The recent mass protests in Israel against the judicial overhaul and for the preservation of a supposed democracy have raised hopes in some amid their desperation. These hopes have even reached people on the Israeli radical left, who could easily be cynical about these protests by pointing out that the country is not a democracy in the first place–because it is an apartheid state.
I had such a discussion a couple of weeks ago with a fellow political activist, whom I think is quite radical and anti-Zionist. He posted a photo of the mass protests with a view from above, without much commentary–I commented that I don’t celebrate the protests because they are primarily aimed at the preservation of the “Jewish and democratic” state and that this is an apartheid construct. He responded that it seems I have lost hope, and that it is very sad. We discussed it a bit back and forth. He emphasized people’s ability to change and what needs to happen for real change to occur (something which I was pointing out was missing from the protests).
I wasn’t much convinced by this exchange but left with a few questions. First, whether these mass protests, with all their faults, can somehow become a real vehicle for change towards real democracy, and second, where do I find hope, if any, that Israeli society can be changed?
To begin to answer both questions, we must look at one of the central faces that animate the Israeli judicial protest movement, which gives us a sense of where the possibilities for the movement lie.
Shikma Bressler–the face of the protests
If you want to look at the mainstream face of the protests, you need look no further than at Shikma Bressler.
Bressler was recently profiled by Isabel Kershner of the New York Times, who celebrated her heroic status. Kershner writes:
Dr. Bressler sealed her status as a symbol of the protest movement last month when she led a miles-long column of demonstrators on a multiday march to the hills of Jerusalem from coastal Tel Aviv. It evoked a biblical pilgrimage, and they picked up tens of thousands of supporters during the journey… Somebody noticed that one of Dr. Bressler’s shoes was torn and asked for her shoe size. She soon had seven pairs to choose from.
Bressler has also been a leading figure in Israeli protests well before this year–in 2020, she became a leader of the “Black Flag” protests contesting Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ability to serve as Prime Minister while being investigated for corruption. This year, her protest group became central in the overall protests. When she was arrested on the “Day of Disruption” on March 23, Ehud Barak, the former Labor Prime Minister, called her arrest “dictatorship in action,” and Labor leader Merav Michaeli stated that “in a normal country, Shikma Bressler would be given the Israel Prize,” whereas “in the state of Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir she is arrested as a common criminal.”
So you get the profile–a left-leaning, smart, and fearless activist endorsed by the liberal leaders. Now we can jump to what Bressler said last Saturday at the protests:
A governance coup of the kind occurring here in Israel has occurred before in Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, Ecuador, Turkey, Iran. None of these countries have a problem with occupation, yes or no, the occupation is not the basis for what is happening here according to my world view. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to seek good. And anyway we all need to unite our voices together to secure that Israel stays a democracy.
So, not only does Bressler believe that Israel is a democracy–she simply does not see what the occupation has to do with Israel’s current problems. She is obviously not acknowledging apartheid from the river to the sea–just occupation. This level of denial is not a temporary lapse in Bressler’s political grasp of events; it is deliberate denial typical of Zionist centrists.
A month ago, she claimed in a tweet that “one cannot expect those who serve in the most moral army in the world to serve a dictator–which is probably the least moral thing in the world.” But Bressler also made a point to separate this from the army reservists who said they would stop appearing for volunteer duty if the judicial overhaul were passed (and some already have refused). Here, Bressler notes: “Whoever errs in calling this refusal is avoiding the facts, and worse, is turning their back on moral values.” Bressler does not want the army refusal to deepen into a refusal to serve in regular service, which has long been considered an illegitimate politicization of the supposedly apolitical and righteous army.
So, Bressler’s ideology is a mixture of Zionist self-righteous kitsch with some liberal calls for action, but that action has to be kept in a jar where the occupation or apartheid doesn’t exist.
This is really the face of what we call “liberal Zionism,” with all its inherent contradictions.
On July 3, in the midst of Israel’s bloody assault on the Jenin refugee camp, Bressler tweeted:
In order to keep standing with a raised head and a full heart against the threats facing us from without, so that our children, brothers and heroic partners fighting now in Jenin will not be subject to legal prosecution in The Hague, we must secure that Israel remains a D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y.
This is an implicit admission both of Israeli war crimes and of the role of Israeli “democracy” in shielding Israel from prosecution. Within the mainstream Israeli discourse, Bressler appears radical in her actions. In reality, she is anything but. Sadly, she is far from alone in this.
A month ago, protesters from the militant “Brothers in Arms” (the reservists’ protest) violently tore down a banner carried by the anti-occupation bloc calling for opposition to settler terror–a milquetoast demand at best, yet the reservists saw red. These reservists are a major force in the protests, not a fringe; in fact, some analysts say they may wield decisive power in forcing change given their deep connections in the military.
Many other examples abound, and they are all in line with Bressler’s position–that is, opposition to the Netanyahu government and those who are seeking to end Israeli apartheid. Shikma Bressler’s way of thinking is typical and represents the Israeli mainstream. It’s not an aberration. I grew up in Israeli society and just returned from a visit there, and all the daily talk I heard about the protests echoed Bressler’s ideas. But if this is the furthest you can go politically before even the mainstream left rejects you, what are the prospects for actually changing Israeli society?
So if the likes of Bressler and the “Brothers in Arms” are the face of the protests, it’s clear why I don’t find hope in them. They not only ignore Israeli apartheid but oppose those working to end it — including attacking the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic, as Labor leader Merav Michaeli has done.
Based on these realities and this political landscape, it is clear there is simply no space to challenge Israel’s apartheid from within.
So for me, the hope is outside of Israel. I haven’t lost hope in Israelis–it’s just that I don’t see internal processes in Israel that would allow for real change.
I want to make clear my unflinching principle of hope–I will always have hope in humans, because I believe in change, and I believe they can change. But that conviction cannot become silly or naive–you cannot expect humans to change in situations where their privilege is unchallenged precisely because they have no incentive to do so.
My hopes are also invested in a future that Israeli society finds illegitimate: a future of equality in Palestine/Israel devoid of Jewish supremacy. This future is simply anathema to Zionism. My hope for change involves external pressure that persuades Israelis they are better off without apartheid because apartheid entails too much isolation. People generally have to experience it that way–on their own bodies–before they are forced to change. In other words, it doesn’t make sense for Israelis to dismantle something that works well for them.
The point is to make Jewish supremacy costly. If you really really hope for an end to Israeli apartheid, you have to advocate for pressure on Israeli society from the outside–that means BDS.
Israel’s internal fissures, as symbolized by the protest movement, are an isolated intra-Jewish fight that excludes Palestinians because they are not part of the “Jewish and democratic” vision. None of that offers hope to me.
My hope, quite simply, is in the liberation of Palestinians. Is it “practical” to hope for this? Well, one could ask, conversely, whether it is “practical” to hope for a “two-state solution” that will never arrive. Some may be upset that I do not place my hope in these current protests. I decide where my hope goes, and it is in the liberation of Palestinians by Palestinians and those who support them.