A deeply divided Israel limps toward its 75th birthday under weight of internal rift

Government’s planned overhaul of judiciary has split the nation so deeply that the division is sometimes felt even within families

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (Oded Balilty/AP)

AP — Orit Pinhasov strongly opposes the Israeli government’s proposed judicial overhaul, but you will not find her anywhere near the mass protests against the plan. She says her marriage depends on it.

Pinhasov’s husband sits on the opposite side of Israel’s political divide, and joining the protests will only deepen what she says already are palpable tensions in her household.

“I don’t go to the demonstrations not because I don’t believe in them,” she said. “I don’t go in order to protect my home. I feel like I’m fighting for my home.”

As Israel turns 75 on Wednesday, it has much to celebrate. But instead of feting its accomplishments as a regional military and economic powerhouse, the nation that arose on the ashes of the Holocaust faces perhaps its gravest existential threat yet — not from foreign enemies but from divisions within.

For over three months, tens of thousands of people have rallied in the streets against what they see as an assault by an ultranationalist, religious government threatening a national identity rooted in liberal traditions.

Fighter pilots in the volunteer reserves have threatened to stop reporting for duty. The nation’s leaders have openly warned of civil war, and families of fallen soldiers have called on politicians to stay away from memorial ceremonies. Many Israelis wonder if the deep split can ever heal.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, April 15, 2023. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Miri Regev, the government minister in charge of the main independence celebration on Tuesday night, has threatened to throw out anyone who disrupts it. The event takes place at a plaza next to Israel’s national cemetery in Jerusalem, where the country abruptly shifts from solemn Memorial Day observances for fallen soldiers to the joy of Independence Day, complete with a symbolic torch-lighting ceremony, military marches, and musical and dance performances.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid is boycotting the ceremony. “You have torn Israeli society apart, and no phony fireworks performance can cover that up,” he said.

The rift is so wide that Israel’s longest-running and perhaps most pressing problem — its conflict with the Palestinians — barely gets mentioned despite a recent surge in violence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a polarizing leader revered by supporters and reviled by opponents, has played a key role in the crisis. The divisions gained steam as he was indicted on corruption charges in 2019. Israel barreled through five cycles of elections in under four years — all of them focused on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule.

Late last year, Netanyahu finally eked out a victory — cobbling together the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Within days, it set out to overhaul the judicial system and give Netanyahu’s allies the power to overturn court decisions and appoint judges.

The plan, which critics see as a transparent power grab, has triggered unprecedented protests that ultimately forced Netanyahu to temporarily suspend it. In a reflection of the deep mistrust, the protests have only grown larger, exposing deeper fault lines in Israeli society that go back decades.

Right-wing Israelis march with the Torah at a rally in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government plans to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 30, 2023. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

On Netanyahu’s side is a religious and socially conservative coalition that includes the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox minority, the religious-nationalist community, West Bank settlers, and Jews of Middle Eastern descent who live in outlying working-class towns.

Those protesting against him are largely secular, middle-class professionals behind Israel’s modern economy. They include high-tech workers, teachers, lawyers and current and former commanders in Israel’s security forces.

Israel’s Arab minority, meanwhile, has largely sat out the protests, saying it never felt part of the country to begin with.

These divisions have filtered down to workplaces, friendships and families.

Despite political differences, Pinhasov, 49, said she and her husband have “lived in peace” for 30 years. She said there were disagreements at election time every few years, but these were short-lived and minor.

That began to change during the coronavirus pandemic, when Pinhasov said the tone of public debate over issues like lockdowns and vaccines became more strident. Then, as Israel ricocheted from election to election, the tensions began to be felt at home.

Her husband would tell her she’s been “brainwashed” and complained about “leftist” media, Pinhasov said. When she disagreed, he would say, “you don’t understand.” They could no longer watch the news together or “Wonderful Country,” a popular political satire show.

Their four children, including a 21-year-old son who shares his father’s views, all love and respect each other and their parents, she says. But it is complicated, like “walking on eggshells.”

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 18, 2023. (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

While Israel typically unites in times of war, seeds of distrust were planted decades ago.

From the country’s earliest days, the Jewish majority was plagued by disagreements over issues such as whether to accept reparations from postwar West Germany, to violent protests by poorer Middle Eastern Jews in the early 1970s, and bitter internal divisions over military fiascos during the 1973 Mideast war and later in Lebanon.

Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish ultranationalist in 1995 opposed to his peace efforts with the Palestinians. Large protests erupted when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

“Israel was always a deeply divided society, but somehow it held together,” said Tom Segev, an Israeli author, historian and journalist. “The difference now is that we are really discussing the basic values of this society.”

The protests against Netanyahu’s government show that many are “genuinely frightened” for the country’s future, he said.

Tel Aviv University economist Dan Ben-David, president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, points to two seminal events in Israel’s history – the 1967 and 1973 Mideast wars.

The 1967 war, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, spawned the Jewish settler movement, which has turned into a powerful political force representing some 700,000 people.

The 1973 war, meanwhile, set off a process that would bring the right-wing Likud party to power four years later. The Likud has ruled for most of the time since then, usually in partnership with ultra-Orthodox parties.

These religious parties have used their political power to win generous subsidies and controversial exemptions from military service — angering the broader secular public.

A demonstrator waves the Israeli flag seated flanked by paramilitary border police during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (Ariel Schalit/P)

The ultra-Orthodox community, and to a lesser extent the religious nationalist community run separate school systems that offer subpar educations with little respect for democratic values like minority rights, Ben-David said.

Because these communities have high birth rates, he said the country needs to go back to a “melting pot” model that includes a core curriculum promoting universal values, he said. “If we are one nation, then we need to teach our children what brings us together.”

Danny Danon, a former ambassador to the United Nations and top figure in Netanyahu’s Likud party, said the anniversary is a time for everyone to reflect and think about what they have in common.

“In my five years at the UN, I realized that our enemies do not make the distinction between left and right, secular and Orthodox,” he said. “That’s why we have to realize we have to stick together.”

And, of course, many see the 75th anniversary celebrations as a time for joy.

Pinhasov said she will host a party for some 100 people at her home in central Israel, many of them members of her husband’s family.

“It’s our Independence Day,” she said. “It’s still a day for celebrations.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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