Israelis Aren't Storming the Real Bastille

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A demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets a counter-protest, Tel Aviv, May 22, 2019.

There it goes again, the cry for civil disobedience. To the barricades! Revolution! Immunity laws and laws for overriding Supreme Court rulings rouse the liberal camp from its slumber, and again it’s threatening to go on the attack. Activists, commentators and former scout troop leaders all threaten to take to the streets and topple the Bastille. Pathos flows like water.

Someone suggested a mass resignation of judges; another suggested, heaven forfend, wearing a black armband. What else is in their arsenal? Not leaving a tip at a restaurant? No shopping at the duty-free stores at Ben-Gurion Airport? Not turning off your phone at a movie?

Former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, a confirmed democrat specializing in executions, talks about “the execution of democracy.” A former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gabi Ashkenazi, is making the supreme sacrifice: “For this struggle, I am willing even to go on Twitter.” A few dozen elite lawyers met for a protest session. The revolution will begin at the Goldfarb Seligman law offices!

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On Saturday night, a rally will take place under the banner “a Defensive Shield for Democracy.” We can only hope that the choice of name, reminiscent of the IDF’s 2002 operation during the second intifada, was coincidental, because that was one of the most heinous operations in the IDF’s history.

It’s good that civil society has woken up to the need to act. It’s always a good thing, especially in Israel, this sleeping beauty. The problem is that, as usual, this beauty picks her fights in her comfort zone, where no courage is needed, where there’s no need to pay an actual price.

We can’t be silent in light of the right wing’s legislation, but there’s an element of exaggeration and dramatization, sometimes to the point of ludicrousy, with the people who are crying wolf. The immunity law is grave, and the law meant to override Supreme Court rulings is even graver, but they don’t herald mass arrests, executions and the end of democracy.

The fate of the current protest will probably be similar to that of previous protests – it will die out without any impact, without leaving a mark, and for the same reasons. These protests never dare put their hands all the way in the fire. In the summer of 2011, masses of people protested the high cost of living. It was an impressive and sweeping phenomenon, hope- and joy-inspiring, but also cowardly.

It didn’t touch on two basic issues without which there can be no economic revolution in Israel: the defense budget and the budgets allocated to the settlements. No one touches these and there is no social justice. It’s that simple. The 2011 protest shied away from these topics; they’re too controversial. That’s why the protest evaporated without leaving a mark, other than in the careers of Labor legislators Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir. The current protest will end the same way for the same reason.

Half an hour away by car from the revolutionary offices of Goldfarb Seligman, 500 people have been incarcerated for years without trial. There can’t be a democracy where people are locked up without trial. On this matter the protesting lawyers from the esteemed law firm have never piped up. The Supreme Court, for whose independence these attorneys are fighting, approves these detentions, just as it has approved nearly all the occupation’s crimes.

This is the beacon of justice they’re defending. A democrat can’t defend this kind of court. It’s hard to be impressed by people who remember to fight for democracy only when the danger laps at their feet, endangering their own standing.

An hour away from the museum square where masses will convene Saturday night there’s a horrific cage where 2.5 million people have been imprisoned for 13 years. Children die of cancer there due to a lack of medicine, adults there are like the living dead.

No democracy inflicts something like this on others. A regime that imprisons millions isn’t democratic. The enthusiastic masses that come to the museum square are fighting for an imaginary democracy, a propaganda-driven one, one of convenience suited to them and their tribe. Even if they pass laws letting Benjamin Netanyahu escape justice, the effect on these masses will be negligible.

This is why their fury is minuscule, as will be their protest. The Bastille isn’t on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street outside the prime minister’s residence, and the defensive shield of democracy doesn’t lie at the Supreme Court. The Bastille is the violent domination over millions of people. This is a Bastille no one is screaming that we topple. All the rest is playing games with democracy.

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