Lihi Shmuely of Israel Hofsheet and Ben Murane of the New Israel Fund of Canada. (photos from the organizations)
Binyamin Netanyahu is the longest-serving Israeli prime minister and should be a known quantity. The government he leads now, however, is unlike anything the country has seen in the past, according to a leading Israeli activist who participated in a cross-Canada speaking tour.
“This is different,” said Lihi Shmuely, deputy director of Israel Hofsheet. “This is completely new to us. This is a very extreme, radical government that we’ve never seen before.”
Israel Hofsheet (Israel Be Free) works to increase freedom and equality in the areas of religion and state, as well as Jewish pluralism in Israel, particularly focusing on civil options for marriage, gender equality, pluralistic Shabbat in the public realm and LGBTQ+ rights.
Even some voters who supported parties that are now in the governing coalition are expressing regret, she said. Many supported right-wing parties based on national security issues or a range of other policies.
“Now they understand that it comes as a whole package, that these people who promised national security … [are] not just racists but also chauvinists and homophobes and misogynistic people who are promoting legislation that will hurt the very core, the liberal and democratic core, of Israel,” said Shmuely.
She warned that people should take members of the new government seriously when they advance what appear to be extreme policy positions. To contextualize what is happening, she compared the reaction in the United States when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe versus Wade, the precedent-setting reproductive rights case.
“We thought this was already set in stone, the Supreme Court has decided and that’s it,” Shmuely said. Returning to the Israeli situation, she warned that some people do not believe that the more extreme statements or policies – even the formally agreed-upon coalition agreements – will actually be codified in legislation or policy. “They will do what they say they’ll do. So, we need to take it very, very seriously.”
Evidence suggests many Israelis are taking it seriously. Rallies throughout the country against the range of legislation and proposals – most notably the subjugation of the Supreme Court to the elected Knesset, as well as women’s equality and LGBTQ+ rights, the status and rights of Palestinians in the West Bank, and encroachments of religion into the public sphere. People who have never been political in the past are getting involved and even attending the mass rallies that take place every weekend.
“We don’t have this privilege anymore, to say, I will not get involved,” Shmuely said, adding that Israelis are facing existential questions. “I feel like we are asking ourselves, what are we? Are we a Jewish state? Are we a democratic state? Are we a liberal democracy? Is there a contradiction between all of them? It feels like these days we are writing the rest of our history.”
Shmuely’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor and, in recent months, has been saying, “This is not the country that I ran away from Europe for.”
While emphasizing urgency, Shmuely counters that it is not too late to alter course.
“I do think we are under terrible threat and I do think that it’s not too late,” said Shmuely. “It’s almost – but it’s not yet. We still have a lot to do.”
A major focus for opposition groups is this October’s municipal elections across Israel.
“These are sort of like the midterms in the States,” she said. Aside from this, municipal governments also have power to push back against national trends. For example, some municipalities have expanded transportation services to Shabbat.
Shmuely was supposed to be in Vancouver March 1 for a program at Or Shalom synagogue. However, she was stuck in Toronto after contracting COVID and appeared virtually. In person was Ben Murane, executive director of the New Israel Fund of Canada. His group supports civil society organizations in Israel that advance socioeconomic equality, religious freedom, civil and human rights, shared society and anti-racism efforts. Their Vancouver event was co-sponsored by Or Shalom, and the advocacy groups Peace Now and Ameinu.
Murane highlighted what he sees as recent positive developments.
“We couldn’t have anticipated that every Saturday there would be 100,000 protesters coming out – 300,000 last weekend,” he said. Security officials, business leaders, the heads of universities, lawyers, the press council and others who might previously have remained silent on contentious issues are speaking out, said Murane, and high-tech businesses are giving employees time off to attend protests.
“We couldn’t have anticipated that, in the past few weeks, major Diaspora voices who, between you and me, are usually the ones arguing against criticism of Israel, would be coming out saying, please criticize the government of Israel,” he said. “The Jewish Federations of North America issued a very surprising and precedent-breaking statement against the court override. You see individuals like [former Canadian justice minister] Irwin Cotler coming out, you see [former head of the Anti-Defamation League] Abraham Foxman and, for whatever it’s worth, Alan Dershowitz also saying something.”
He cited the resignation of Avi Maoz from cabinet last week as a positive outcome, partly due to public opposition. Maoz is head of the far-right Noam party, which advocates against equality for women and LGBTQ+ people. He resigned from cabinet, though not from the governing coalition, when he realized that Netanyahu was unlikely to implement numerous of his priorities.
“Avi Maoz came in with very bold intentions and then met all of this intense resistance and found that his agenda is not going to be as easily advanced,” he said. The rest of the coalition realized, according to Murane, that it would cost a great deal of political capital for the government to allow Maoz to get his way. “We are seeing them say, Avi, you’re not going to get everything you want, and he quits in a huff.… This is evidence that some of this is actually working, that it may appear a pyrrhic victory, but these are the dribs and drabs of what impact looks like in these moments.”
The role of groups like his and its partners on the ground in Israel is eternal vigilance, Murane said.
“Part of the role of civil society is to let nothing go unchallenged. Nothing,” he said. “Even if our odds of actually completely forestalling it are slim, part of the victory is to make an atrocious thing merely bad and to make the political powers that are advancing these initiatives expend a great deal of political capital in order to get what they want, by making them waste time and energy.”
Murane addressed the extraordinary violence that took place in the Palestinian village of Huwara Feb. 26, where rampaging Jewish settlers engaged in what has been called by some a “pogrom” that left one person dead, almost 400 wounded, and homes and businesses set afire. The attack was revenge for a terror attack the same day, in which Israeli brothers Hallel Yaniv, 21, and Yagel Yaniv, 19, were murdered.
“We’ve seen settler violence,” said Murane. “It’s been on the increase. It’s a real thing. It’s a fact of life for Palestinians from the territories. But to have dozens of settlers go into a village with impunity and commit the violence they committed, that is a new thing.”
He said civil society organizations must draw as much attention as possible to such incidents, including promoting the use of body cameras for police and wider availability of video cameras for civilians.
Incidents like these cloud the reality of evolving Israeli views on Arab-Jewish political cooperation, he said. Over the last several election cycles, opinion polls have indicated a steep increase in the proportion of Israelis who support Arab-Jewish political cooperation, from about 30% a couple of years ago to a majority today. The inclusion of an Arab political party in the last coalition government was groundbreaking.
“That’s a huge change in Israeli society that, a year ago, we didn’t even imagine it was possible,” Murane said. In the 2022 election, he said, “unless you are voting for the right-wing, you are implicitly voting for more Jewish-Arab political partnership.”
Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner introduced the event.
“I think it’s an important time for me to acknowledge that the democracy that I imagine as part of that beautiful place that I called Israel through my whole growing up and adulthood is really a selective democracy, a democracy for some and not for all,” she said. “That is a very important aspect of my concern at the moment – not just what happens with the loss of democracy but what is that democracy and how can it be a democracy that serves all who live in the land of Israel?”