The attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government to consolidate power by overhauling the country's judicial system has been described as many things over the past eight months: a coup, regime change, a constitutional crisis. From the beginning, Israel's president, former prime ministers, members of parliament, analysts and others have also been warning that the radical scheme to neuter the judiciary—and the massive backlash it unleashed with over 30 weeks of mass protests—could lead to civil war. In recent weeks, more and more Israelis have been asking a once-unthinkable question: whether the country is already in the midst of a civil war.
But civil war refers to war among citizens. Momentarily overlooking that Israel rules undemocratically over millions of Palestinian non-citizens, the social ruptures playing out in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem entirely exclude non-Jews, even those with Israeli citizenship. The Hebrew term "war among brothers" is much more appropriate, says Orly Noy, a veteran Israeli activist and journalist. That war is between secular Jewish Israelis and a cacophony of more religious Jews, including the settler movement.
"When I speak about civil war, it's not about people taking up guns against each other in the streets," Noy says in an extensive interview with Democracy in Exile. "It's about determining the nature of the state and the understanding that we cannot be a Jewish state but also a secular state and a democratic state, but also an occupying state and an apartheid regime, all while being a liberal state." One side wants a complete separation of church and state, the other side wants something more akin to a theocracy dominated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the most violent and messianic settlers.
"With regards to the ultra-Orthodox, I have a lot of sympathy for them, especially as a Jerusalemite," Noy explains. She emigrated from Tehran to Jerusalem at the age of nine, two weeks after Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran. "They are part of the city, and that's one of the reasons I love the city," she says of the ultra-Orthodox. "But I can no longer ignore their vision for Israel and for Jerusalem. That's a nightmare for me. It's the nightmare we escaped when we left Iran."
Noy is a journalist and editor at the Hebrew-language news magazine Local Call who also translates Farsi literature and poetry into Hebrew. She is a veteran activist in the Mizrahi justice movement, one of the only Jewish Israelis to ever run for the Knesset on behalf of the liberal Palestinian party Balad, and the chair of the board of Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. In addition to all that, she is one of the few analysts I know who manages to be uncompromising in her values while managing to maintain actual empathy for her political opponents.
Those qualities make her a unique observer of Israel's mass protest movement against the far-right judicial "reform." Netanyahu's current government is composed of, if not beholden to, religious Jews and their various stripes—different streams of ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox settlers, and a loose grouping of "traditional" Jews that tend to be voters for the conservative Likud party. Their main grievance, in the simplest terms, is that so-called "liberal democratic" institutions, primarily Israel's High Court of Justice, have usurped their sovereignty by overturning the will of the people—their will, that is. Their will to impose Jewish law on everyone in Israel, which to them includes the occupied Palestinian territories, and to purge that land of as many non-Jews as possible.
I spoke to Orly, a friend and former colleague, about a fascinating scene she witnessed last week at a protest encampment of liberal, secular Israelis at the heart of the protest movement to stop the religious right's power grab. The protesters had marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and set up tents a few hundred meters from Israel's parliament, the Knesset. One of them was a "dialogue tent," to which they invited ultra-Orthodox Jews and religious settlers to sit "as brothers," to hear each other, and perhaps find some common ground.
It's hard to describe the surreal atmosphere, as Noy wrote in an article for Local Call, of anti-apartheid activists sharing the same space as militaristic secular protest groups, alongside ultra-Orthodox families and young seminary students. The discussions were fascinating and inspiring, giving people an opportunity to lay down their flags and megaphones and just talk to one another. "But more than anything," she wrote, "those discussions revealed the abyss separating not only the two sides' worldviews, but the parallel universes in which they live."
In her telling of this extremely rare meeting, she reflected on her feeling that the secular Israelis were "driven by nostalgia, built entirely on decades of self-deception, unable to articulate a clear vision […] other than turning back the clock to the day before the judicial reforms began." The right-wing religious Jews, on the other hand, are unified and forward-looking, "with a coherent, articulated vision that serves as its North Star, pointing toward its goal."
The following interview is about the lessons that crystalized for Noy while witnessing that scene in the protest tent; the parallels to last year's hijab protests in Iran; the threat of a military coup in Israel; the sad futility she sees in Israel's stated "democracy" as long as it excludes Palestinians; and why this is an historic moment that will determine so much for everyone between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
The following interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
"We cannot be a Jewish state but also a secular state and a democratic state, but also an occupying state and an apartheid regime, all while being a liberal state."
- Orly Noy
Michael Omer-Man: I often try to explain to people in the United States and elsewhere that in my 15 years living in Israel-Palestine, the deepest spite and resentment and bitterness that I witnessed between two groups of people was not between Jews and Palestinians, but between secular Jews and religious Jews.
The discourse in Israel has increasingly included discussion of whether the country is in the midst of a civil war, or perhaps at imminent risk of entering one. You wrote a few days ago about the massive gulf separating secular and religious Jewish Israelis and how dialogue, of all things, made that schism appear even more stark to you. So, I ask, is Israel heading into civil war?
Orly Noy: That's a question that is preoccupying a lot of the Israeli discourse: Are we in a civil war or not? Are we there yet? But that term isn't in use so much here; instead, people speak of a war between brothers.
I think that for most Israelis, since the Palestinians aren't a part of the discussion anyhow, it's not about citizenship. It's not a "civil" matter. It's an inner-Jewish thing. The fear is of the fabric [of Jewish society or peoplehood] being torn beyond repair—that really scares people.
That fear has been preventing us from having a much more meaningful discussion about the character of the Israeli state as we imagine it, as we understand it, for far too long. The attempt to blur those differences in the name of Jewish unity has been disastrous. You saw it after the Rabin assassination—the right wing in Israel has consistently committed political violence, but "God forbid, let's not point fingers or accuse anyone" in the name of protecting the fabric of Jewish unity.
And of course Palestinians, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, are left out of that. You can hear that in the broader Israeli discourse: Jewish politicians on both sides of the aisle have replaced the term "citizens of Israel" (ezrachei Yisrael) with "the people of Israel" (Am Yisrael), which, of course, refers only to Jews. So I think we need to let go of that false unity.
With regards to the ultra-Orthodox, I have a lot of sympathy for them, especially as a Jerusalemite. They are part of the city, and that's one of the reasons I love the city. But I can no longer ignore their vision for Israel and for Jerusalem. That's a nightmare for me. It's the nightmare we escaped when we left Iran. There's no way around it. When you speak with the ultra-Orthodox, they are very open about what they want.
And I don't blame them for wanting to implement their moral values and their way of thinking. But if we aspire to be a secular democracy, then the first thing to do is separate church from state.
So when I speak about civil war, it's not about people taking up guns against each other in the streets. It's about determining the nature of the state and the understanding that we cannot be a Jewish state but also a secular state and a democratic state, but also an occupying state and an apartheid regime, all while being a liberal state. We've tried to be all of those things for too long, and it's time to make some real decision and to stand by them. That means the left can no longer keep trying to please the right. We need to make a decision that it's not okay, that it's not a legitimate regime.
Do you have hope that this is going to wake the masses of Jewish Israelis up to the reality, both as it exists on the ground, but also the paradox or dissonance between their experience of democracy and the growing consensus that Israel is an apartheid state?
You wrote that the religious right has a very clear vision, while the left, or the opposition, can't articulate one—that their most coherent vision is rolling back the clock to the day before the "judicial reforms." It's very difficult in any political movement to get people to take risks if you're not offering them a positive vision. How is that affecting people? What does it mean for the struggle for democracy?
There's a notion among our friends on the [anti-apartheid] left that it's a huge opportunity and that people will start, or are starting to make the connections. Many people see the anti-occupation bloc in every demonstration and are being exposed to… I don't share that optimism.
It's funny, Shikma Bressler, one of the most prominent faces of the protest movement, used the term "Jewish supremacy" in one of her speeches. But it's very clear that she doesn't mean the term as you and I understand it. So they might adopt some of our terminology, but they are not speaking about apartheid. They might be speaking of Jewish supremacy and oppression and liberation and democracy, but they don't mean those terms in the way we understand them. They mean them in the way they were always understood in Israel, which is only for the benefit of the Jewish population.
Likewise, some of our friends are really encouraged by movements threatening refusal to serve in the military (most notably, hundreds of reserve fighter pilots have declared they will stop showing up for duty because in their mind Israel is no longer a democracy). But all those people who are threatening to stop showing up for reserve duty if anything changes in the Israeli judiciary—when called upon, they will still more-than-willingly go and bomb Palestinians in a refugee camp, and that is not about to change.
At its core, it's an ultra-nationalist, very militarized protest. The protest movement is the ultimate expression of how deeply Israeli society is militarized—that it's understood, or taken for granted, that the pilots' word is worth more than ordinary citizens. It's understood that when you speak out as a soldier, as an ex-soldier, as a pilot, that your word is more valuable. This is supposed to be a democratic protest movement but it's extremely militarized, and I don't think it has the capacity to truly integrate anti-occupation messages or even to really make the connection.
Breaking the Silence, the group of former Israeli soldiers who try and expose Israeli society to the crimes and injustices their country commits against Palestinians in the occupied territories, would seem to have a nearly identical theory of change to the pilots—that maybe Israelis, and foreigners, will listen to them and treat them more credibly. But that hasn't really played out. If anything, it created a massive backlash.
Breaking the Silence had another assumption that didn't turn out to be true. Not just that if soldiers would speak, then, with the extra credibility they have, people would listen more. The even more basic assumption was that if Israelis were to know what we are doing in the occupied territories, that they would be so appalled and so shocked that they would… that the information was just not accessible enough to them.
It turned out that most Israelis either said, "You're traitors, shut the fuck up," or if they did listen, they said, "Well, if the army is doing it, then apparently it has to be done." So neither assumption really played out.
I think a lot about the impact the lack of hope and the lack of a political horizon has on Israeli—and Palestinian—society. One of the most tragic political developments in the past 20 years, which laid the path for the rise of the settler right that has basically seized control of the country today, is that when Oslo died, nothing came to replace it. There was no alternative vision. That led to a sort of societal despondency, or rather, Jewish Israelis started simply accepting the status quo as an unchangeable reality.
And there wasn't and continues to be no urgency for Jewish Israelis. In terms of ripeness for conflict resolution, most Israelis simply have no reason to take any risks. That, I think, is one of the biggest reason Benjamin Netanyahu had so much appeal for so many years. He promised to keep things stable—more of the same.
But now, the left, which is usually thought of as the progressive side of the political map, are actually the conservatives and the religious right, whose vision wants to take us back to a world of 3,000 years ago, are actually the revolutionaries.
It's not actually that surprising. When do people become conservatives? When they have an interest in preserving the situation as it is. When they have something to lose by changing the rules of the game or changing the political or social order. So, of course, the so-called progressives are the most conservative here. They have the most to lose from changing the rules of the game. And the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers are the revolutionaries because they have a radically different vision, so they have the incentive.
"Even if they manage to roll back the entire judicial reform and get rid of this government—and there can't really be a more optimistic scenario than that—then what? We go back to where we were a couple of years ago? What kind of victory is that?"
- Orly Noy
Let's talk about what might happen in Israel. I've been thinking a lot about the prospects of a military coup. Not a traditional coup, because the leaders of the militaristic camp in this protest movement are not actually members of the standing army. They can't be fired. But if the refusal movement grows, it could reach a point where the standing army has no choice—from the perspective of its institutional self-interest and to fulfil its most basic mission, which is to protect the State of Israel.
And yet, Israel is the last place in the world where I think the army could be directly involved in something like this. The idea of Jews killing Jews for political purposes is so anathema in Israeli society. But that doesn't mean there can't be an unconventional transfer of power that involves the security services or the army.
Another angle of that is what's happening to Israel's high-tech sector, which not only has come out firmly against the "judicial reforms," but is also starting to move its money and operations outside of Israel. The economy is undeniably taking a hit—as an act of protest. I'm reminded—and this is probably a gross oversimplification—of the Iranian revolution and the role that the merchant class played in swinging things. That whether directly or indirectly, their consent to be ruled is more powerful than regular people's, and they have much more power to disrupt the functioning of the state.
But what really scares me about the analogy is the outcome. Without a positive vision on the side of the revolutionaries, a revolutionary movement coalescing around a negative vision, if it's successful, creates a power vacuum that is quite easily seized by radical actors.
It's interesting to think about it. But if we're talking about the protest camps in Israel, their similarities are much larger than their differences. The camp that led the revolution in Iran was composed of very different factions that couldn't sit together in any realistic situation. If you take the communists and the mullahs, it was very naïve to think that they could establish a functioning regime together. It was naïve to think that one faction would not end up eliminating the others.
Here in Israel, the differences between the different factions within the camps are way smaller and less significant. At the end of the day, they can all come together under the notion of Jewish supremacy. There's no other way to describe it really. They all agree on the necessity of Jewish privilege prevailing. That's a given for everyone. The differences are about the details of how you do it and which Jews should benefit more or less from those privileges.
And what about the protests against religious coercion, the hijab protests in Iran over the past year? Do you see any similarities there?
There are lots of similarities. Both are very determined, very long-lasting, and both are against religious coercion. But the differences, in the deepest sense, are bigger than the similarities—not just in the scope of danger that the protesters face, and in that sense, what's going on in Iran is much more similar to Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank, where they are actually shot to death by a very hostile security system like what is happening in Iran. But the difference is more fundamental and goes to the question of what they're protesting against and what they want to achieve.
The sentiment in the Israeli protest is that the state has broken an unwritten social contract. They say, "We fulfilled our part: We worked, we paid taxes, we served in the army," and in return, their liberal rights were supposed to be protected. To them, the state is breaking its part of the contract.
In Iran, they are undermining the contract itself. It is not accepted by the people. They want an entirely different type of contract, which means they want an entirely different type of regime. They don't want to turn back the wheels to any point in time. They want a fundamentally different type of regime—a democratic, secular one—whereas in Israel, the protesters don't want a different regime or a different social contract, they just want the state to respect the social contract as they understand it.
So what do you think is going to happen?
The protest camp has shown incredible resilience—turning out massive numbers of people for over 30 weeks now. It's really amazing. But Netanyahu is known, more than anything, for his ability to wear down his opponents, and I think that's exactly what he's going to do.
Sure, they passed one piece of their legislation to appease their own supporters and their base, and now they're promising to take a break. But the Knesset is starting its summer recess anyway. So what urgency will people have to go and protest? Against what? There's not going to be any more legislation in the coming months. Then when the Knesset comes back into session, Netanyahu will call for negotiations again, he'll make some concessions to the opposition—and then my fear is there will be some big military operation or something that diverts everyone's attention and reminds Israelis that we are never safe and need to be united.
You know, in a funny way, the resilience of the protest camp is actually a boomerang effect of Jewish Israeli people being told for so long that they're never safe—that they all hate us, that we're always being persecuted and that we will always be persecuted. People feel, in a very existential way, that they live in a fallout shelter. Now the sense is that someone is drilling holes in the walls of that shelter. So of course people are frightened for their lives. If we were a little bit more normal, if we had more of a sense of security and a belief that we are here to stay, I don't think people would be in such a panic today.
And the prospects of a military coup? Or the pilots' protest forcing the military or the government's hand?
Maybe I'm just instinctively pessimistic, but history shows that even after really extreme traumas, unity, as an essential component of the very survival of a people, surpasses everything. People will come back to that understanding.
The thing about this refusal movement is that everyone understands there's no real threat to the army—only to its prestige. If anything, it shows how much the army is part of the elite here. But nobody thinks that a few hundred pilots or intelligence reservists are going to bring the army to a point of collapse. It's not going to happen.
It would be suicidal, and people here are not suicidal. They will push it to the point where there's a severe sense of danger, but then people will come back to the need for unity. But the concessions will only be made by one side: the opposition. There is no precedent of concessions from the right in Israel. Even in the disengagement from Gaza, Sharon was very clear that the whole thing was designed to ensure Israel continued to rule over the West Bank.
So I don't really understand what could be considered a victory for the protest movement. Even if they manage to roll back the entire judicial reform and get rid of this government—and there can't really be a more optimistic scenario than that—then what? We go back to where we were a couple of years ago with the Bennett-Lapid government? What kind of victory is that?
You've been involved in more than one effort to articulate what democracy could look like in Israel, from your work with Balad, your journalism, your role at B'Tselem, and you were part of a group, the Mizrahi Civil Collective, that actually put out a document a few months ago outlining what type of change would need to happen for there to be true democracy and justice in Israel.
If you look back on what your vision of how to get there was a few years ago, how do you see things differently today?
On a strategic level, today I believe much more in the importance of alliances. It's becoming clearer that the protest movement itself reflects the hierarchies in Israeli society in terms of the distribution of power and the power to influence. It also shows that there are many more groups in Israeli society that have an interest in radically changing things here. I was much more pessimistic about speaking with those groups a few years ago, and that's one place where I'm more optimistic now.
There are people who are terrified by what's happening, and if you look at the fringes of this huge protest movement, those are the places where cracks are appearing, where you can reach parts of Israeli society that can be allies for change. Not the mainstream of the protest movement, most of whom don't have an interest in true change. But it's clear that a lot of different communities in Israel do have a profound need for change—and that's new.
That is one of the reasons we established the new Mizrahi Civil Collective. Our slogan is, "No to the judicial reform, but also no to the old order of things." There are a lot of people who didn't find any justice in the old order of things. I'm more focused on the Mizrahi community but there are others as well. It's those people who will pay the biggest price under the new order the judicial reform would create. And between those two camps, those unheard voices, those left behind, represent a chance for a new kind of discourse toward change—toward fundamental change.
You recognize that, but you always have. Do you think others, and particularly people in the traditionally marginalized groups you're speaking of, also understand that?
No. Absolutely not. You know, the masses, even in the protest movement, are so diverse. You can't fit them all into one profile—we're talking about half a million people. But you can profile the protest through the faces it chooses to put up front, the faces it chooses to put on stage. By doing so, you see that they are absolutely duplicating the old order of things, which is really all they want. If Ehud Barak is our hope for change and democracy, God help us.
Coming back to the dialogue tent at the protest camp the other night and the article you wrote, which I found both refreshing and depressing, I wonder if you experienced that same range of emotions. You described a real desire for dialogue and reconciliation, but also that opening up those wounds demonstrated how unbridgeable the cleavages actually seem, or perhaps that the language needed to bridge them simply doesn't exist at the moment.
What drew you to that tent, and what were you feeling as you walked home?
I went there because, really, we're living through an historic moment. Whichever way things go, there's no doubt that such a night in Jerusalem—and I live in Jerusalem—was truly historic. So I felt I couldn't miss it and that I had to be there.
I didn't expect those conversations with the ultra-Orthodox youth. I didn't know they were going to be there and that's not why I went. But there was something very emotional about them. You can't be cynical when you watch people very honestly, and in a very vulnerable way, seeking out and acknowledging the other side's truth. Although, at least it was my feeling, that happened more on the secular protesters' side. I don't think the ultra-Orthodox really sought out the acknowledgement of their secular peers.
That is a fundamental difference between the two sides. No matter what, secular Israeli Jews are always looking for the approval of the religious or of their political opponents. There was a sense that the protesters really needed to be heard. There was something touching about their need for the ultra-Orthodox to understand the depth of their fears—of their existential fears.
The ultra-Orthodox youth, who all they do every day is practice the art of debate, didn't engage in that conversation on an emotional level. For them, it was all about the reasons for our existence here. As one young ultra-Orthodox man said at the dialogue tent: "I'm here because of my faith in God's covenant. If you don't believe in that, what gave you the right to conquer this land from the Arabs that lived here? Why are you living on occupied land?"
The secular woman he was speaking to responded: "Believe me, I would leave if I could."