When tens of thousands of Israelis marched up to Jerusalem this weekend to protest the far-right government’s plan to limit judicial power, many were driven by an urgent fear that the government is trying to steal the country that their parents and grandparents fought to build against the odds.
“It’s really a feeling of looting, as if the country is their spoils and everything is theirs for the taking,” said Mira Lapidot, 52, a museum curator from Tel Aviv. This desperate march, in the middle of a heat wave, over the 2,400-foot mountains that lead to Jerusalem, was “a last chance to stop it.”
The government’s supporters — many from more nationalist and religious backgrounds — largely believe the opposite: that the country is being stolen by a political opposition that has refused to accept its losses, not only in a series of democratic elections but also through sweeping demographic and cultural changes that have challenged its once-dominant vision of the country.
“It should really be called a coup, not a protest movement anymore,” said Avi Abelow, 49, a podcast host from Efrat, a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. “They’re willing to destroy the unity of the Israeli people, willing to destroy the unity of the Israeli Army — and destroy Israeli democracy — to hold on to their power.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is set to pass a law on Monday that will limit the ways in which the Supreme Court can overrule the government. Its plan has become a proxy for a broader emotional and even existential battle about the nature of the Israeli state, who controls it and who shapes its future.
The dispute reflects a painful schism in Israeli society — between those who seek a more secular and pluralist country, and those with a more religious and nationalist vision — about how to maintain Israel’s self-image as a Jewish and democratic state amid a disagreement about what both those concepts mean.
The law that comes up for a final vote on Monday is significant in and of itself: It would bar the court from using the contentious legal standard of “reasonableness” to block government decisions, giving ministers greater leeway to act without judicial oversight.
The government says the change would enhance democracy by making elected lawmakers freer to enact what voters chose them to do. The opposition insists it would damage democracy by removing a key check on government overreach, paving the way for the governing coalition — the most conservative and nationalist in Israel’s history — to create a more authoritarian and less pluralist society.
Those fears have ignited 29 consecutive weeks of mass protests, which culminated on Saturday with tens of thousands of demonstrators marching on Jerusalem, some of them having walked for days to get there.
More than 10,000 military reservists, among them the backbone of Israel’s flying corps, have threatened to resign from duty, raising fears about Israel’s military readiness. A group of 15 former army chiefs, intelligence agency directors and police commissioners accused Mr. Netanyahu on Saturday night of causing “serious damage” to Israel’s security.
Hours later, at the height of this national drama, Mr. Netanyahu was rushed to the hospital for a sudden heart procedure to implant a pacemaker.
Emotions could scarcely be running higher.
Over the weekend, an opposition lawmaker started crying during a speech in Parliament, a former Israeli Air Force chief welled up during a televised panel discussion and a leading doctor broke down during a prime-time interview.
“I’m looking at this and I don’t believe it — I don’t believe it,” shouted the lawmaker, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, as she stood at the Parliament podium on Sunday morning.
Then she started shaking and sobbing, unable to finish her point.
“A process is taking place here that there are still no words to describe,” wrote David Grossman, a leading Israeli novelist, in a column published on Sunday in Haaretz, a left-leaning newspaper. “Now the ground is falling from under our feet.”
The bill under debate has set off such chaos and pain because it is rooted in a far deeper rift among competing sections of Israeli society about what it means to be a Jewish state.
In its early decades, Israel was dominated by a secular, left-leaning elite who sought to create a country that was Jewish in culture and character but largely unregulated by religious law.
As the country matured, however, other groups swelled in size and political relevance — including religious nationalists, settlers in the occupied West Bank and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Though allies, they do not share an identical agenda but collectively form a growing right-wing bloc that poses a challenge to the social groups that have long dominated Israel.
The settlers seek to divert more funding, resources and legitimacy toward securing more land in the occupied West Bank, cementing Israel’s grip on the territory.
The ultra-Orthodox — the fastest growing section of the Israeli population — seek greater subsidies for their religious schools and greater control over Jewish practice, while still preserving their community’s exemption from mandatory military service so they can study religious law.
For decades, these rival factions maintained a balance of power: The right has led Israel for most of the past four decades, but always in coalition with parts of the center or left.
That changed last November, when Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc won enough seats in Parliament to govern alone. The bloc is now using that power to advance profound changes unilaterally to Israel’s judicial system, frightening opponents who see it as a project to change the character of the country fundamentally.
“This is a symbol or manifestation of a major, deeper lack of trust between parts of the Israeli society,” said Yedidia Stern, a law professor involved in last-minute efforts this weekend to broker a compromise.
Mr. Stern described Israel as a country of four tribes: religious nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Jews and Arabs — the first two of which are now in power. “And this is a risk for the other tribes,” he said. “Liberal and secular Israelis feel that the balance that we used to have is being shaken.”
The government’s supporters see that as the right of the majority. “Democracy is rule by the people,” said Rafi Sharbatov, 38, a barber from Jerusalem. “You can say the people are stupid or screwed up. But the people chose a right-wing government led by Netanyahu.”
To the opposition, though, this risks trampling the rights of the minority. Mr. Netanyahu says that individual rights will be respected. But protesters fear a religious takeover of public life, and some predict that shops might eventually be forced to close on the Jewish Sabbath, or that women and men could have to sit separately on public transport.
“We made this country because we wanted some place for Jewish people” to live in safety, said Navot Silberstein, 31, as he marched through the mountains outside Jerusalem over the weekend. “What we’re seeing is an attempt to enforce Jewish law on other people.”
Mr. Silberstein had rushed to join the march in such a hurry that he had no clothes other than the sweat-drenched ones he was walking in. But such was his anger at the government that he still planned to camp outside the Parliament upon reaching Jerusalem, instead of returning home to rest and shower.
“We won’t live in a country where the government has too much power over us,” he said, before rejoining the thousands striding up the main highway to the capital.
The deepening ruptures in the society are driven in part by Mr. Netanyahu’s personal predicament. In 2020, Mr. Netanyahu chose to remain in politics despite facing prosecution for corruption — a decision that shocked moderate political allies and prompted them to leave his bloc.
Though secular and socially liberal himself, Mr. Netanyahu was then forced to retain power by allying solely with ultranationalists and ultraconservatives — amplifying their relevance and accelerating a clash between secular and religious visions of Israel.
His cabinet colleagues include a minister for national security who has several convictions for racist incitement and support for a terrorist group, and a finance minister who has described himself as a homophobe and said that Israel should be governed by religious law.
Underpinning all this is a decades-old ethnic and socioeconomic tension between the secular elite and the ascendant right.
The Israeli Jews who dominated the country in its earliest decades were generally those of European descent, or Ashkenazim. Jews of Middle Eastern descent, or Mizrahim, faced widespread discrimination and were often sent to live in impoverished communities far from urban centers like Tel Aviv.
This social gap has been narrowing for decades, and intermarriage has, in any case, softened the ethnic divide. But many Mizrahim still feel a grievance toward the Ashkenazim, who continue to hold sway over key institutions.
The Supreme Court’s judges are mostly from Ashkenazi backgrounds, while the pilots of the Israeli Air Force — who have led the reservists’ protest against the government — are often seen as the epitome of the Ashkenazi elite, even if there is no data to bolster that stereotype.
Against that backdrop, some Mizrahim perceive the judicial overhaul as a sledgehammer to any remaining Ashkenazi privilege and view Mr. Netanyahu — though Ashkenazi himself — as the man wielding that hammer.
“I see it as class struggle,” said Herzl Ben-Asher, 69, the editor in chief of a regional newspaper in a majority-Mizrahi city in northern Israel. “It’s nothing else, just a fight over power and rule.”
Fearing the loss of their social influence, “that strong class, the aristocratic class, has gone out into the street,” Mr. Ben-Asher added.
In an extreme example of Mizrahi resentment, a prominent Mizrahi activist recently used antisemitic slurs to berate anti-government protesters in northern Israel.
“You whores, burn in hell,” Itzik Zarka shouted at the demonstrators. “I wish another six million would burn,” Mr. Zarka added, referring to the six million mainly Ashkenazi Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
The effort to curb the Supreme Court is also considered by many in the opposition as an act of revenge by the settlers.
While the court has largely backed Israel’s settlement of the West Bank — several of its judges even live there — settler leaders see it as an obstacle to their most ambitious goals. In particular, the court blocked a law that would have legalized Israeli settlement on private Palestinian land.
The court has also backed the evictions of some Israeli settlers from the occupied territories — notably the removal of several thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005 — an episode that remains traumatic for much of the Israeli right.
Mr. Grossman, the novelist, concluded that the crisis “brings to the surface of the Israeli existence its lies and secrets, its historical insults that have been repressed, its lack of compassion and its mutual acts of injustice.”
Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem, Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel, and Aaron Boxerman from London.