Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai on Friday warned that Israel was heading toward becoming a fascist theocracy, as the incoming government moves to put extremists in charge of key education programs and neuter the Supreme Court.
“Israel is being transformed from a democracy to a theocracy,” Huldai told Channel 12 news in an interview. “The majority cannot [be allowed to] impose its views on the minority.”
Huldai spoke as he and several other mayors vowed to push back after Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to give Avi Maoz, a far-right Knesset member known for strident anti-LGBT and misogynistic views, authority over large swathes of content at Israeli schools.
“That’s the story of Israel being turned into a theocracy,” said Huldai, whose city is known as a bastion of secular, liberal Israelis. “We are going to be a Halachic state,” he added, referring to Jewish religious law.
Netanyahu this week agreed to give Maoz, the sole lawmaker in the fringe Noam party, an annual budget of at least NIS 100 million ($29 million), as well as over a dozen staffers, as a deputy minister at the helm of a new “national Jewish identity” government agency within the Prime Minister’s Office.
According to the agreement, the Education Ministry unit responsible for external teaching and partnerships will be placed under Maoz’s control, giving him authority over non-official bodies enlisted to teach or lecture at schools.
The move has faced widespread criticism, including from outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who urged local authorities to oppose extremist content pushed by Maoz.
In a missive to heads of local councils on Thursday, Lapid said that “the new government being formed in Israel has forsaken our children’s education and handed it over to the most extreme and backward figures in Israeli society.”
“The solemn responsibility for the educational content our children will study in schools now passes to you,” he said. “You must now serve as the gatekeepers.”
Several local authorities have said they will not allow Maoz to dictate their educational curricula.
Meanwhile, Channel 12 quoted unnamed officials in Netanyahu’s Likud party as saying that giving Maoz the portfolio had been a serious blunder during coalition negotiations.
The sources said negotiators had not realized the importance nor the scope of the education division that he had demanded.
“We did not know that we gave him the keys and now it is too late to reverse,” the report quoted the source as saying, calling it a “double catastrophe.”
Beyond the education issue, Huldai took the incoming government to task over its plans to pass a so-called override law that would let the Knesset reimpose legislation struck down by the Supreme Court.
Asked in the interview if he thought Israel would no longer be a democracy, Huldai replied: “Absolutely — the majority will impose everything it wants on the minority. There’ll be no High Court [with the power to prevent this].”
When it was put to him that the people had spoken in the elections, giving Likud 32 seats while Huldai’s own defunct The Israelis party abandoned its Knesset ambitions in 2021 for lack of support, the mayor said: “In all the fascist states, the leaders were chosen by the people. Absolutely. There are elections in Iran. Is that country a democracy? No.”
“Democracy stems from a person having rights that nobody can take from them — not the majority, and not God. That’s democracy,” he elaborated. “Democracy is not the majority taking control of the minority and telling it what to think, how to eat and what to do.”
“Tel Aviv is democratic, tolerant, pluralistic, respectful of every minority… We’ll defend that… We’ll keep Tel Aviv free,” he vowed.
Huldai’s stinging comments came several hours after Netanyahu and Lapid got into a heated exchange online over Lapid’s call to the mayors and military officers to resist efforts to politicize the institutions.
Netanyahu castigated Lapid for “attempting to incite rebellion among military officers and local authorities against the elected government.”
“Lapid’s conduct is dangerous and hurts democracy,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “We must leave the IDF out of any political debate. Senior officers certainly must not be incited to rebellion against a government that was elected by the people. It crosses a red line.”
He added that when Likud was in the opposition “we never incited against the government.”
Netanyahu vowed to protect citizens’ rights and to “lead the Israeli government according to the national and democratic values that have guided me my entire life.”
He urged Lapid and the expected opposition “to act in a responsible manner. We have one country, one military and one nation. We must not hurt them.”
Lapid responded with an angry diatribe, laying out all the ways he believes Netanyahu has undermined Israeli democracy.
“Mr. Netanyahu, I won’t take lessons in democracy from you. Not from someone who runs a foreign-funded poison machine that deals in slander and defamation of the lowest kind. Not from one who stood on the steps of the courthouse and incited against the rule of law. Not from the one who currently appointed a person convicted of supporting terror to be minister of internal security and a serial convicted felon to the Minister of the Interior,” Lapid said. (Lapid was referring to the expected incoming minister of national security Itamar Ben Gvir and incoming interior minister Aryeh Deri, respectively.)
“Not from someone who broke every promise he ever made and even his partners admit he is a serial liar,” Lapid added. “There was not a single moment in the last year and a half that you respected democracy.”
“We will fight in every arena and in every legal way to keep Israel Jewish, democratic and liberal,” Lapid vowed.