I was standing with thousands of Israelis at the Tel Aviv station, waiting to board a train to Jerusalem for a planned protest outside the Knesset. If you know Israelis, you know that neither standing in line nor waiting patiently are among our strong suits. But on Feb. 15, 2023, when the national protests started to gain momentum, I felt a reassuring calm in the crowd. We boarded the train and stood shoulder to shoulder clutching our Israeli flags for the 30-minute ride. The protest was purposely scheduled on a Wednesday, a workday. Beside me was a man who had taken the day off work and brought his 7-year-old son.
Once the train arrived in Jerusalem, we poured out into the streets on our way to the Knesset and were met immediately by voices shouting at us from the apartment buildings above. People yelled “get out of this country” and “you’re not wanted here.” The insults infuriated us and served as further justification for our demonstrations.
When we reached the large stage set a few hundred feet from the Knesset, I looked around to find myself in a sea of thousands of blue and white Israeli flags waving in the crisp Jerusalem breeze, and I was suddenly overcome by a feeling of desperation and anxiety about where our country was headed and the long-simmering divisions that seem to be blowing us apart.
I grew up in Haifa with academic parents who made aliyah from the U.S. in 1967. The youngest of four siblings, I grew up in a family infused with Zionist values. All of my brothers went to elite units in the army. When I was 13, I started running on the beach and training with one of them to prepare for the admissions tests for Sayeret Matkal, the top special forces unit in the IDF, modeled after the British Special Air Service. The exams were five years away, but I knew how challenging they would be. I made it into Sayeret Matkal, and later continued in another intelligence unit. In both, I was a member of close-knit teams that followed their commanders through the most difficult challenges with complete trust. I have put my life at risk for Israel, even when the government made choices that were at odds with my political ideology. The saying goes that the army is above politics. It’s our rock and our unifying common ground.
Only a profound disruption could have threatened that solemn bond. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, an alumnus of Matkal himself, and one of the country’s most decorated soldiers, stated at a protest that just as soldiers have a duty to refuse illegal orders, citizens are obligated to resist an illegitimate government. He said: “We have a social contract around liberal democracy, as defined in the Declaration of Independence. We don’t have a social contract with a dictator.” He encouraged the Israeli public to resist what he considers the impending dictatorship that could grow out of the proposed judicial reform, “with all the legitimate means at their disposal.”
In the past few weeks, more of our most decorated soldiers—pilots, former Mossad directors, retired generals, cyber security units—have voiced their concerns in great numbers about the upcoming “reform,” asserting that if this “contract” is broken, they will not show up for reserve duty. During the second week of March, 37 of 40 reserve F-15 pilots from the IAF’s famed 69th Squadron, known as the Hammers, said they would boycott one day of training in protest of the judicial overhaul. They said they were afraid they would be commanded to carry out illegal actions, such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s call for the government to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwara.
But back on the stage in front of the Knesset, opposition leaders (representative of the parties in the minority), took turns giving speeches against what they believe will be the disastrous consequences of this reform. Each offered a different nuance to his or her message. Yair Lapid, head of the opposition and the leader of Yesh Atid, the second-largest political party in Israel, was working hard to portray himself as the person in control of the anti-reform movement. His next in line, Benny Gantz, head of the Mamlachti Party, tried to take a more statesmanlike position, calling for dialogue between the coalition and the opposition. As the various politicians had their say, I noticed that each received boos from different sections of the crowd. After a few minutes, it dawned on me that the protesters gathered here, over 200,000 strong, didn’t seem to share a political ideology. What brought us all here is our desire to live in a functioning democracy.
The burdens of citizenship seem to fall more heavily on the one-third of the population who work, fight in the army, and pay heavy taxes to support those who don’t. You’ll sometimes hear us call ourselves, self-mockingly, the ‘frayerim,’ or the ‘suckers.’
I met my future wife at the end of my military service, when I was fortunate enough to be selected to join a Birthright trip. I completed my undergraduate degree in Boston and then we both spent several years working in New York. Moving back to Israel, I co-founded Waycare, a startup that uses AI to improve traffic safety in cities and towns. Soon after raising venture capital, we moved back to the U.S. so I could scale the company in the U.S. market. Three years later, the company was acquired.
It was time to return home. Although my wife and I knew before we got married that we would raise our children in Israel, it wasn’t the easiest thing to board that plane at LAX after four years in LA and head for Ben-Gurion Airport with our two young children. My wife is an American, without previous ties to Israel, and as a dual citizen myself the temptations of an easier life in the U.S. were clear.
I was well acquainted with the difficulties of living in Israel—its Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the frankness bordering on rudeness, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and extreme segregation between ethnic and religious groups, to name a few. Also, the burdens of citizenship seem to fall more heavily on the one-third of the population who work, fight in the army, and pay heavy taxes to support those who don’t. You’ll sometimes hear us call ourselves, self-mockingly, the “frayerim,” or the “suckers.” And now the so-called “justice reform” of the far-right religious coalition is trying to make our burden even heavier.
Israel has a parliamentary system with three branches—executive, legislative, and judicial. In Israel the executive and legislative branches are essentially joined at the hip; the governing coalition nominates the members of the executive branch and the executive controls the legislation in our Knesset through its majority. The courts are the only branch that is independent of the other two. Nearly all countries have written constitutions that protect basic human rights and values. But Israel is one of only six countries that do not have such a constitution. Israel instead relies on its system of checks and balances to ensure its democratic nature.
Is it perfect? Far from it. But the current system has allowed Israel, for over 75 years, to thrive as the only democratic country in the Middle East. Moreover, Israel was founded as a country that defends the sacred rights of freedom and equality for all. Our founding father David Ben-Gurion read aloud these words on the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948: “The state of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
The judicial “reform” would dramatically alter the balance of power between the judiciary and the executive and legislative branches, and essentially allow a majority-rule government to govern without offering any protections for minorities. At this point, the magnitude of the threat may seem theoretical, so I’d like to give some concrete examples of how this “reform” could tear Israel apart. One of the “reforms” states that any basic law (hok yesod, in Hebrew) can be signed into law with only a simple majority—61 votes in the Knesset, and it also prevents the Supreme Court from intervening in that establishment. How could this new proposal undermine Israel as a liberal democracy? For one, the government is trying, for the second time, to pass a law that would allow Knesset member Aryeh Deri, a convicted criminal, to serve as a minister for this government. While Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed him interior and health minister of the government sworn in last month, the High Court ruled that allowing Deri, the head of the religious party Shas, to assume a cabinet post was “unreasonable in the extreme,” due to his past criminal convictions. So, the judicial reformers cooked up a new provision, an even more sinister law, that prohibits judicial review of the appointment of ministers, no matter what the circumstances. Meaning, according to the justice “reform,” convicted felons, rapists, murderers, all are kosher to serve as ministers in our Israeli government.
Furthermore, under the ticking clock of the rushed changes, the Knesset has already brought to a preliminary vote the “hametz (leavened bread) rule” which would require hospitals to prevent people from bringing hametz into the hospital during Passover. In line with this rule, Smotrich, the finance minister, has said that he supports allowing business owners to turn away customers if serving them conflicts with their religious beliefs. This would allow a doctor to refuse to care for a baby with gay parents or allow a hospital to withhold bread from an Israeli Arab during Passover. These changes would undermine the very character of the country Ben-Gurion envisioned.
The vast majority of the demonstrators have served in the IDF—the melting pot of Israeli society. The same cannot be said of the coalition party leadership. Most never served in the IDF, but rather spent those years studying in a yeshiva. This brings us to an even more egregious abuse of power that could be deemed legal if the reform passes—our Conscription Law. Under this law, every 18-year-old must serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Yes, there are myriad exemptions today that address religious Jews who want to delay their army service to study in a yeshiva. Or the nuanced exemption for Israeli Arabs who often carry a dual identity of Palestinian and Israeli. However, the ultra-Orthodox seek to rewrite the law in such a way that would automatically exempt thousands of yeshiva students from military service.
In 2017, the Supreme Court struck down a 2015 law passed by the then right-wing government that largely exempted yeshiva students. The High Court struck it down by arguing it failed to treat citizens equally. If the current Knesset amended the law to allow this exemption, under the judicial “reform,” the Supreme Court would not be allowed to take up the legality of the law under any circumstances.
In essence, these changes would forever subordinate the individual rights of citizens to the whims of the majority party. In turn, the nature of that majority is rightly concerning to anyone who believes in democratic norms. Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir was not allowed to join the IDF because of his radical anti-Arab views, and was convicted of racist incitement against Arabs and for supporting Kach, a group included on terror lists in both Israel and the United States. He was famously interviewed in his home on whose wall hung a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish terrorist who killed 29 Muslims and wounded 125, at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, mowing down Muslims at prayer with an automatic rifle. Ben-Gvir recently “liked” a tweet by his radical counterpart Minister of Finance Smotrich to “wipe out” the village of Huwara after a Palestinian terrorist gunned down two Jewish Israeli brothers caught in traffic in the Palestinian town. Smotrich later clarified that he didn’t mean in his tweet that the village should be wiped out by civilians—but rather by the military. These are the people to whose whims all Israelis will be subject if this “reform” passes.
As the founder of a startup and current investor in a leading venture capital fund that invests in Israel startups, I am also deeply concerned about the economic impact of this “reform.” The flight of capital from Israel is already well underway and the effects could be disastrous. Israel’s shekel-dollar exchange rate has plummeted 12.5%, from 3.20 per dollar in August 2022 to 3.60 in February 2023. This has made imports more expensive at a time when the cost of living has also been soaring. Furthermore, every day I hear about another founder deciding to move his money out of Israel. In a recent survey conducted by Adam Fisher, a partner at Bessemer, one of the leading venture capital funds in the world, and Michal Zur, president of the startup Kaltura, 90% of the entrepreneurs and managers of high-tech companies say that if they had to reestablish their companies today, they would register them outside of Israel. Israel’s high-tech sector, its economic growth engine, is fueled by foreign investors who bring their money into Israel. Without such funding, Israel’s economy will wither. The desert will no longer bloom.
Dr. Ilan Samish, CEO of Amai Proteins, was invited to speak before the Law and Justice Constitution Committee and pleaded with the committee to stop the “reform”: “Please, don’t scare my investors and force me to transfer Amai Proteins to Amai Proteins Delaware while removing taxes and employment from Israel,” he said. On March 12, several former Finance Ministry officials announced, “We anticipate severe damage to the Israeli economy, with the first indications already visible today,” and urged Finance Minister Smotrich to halt the government’s controversial judicial overhaul, saying it would “severely and irreversibly damage the Israeli economy.” Tom Livne, founder of the $2 billion unicorn startup Verbit, which provides accurate transcriptions using automatic speech recognition, is moving his family, company, and his money abroad and calls for other high-tech stalwarts to follow suit.
A member of my former unit, a generation older than me, who has been a leader in these protests, spoke out one day about what was motivating him. He made four points to the crowd: 1) Like in the Army, we’re all united regardless of our individual political beliefs. 2) We’re fighting for our homes, our values, and the future of our grandchildren. 3) We can no longer accept the fact that the Orthodox are not working, not serving, and not paying taxes, but using us as their debit cards. 4) Israel shall remain a democracy—and we’ll fight for it to the end.
Don’t be misled by claims from the government or even American journals that these protests are the result of foreign provocation or American dollars, that the U.S. is involved in an elaborate covert strategy to pressure the current Israeli government to subdue its extreme factions, or that our homegrown insistence that the government respect our basic rights and values is part of a bigger American plot to get Iran back to the JCPOA negotiating table, by distracting Israel from any attempts to sabotage the American effort.
No. I have been marching and protesting as these protests manifested themselves as a grassroots movement of ordinary people who are fighting for the future of our country. Young and old, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, women and men, it’s clear as daylight that this fight is different from other battles—it’s not about political ideology but rather a demand that we protect and maintain the only thing that holds us all together—our democracy.
While there is hope that this government sobers up and steps toward the negotiating table, many people are starting to imagine a once unthinkable reality: The “reform” will be etched into law. It will immediately be challenged in the courts. Likely, the Supreme Court will then strike down the reform, putting the IDF, Shin Bet, the police, and every citizen in this country between a rock and hard place. Should they follow the courts and rule of law or the government? This will be a constitutional crisis.
I’m not sure it’s consoling, but Israel is unlike most countries in the world in that existential threats are etched into our DNA. Since its foundation, we have faced many of them: the 1948 War of Independence, the Six-Day War in 1967, Yom Kippur War in 1973, First Lebanon War in 1982, Second Lebanon War in 2006, first and second intifadas, and many more in between. The bitter joke is that like the Olympics we can count on a war with Gaza every four years. Hotels in Israel even build that scenario into their pricing models to account for summers with lower tourism due to the frequent conflicts. I’d like to say we will surely surmount this threat, too. But it seems that the worst may be happening—the prime minister may have lost control of the coalition he put together to save his own skin.
March 1 was a watershed turning point. In a “day of disruption,” protesters tried to block the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv; police used stun grenades, mounted police, and water cannons against the demonstrators, and arrested several people, including a former combat pilot who had been shot down in the Yom Kippur War and held as a POW in Syria. Shame on the government.
We have learned through tragic experience that we must never imagine we are invulnerable. Professor Yuval Harari was interviewed Friday on prime time television and when asked about President Herzog’s fears that Israel was approaching the point of no return he replied: “We have already reached it—there is no going back. It is possible to advance to a dictatorship. It is possible we move toward a stronger democracy. But it is impossible to go back to Nov. 22nd, 2022. Things have happened that have completely changed the situation. I hope that the shock will bring us to a better place, to a stronger democracy.”
I share his hope—and that’s why I’ll be back out on the streets every week to protest until it happens.
Noam Maital is Entrepreneur in Residence at Upwest Venture Capital and was formerly the Co-Founder and CEO of Waycare Technologies.