union of airport workers closed Israel’s international airport for a few hours, and the head of the Histadrut, the roof organization of labor unions, threatened to join in with a nationwide strike. By nightfall Netanyahu was ready to make an announcement, live on the evening news. He said the legislation was postponed in order to work for a wider consensus.

This was a clear victory for the ruling classes, and who can blame them for celebrating it? They have demonstrated not that democracy had triumphed, as they jubilantly declared, but rather that they had triumphed over democracy. They have shown that the alliance between the different sectors of Israel’s elite—top brass, the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, academics, captains of industry, elite army units, high tech industry geeks and the mainstream media—can force an elected government to submit to their will. They have demonstrated to the majority of Israelis that their ballots will be shredded if they defy their betters. Which was, as everyone knew, exactly why the majority wanted the reform in the first place.

The majority, of course, did not buy into the triumph-of-democracy narrative. The first public expression of the rage that the elite’s victory had engendered was a phone call to journalist Erel Segal’s radio show. A young man who introduced himself as a senior reserve airplane technician—in Israel, pilots come from elite high schools, while their technicians are the products of vocational schools—called in and said he was not going to report to his reserve duty either.

Without me coming on Sunday to do my reserve duty, there’s no one to start the planes. I call on my friends [the technicians]: stop doing things for the pilots. We’ll show them that the power is not in their hands, the power is in the hands of those who connect the battery […] the manual laborers who grease the plane, so it can take off. We’ll stop serving. Me? I’ll not report to duty on Sunday. I won’t do reserve service in a country that doesn’t respect me. […] You the pilots, you burned down the country from the inside the moment you dragged the army [into this]. You told me: you, the technician who was awake 24 hours for us, your ballot? It’s worth nothing.

It later turned out that the mechanic did not describe his real job. He serves in a secret unit and had to camouflage the truth. Left-wing pundits used that fact to dismiss the message. But by the time the details were out, nothing could change the electrifying effect the radio conversation had had. It gave a clear metaphor by which to grasp the way the ruling class crushed “the little guy”: the pilots have forced the mechanics to their knees.

In addition, no Israeli who heard the man’s voice would have failed to notice that this was an ethnic as well as a class divide. And this is true more broadly of Israeli politics. Consider, for example, the term “Bibist,” which the left uses to express its scorn for Likud voters. On the face of it, it carries no explicit reference to ethnicity. But the context in which it is repeatedly used has given it a distinct ethnic ring. After former Minister of Education Gideon Saar left Likud to build his own (now defunct) party, Yossi Verter, the senior political analyst for Haaretz, quipped that this party will be a second Likud, but this time “cleansed of Bibism,” without “phenomena like [Dudi] Amsalem, [Miri] Regev, [Amir] Ohana, [Miki] Zohar, [Shlomo] Karhi and [Osnat] Mark.” This, of course, was a list of the most easily identifiable Mizrahim among Likud MKs. Chillingly, Verter refers to them as “phenomena,” not persons.

Or consider Yair Lapid, former prime minister, leader of the Yesh Atid party, and embodiment of the Ashkenazi bourgeoisie—a crowd that believes, as one commentator shrewdly observed, that erudition is hereditary. Lapid himself never got a high school diploma, which is perhaps why he counted Copernicus among the ancient Greeks and referred to the “four fathers of Benjamin Disraeli.” When Lapid says that his party represents “the normal people who come from the right place”—in Hebrew this may also mean the normal people who harbor the right intentions—you can’t blame those who think this is a racially tinged dog whistle. Lapid’s crowd would know who the non-normal people are in the uncleansed Likud.

The same can be said about Lapid’s remarks on the popular Ofira & Berkovic TV talk show: “Do we leave the world to the shits? Those who disgust us would win? I won’t let these disgusting people run my life or the country.” These were loaded words for Israelis who remember that Lapid’s father, former Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, had notoriously labeled Mizrahi music as inferior. “We didn’t occupy [the Arab town] of Tul Karem, Tul Karem occupied us,” he said about Mizrahi singer songwriter Amir Benayun. Lapid junior has plausible deniability running for him, and can claim he was referring only to political affiliation, not ethnicity. But his party’s official Russian language website did just that. It claimed, on the eve of the last election, that Likud “no longer represents all sectors of Israeli society, [it] has given up on its ideology and turned into a sectorial Sephardic [i.e., Mizrahi] party.” Lapid later claimed the text was authored by a freelance writer and that he was not aware of it.

Benny Gantz’s National Unity party also indulges in race baiting. In the run-up to the last election, his party produced a video clip which compared “our team” to “their team.” The text described “our team” as responsible, smart, and law-abiding, while “their team” was portrayed as a wild bunch of outlaws and fanatics. But the visuals added another dimension: Gantz’s candidates, most but not all of them Ashkenazi, appeared in handsome color studio portraits, while the candidates of the right, mostly darker-skinned Mizrahim, were caught in the ugliest of freeze frames, faces distorted in wild expressions, in black and white. This was capped with an unflattering picture of Shlomo Karhi, photoshopped to include a large gold medallion, American gangsta rapper style, featuring a portrait of Netanyahu.

Much of the progressive mainstream media shares these kinds of inuendoes. When, on Israel’s most watched Channel, N12, news anchor Dana Weiss condescendingly tells the aforementioned MK Dudi Amsalem to stop “talking with his hands,” this seems natural and right to her colleagues in the newsroom. Imagine an American white female anchor correcting a Black man’s manners on air as if he were a child in need of discipline. She would, most probably, be out of work the next day. But in Israel, this view of the Mizrahim as inferior is part and parcel of the narrative that says democracy must be saved from the wild hordes. And, of course, the stereotype pegs the whole of the right, which is more suspicious toward Arab intentions, as Islamophobic and racist, so that weaponizing ethnicity against them can even be made to seem as a struggle against racism.

Israel is a melting pot immigrant society. This implies many challenges. In the years immediately following the founding of the state, Israel’s newly arrived Mizrahi immigrants were at a serious disadvantage in many ways. Most of them came from agrarian societies, and were often less educated, some even illiterate. Objective disadvantages in professional training were compounded by discrimination and exclusion, partly because the Mizrahim were strangers to existing social and economic networks, and partly because the established elites were prejudiced against them. Elitist sentiments—which often ran contrary to government assimilationist policies—persisted and added insult to injury.

As a result, Mizrahi voters eventually flocked in growing numbers to Menachem Begin’s Likud, which was far more hospitable to religion and tradition, far more hawkish in foreign policy, and committed to a free market economy, which promised more open avenues of mobility. After the shock of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which weakened public confidence in the long ruling Labor party, Begin’s Likud won the 1977 election on the strength of its appeal to Mizrahi voters.

For Israel’s Ashkenazi elites the shock was total and extreme. I was 12 years old at the time. I had a field trip with my school the day after the election. The ballots were counted overnight. I woke up early and came down from my room. My mother was preparing my lunch for the trip. She looked at me with wide open eyes. “Begin won the election,” she said. I sat on the stairs and began to weep. To my young mind this was an unimaginable catastrophe. What I had absorbed from the adults around me was that this was a calamity that threatened our whole world. Fascism was upon us.

What actually followed was peace with Egypt. But even this did not quell the shock and anger. Israel’s elites asked themselves, often aloud, how could it all be? How did it come pass that “we”—the good people, the pioneers, the farmers, the soldiers, the educated elites with their (quite real) devotion to the Zionist cause—have brought these Orientals to a civilized country, where they could be free, only to be rewarded with this?

My parents were never racists. But they were nevertheless among the circles that looked for a way to avert the doom they thought Begin’s election victory would bring. They were unofficial members of the “77 Circle,” a group of professors from Hebrew University, intellectuals, civil servants, journalists and activists who debated the electoral disaster and what could be done to regain power before Israel was lost. Some of their meetings were held in our living room, their passionate arguments preventing my sister and myself from sleeping. These were committed people, animated by the old elite’s ethic of service.

Worried as they were, my parents remained committed first and foremost to democracy. But other, more practical souls, set out to prevent the Likud from consolidating power. The administrative state, after many decades of Labor appointments, was loyal to the defeated party. And so began a slow and arduous process of neutering electoral politics and investing actual power in the bureaucracy.

The spearhead of the attempt to shift decision-making power from elected politicians to career bureaucrats is the Supreme Court. The left’s struggle to regain power eventually meshed with the ambitions of judges, who were all too eager to augment their own power. In the eyes of Israel’s most ambitious jurist, future Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, there are no spaces—black holes—in the law. It is silent about nothing, and it applies to everything. As he famously put it, “everything is justiciable.” Under his firm leadership Israel was gradually transformed from democracy to juristocracy.

It was Judge Barak who gave Israel a “constitution.” In a 1995 court decision, Barak announced, unilaterally and retroactively, that Basic Laws, passed in a half-empty Knesset in 1992, were now our constitution, and therefore can serve as a basis for striking down legislation through the process of judicial review. Judge Moshe Landau would later remark that never before in world history had a court given a constitution to a state.

Barak’s outrageous announcement that he could henceforth strike down Knesset laws was made in a court ruling amid the shiva that followed Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Few took notice, and fewer understood what it ushered in. Slowly and slyly, Judge Barak moved to widen the powers of the court and its proxies in law enforcement—and, crucially, in the office of the attorney general who also serves as legal counsel to the executive, and commands the hierarchy of legal advisers to the ministries. Those advisers, the Supreme Court opined, hold veto power over the policies of the ministers they are supposed to serve. While these advisers officially represent the ministers when policies are appealed to the Supreme Court, they actually represent the court inside the ministries: Their veto power is often wielded as an assessment of the probable opinion of the court. Since the court has also established “reasonableness” as a central criterion for its judgments, legal advisers can veto policies which are perfectly legal based on their own opinion of whether they are “reasonable”—i.e., whether the advisers like them or not. 

The Israeli juristocracy was erected in order to prevent the right from taking power, not to exclude Mizrahi Jews. But since the majority of Mizrahim vote for the right, the line between politics and ethnicity was blurred.

The Israeli juristocracy was erected in order to prevent the right from taking power, not to exclude Mizrahi Jews. But since the majority of Mizrahim vote for the right, the line between politics and ethnicity was blurred. As a column title in the once very funny Onion put it: “Stereotypes are a real time-saver.”

The court is not just the instrument of anti-democratic exclusion, it is also the symbol of the Ashkenazi elite privilege. Israel’s Jewish population is divided more or less evenly between the Ashkenazi and the Mizrahi. Representation in the Supreme Court, however, is sharply skewed. Of 76 judges who served as permanent associates in the court since the state was founded, only 12 were Mizrahim. For the most part the court has included one token Mizrahi judge, as well as one token Arab. During the long tenure of Judge Aharon Barak as Supreme Court president, 12 appointments were made. Eleven were his candidates, all Ashkenazi. The remaining appointment, Judge Edmond Levy, a Mizrahi, was forced on Barak by Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit. Recently asked about why he did not nominate even one single Moroccan candidate of his own, (Israelis often use “Moroccan” interchangeably with Mizrahi or Sephardi) Barak said “we searched and searched and searched and couldn’t find [one]. There were too few Moroccan lawyers [from which to choose back then].”

Representation is a symptom, not a cause. The point is not to diversify the court with Mizrahi judges. The point is to reenfranchise the mass of citizens and to give the political right—and with it the majority of Mizrahim—a fair chance to compete for power. A handful of Mizrahi judges, or even a majority of them, will do nothing if they are all progressives. What Israel needs is to break the progressive monopoly on decision-making, and to return the center of sovereignty to electoral politics. The left, if it wants to hold power, should try to convince citizens, and win elections, rather than keeping power outside their reach.

Back in 1999 when he was head of the Labor party, Ehud Barak apologized in the name of the Labor movement for the mistreatment of Mizrahi immigrants by the Labor establishment. When he won the election that year he gave a speech in the very square where Yitzhak Rabin had been slain. This is Tel Aviv’s largest venue for demonstrations. It was packed full with voters who came to celebrate. These were, one can speculate, roughly the same crowd that leads the current protest movement: Tel Avivian, mostly Ashkenazi, upper class Meretz and Labor voters. Barak stood at the microphone and declared that he would serve the whole country, those who voted for him, as well as those who did not. He would be “everyone’s prime minister.” The crowd spontaneously started chanting “just not Shas, just not Shas.”

Shas is an ultra-Orthodox party. But it is far more moderate than other ultra-Orthodox parties. Shas was supportive of the Oslo Accords under Rabin. What makes Shas stand out is neither religion, nor ideology. What makes it stand out is ethnicity: It is the only ethnic Mizrahi party. Barak himself, it seems, had learned how to rally his troops. You won’t hear him apologizing for any jarring racist tones of the protest he is now helping to lead.

The Jewish population of Israel is probably the most racially diverse national group outside the U.S. It is clearly not racist, much less systemically so. The strongest indicator of this is marriage between groups. Among the secular and the traditional, marriage is statistically colorblind between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews. In this sense, the progressive elite stands out: Unlike the rest of Israel, it is quick to weaponize race in the service of preserving its privileged political position.

Democracy was defeated by elites once, after 1977. If the reform is shelved now, it may well have been defeated again. But it will not be defeated indefinitely. This is Israel’s civil rights movement, and it enjoys support far beyond the (increasingly eroding) ethnic lines. It goes right to the heart of Zionism, as the American Civil Rights Movement went right to heart of the American creed. Zionism sought political means to make Jews masters of their own fate. Israelis will not forever be content to let nanny judges tell them they are not yet fit to rule themselves.

Gadi Taub is an author, historian, and op-ed columnist. He is co-host of Tablet’s Israel Update podcast.

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