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An existential threat to Israel: the division of the Jewish population into two halves

Like many people my age, I find myself spending a not-inconsiderable amount of time thinking about what my younger self would have thought about current events. Specifically, what the young, rather right-wing Anshel Pfeffer, fresh out of the army and still studying at a yeshiva in the West Bank, would have made of today’s conflict within Israeli society over the future of our democracy.

The problem with trying to examine today’s issues through what I half-remember, half-imagine were my 21-year-old eyes and mind, is that these questions of the role of the Supreme Court and balance of powers were far from the news agenda at the time, and were the concern of few Israelis outside of legal circles. They were the stuff of the more boring chapters in the civics textbook we had to study and be tested on in the last year of school.

I can only assume that as a product of a national-religious education and the community I lived in, I would have supported Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman’s crusade to dismantle the “judicial dictatorship” and restore democracy to the people.

But I can’t reliably rehearse the arguments I would have made, simply because I never made them at the time. They were irrelevant. By the time they became the stuff of wide political debate, it was much later and I was already much closer to the person I am now.

But I can compare the feeling and passion of being on one side of a traumatic dispute that deeply divided Israeli society. I was there, among those who were viscerally opposed to the Oslo peace process and saw Yitzhak Rabin as the antichrist.

I wasn’t in the hard core and aware then – or now, for that matter – that anyone I knew would have actually contemplated taking part in a plot to murder him. But that is mainly by chance. I heard the name Yigal Amir for the first time on the night of the assassination, but on the morning after, by the watercooler, there were plenty who had gone to school with him, served in the same infantry company – and even the brother of his last girlfriend.

The hatred was all around. And everyone knew why they hated “the Oslo gang.” The arguments, both on an ideological level and on grounds of national security, were clear, and nearly three decades on I can still recite them in detail. But it went beyond the reasons. What they were doing to us was something we all felt. And the hatred now is deeper and encompasses more Israelis.

The comparisons are difficult and impossible to make accurately. The government currently trying to pass a divisive plan is from the right and the opposition in the streets is on the center-left. The media landscape in Israel is drastically different, and of course there’s social media that constantly throws the vitriol right in your face. And no matter how much I trust my memory on this, recency bias obviously plays a part.

Yet with all that taken into account, I’m still convinced that the hatred driving Israelis apart today is more toxic and deeper than that which existed in the Oslo days and led to Rabin’s assassination. I’m surprised there have been no political murders thus far, and will be even more so if we make it through this period in Israeli history without any.

The perception among many outsiders is that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the most cardinal issue relating to Israel and its future. After all, it was what a prime minister got assassinated for pushing. But as important as it is to many Israelis, Oslo was fateful to a relatively small number of them at the time. The settlers then were around 5 percent of the Israeli population and while their support base was wider than that, for a majority of Israelis the prospect of peace with the Palestinians, leading to an opening up of the Arab world, was tantalizing.

On the other hand, there wasn’t a burning feeling that Israel needed to end the occupation and solve the conflict. It depended on the price and the incentives. When the suicide bombings first began in 1994, the Oslo process and the Rabin government quickly lost support among Israelis not because they were against it in principle; it just seemed not to be working. The ideological opposition to compromise with the Palestinians, and with it the abhorrence of what the government was doing, came from a much smaller proportion of the population.

On the face of it, the debate over the constitutional changes is nowhere near as fateful as the life-and-death implications of Oslo. But the question of whether the settlements would ultimately be uprooted to make way for a Palestinian state concerned fewer Israelis.

Today, much wider sections of Israeli society feel they are deeply invested in the judicial overhaul and the battle to oppose it. So much that it will define their very identity as Israelis. It goes way beyond the direct impact that a weakened Supreme Court will have on any individual’s life. In fact, it has little to do with that. It is about the feeling of belonging they have to the country they feel they built.

Israel never really was a liberal democracy, as a wide swath of Israelis wanted to believe. But that’s not in itself a rare thing. In every country, people prefer a rosier national image than the reality. What the government’s “legal reform” is doing to them is stripping away any comforting illusion they can still cling to.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Israel they will see if the legislation goes through is an accurate version. What it means is they will no longer recognize it as their Israel.

This is the reason why hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in protest, in numbers eclipsing any march for peace and justice with the Palestinians. This isn’t about solving a conflict. It’s about who they are and what belongs to them. And the same is true of the other side.

The sections of Israel’s population that fervently support the evisceration of the judiciary are much broader, and that is despite the actual details of the Levin-Rothman plan and arguments – for and against – being more nebulous. Because for them as well, this is about who they are and their attachment to Israel. The composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee and the limits within which the High Court of Justice can use the “reasonableness” standard are not and never were the point.

It’s about whether they feel they are in control of their country. Whether it’s an Israel that conforms to their (narrow and parochial) definition of a Jewish nation, or an Israel held hostage by a minority of privileged and godless elitists who have long ago – as Benjamin Netanyahu once whispered in the ear of Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri – “forgotten what it is to be Jews.”

And while Netanyahu was just pandering to a racist old rabbi, he had already tapped into that sentiment in his first election campaign in 1996: That there are “Israelis” and there are “Jews,” and he would build his base, and win the election, by promising to do what was “good for the Jews.”

Israel is reaching the peak of the trajectory Netanyahu launched us on 27 years ago – a peak of hatred so terrible that even he tried to avoid it three months ago when he announced the suspension of the legislation. But the hatred is too powerful and the perception of his allies – that the leftist deep state almost managed to snatch away their victory – is now making the situation even more dangerous.

The two halves of Israel’s Jewish population are now fighting for their country, and it’s about to get a lot uglier.

Anshel Pfeffer