It’s become a normal aspect of everyday life in Israel: long lines of standstill traffic, bus lines diverting from their usual route, gridlock, and obstruction of movement in almost every major population center in the country. All of this is a result of the now seven months of ongoing demonstrations protesting the proposed Judicial Reforms, introduced and supported by the right-wing majority in the Knesset led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since their introduction in January, the judicial reforms have been a firecracker issue for Israeli political society, causing mass division and polarization.
With all of the chaos and anger caused by these demonstrations, many begin to wonder whether they are truly productive in accomplishing anything or just serve as a waste of time and energy for both those involved and affected.
By analyzing this particular protest movement, there is an opportunity to see how general society often fails to understand the fundamental tools and goals of successful protests. Put simply, people who complain about traffic due to protests, strikes, school closures, or even disrespecting the flag are all failing to recognize that these protests are intended to be disruptive. If they left nothing to complain about, then they simply would not be effective protests.
Months ago, while still in the army, I waited for a train with a good friend from my unit. Our agitation grew as our train was delayed over and over due to the protests. After spending weeks on base, all we wanted was a shower and to collapse into bed. Eventually, he turned to me and said something to the degree of, "Listen, I’m also against the reforms, but you really think it’s right for combat soldiers like us to be delayed getting home so that these people can protest?" While struggling with my personal displeasure, I owed it to myself to think logically about the situation. The fact that I am being affected by these protests means that their core goal of disrupting the status quo is succeeding. As an individual who values democracy, I have to recognize that this is bigger than myself. If I want to live in a country with fair democratic procedures, then it might mean that I will have to sacrifice my own interest in wanting to get home on time.
In the case of the judicial reforms, the fact that an estimated 20% of the Israeli population has engaged in a protest at some point further enhances their disruption and therefore their ability to make change. The tipping point that ultimately delayed the voting on these reforms came in March, when, in a widely criticized move, hundreds of fighter pilots refused to show up for their voluntary reserve duty. While there were those who criticized this move as dangerous and unpatriotic, once again, the disruption caused by these actions was part of a single force, one that ultimately brought a tangible change in the political arena.
People often mistake a protest as being like a sword that attempts to make a precision cut at the parts of society that it looks to change. Truly effective protests, however, are not like this. They are sledgehammers that shake the foundation of society until enough unrest is generated in order to spur productive change.
In 2019, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, closing 649 schools and causing frustration among many parents and people in the political world. However, applying the same lens as we did to the Israeli protests, we can see parallels in the attitudes that find widespread support in the Israeli right-wing being expressed halfway around the world. While the 2019 strike found support among many Chicagoans, in a Sun-Times/ABC 7 poll, 38% of people outright opposed the walkout.
" Tina, who asked the Tribune not to publish her last name, has a daughter who is a senior at Lane Tech College Prep.
The strike has hampered her daughter's ability to submit her college applications, some of which are due as early as Nov. 1…."Her transcript has not been sent and no one is helping with her college essays," Tina said. "She asked for teacher recommendations and hasn't gotten any of those. She couldn't sleep last night. She was in tears."
Much like how the judicial protests have no direct intention of blocking soldiers from getting home or putting Israel in a dangerous defense situation. The teachers of the Chicago Teachers Union have no direct intention of hindering the ability of Tina’s daughter to be accepted to college. This type of disruption, however, is part of the exact catalyst that, after 14 days, brought the union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to the table to sign a deal that would benefit teachers, students, and parents for years to come.
When talking about disruption, it's important to recognize the line between productive and destructive disruption. For many, when discussing the legitimacy of a political protest movement, that line is crossed when an exercise of civil disobedience turns into a violent riot. While the fight for equality in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s included both peaceful and violent protest, Its major victories, like The March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery Marches, are remembered for their commitment to non-violence. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. A movement that had tremendous goals aimed at positively reforming our policing institutions through peaceful disruption was in many ways overshadowed by the violence that accompanied many of its protests, often morphing them into full-blown riots. Ultimately, for many Americans, the movement elicits images of boarded-up storefronts and masked rioters setting fire to city centers. Even as an individual who supported the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, it was difficult to continue to lend legitimacy to the message behind the riots that were causing unneeded physical harm and chaos.
If we are to recognize a disruption to the status quo as a necessary evil in making political change, we must also set a limit for when a movement fails to hold a legitimate moral high ground in order to avoid an ideological slippery slope.
This afternoon, July 24th, at 3:45 p.m., moments after the entire left wing of the Knesset walked out in protest, the right-wing coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu voted by a margin of 64-0 to enter the first section of the judicial overhaul into law. From now it will take time until the entire process is completed, and the outcome is still undetermined. What is certain, however, is that protests will continue throughout the duration of these votes until the government either succeeds in its efforts or crumples under the pressure of the people. Despite his main activism taking place almost 50 years ago, the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel hold just as acute today.
"For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."
In what now appears to be an uphill battle, if the movement against the judicial reforms is to succeed, it is going to need many more people to pray with their legs. As with any movement, the gears of history are often turned by groups willing to cause a magnitude of disruption necessary in order to make change.