Like Martin Luther King, I, too, have a dream. I dream that the hundreds of thousands of protestors taking to the streets across the State of Israel and chanting DE-MO-CRA-CY will come to the realization that Israel cannot be a democracy as long as its non-Jewish citizens – yes, not only Arabs – are made to feel like they don’t really belong and as long its occupation of the Palestinian territories captured in 1967 continues. I dream that the protest organizers will take up the cause of equality for all citizens of Israel and wave banners calling for the revocation of the Nation-State Law. I dream that Palestinian Israelis will take to the podium on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street under the shadow of the Palestinian flag and call for an end to the oppression of their people in the occupied territories to the sounds of thunderous applause. I dream that a winding column of demonstrators marching toward the Knesset to defend the independence of the Supreme Court will question how the highest court in the land ruled that it is legal for the government to demolish the village of Khan al-Ahmar and forcibly transfer the families that live there. I dream, but the reality of life here is becoming more and more of a nightmare.

There are those who pin their hopes on the fact that there’s been an increase in the number of protestors who identify with the anti-occupation bloc and that here and there a Palestinian Israeli has been among the speakers or a Palestinian flag has been flown. These meager achievements, however, actually serve to highlight the fact that the Palestinian issue – both the status of Israel’s Arab population and the subjugation of the population in the occupied territories – is not on the minds of the masses who are fighting to protect a democracy that was flawed from the outset. The fact that thousands of Palestinian did join with Jewish protestors in Tel Aviv on August 7 to hold a March of Death in protest against the government’s failure to combat the spiraling violence in the Arab community further underscores the Palestinians’ alienation from the “democracy” protests.

Authoritarianism in the Early Years

The authoritarian beginnings of Israeli governance are extensively presented in an article by Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal titled “The Right to Understand: Explaining the New Israeli Reality” published in Volume 28 of the Palestine-Israel Journal, which looked at the Palestinian Nakba and Israeli statehood on their 75th anniversary. Bar-Tal reminds us that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion “established a military regime that governed the Palestinians remaining within the state’s borders; severely censored freedom of expression; demeaned the opposition and surveilled them; trounced any attempt to strike (the seamen’s revolt); differentiated between citizens who supported the regime and those who opposed it ideologically; discriminated against Jews who immigrated from Arab countries; instituted indoctrination into the school system; advanced his political cohorts to senior positions; and pressured cultural figures to refrain from criticism.” He also points out that the Declaration of Independence, cited by all the movements and individuals participating in the protests as the lynchpin of Israeli democracy in the absence of a constitution, is merely symbolic and lacks any legal status. Finally, Bar-Tal lists existential insecurity, suspicion of Arabs, distrust of the international community, and expansionist aspirations among the basic premises that Ben-Gurion instilled in the Jewish Israeli psyche.

In this environment, and with the horrors of the Holocaust fresh in their minds, the Jews came to see “Jewish state” not as a descriptive term for a country inhabited mostly by Jews but a country where being Jewish brings with it privilege and exclusivity and where demographics are used to justify discriminatory policies. Instead of the founding leaders consolidating an Israeli national identity that included Jews and Arabs, they built a society in which Jewish and Israeli became synonymous, although most Jews are obtuse to the bias expressed by this lexicon.

Normalizing Settlement and Annexation

Hopes for normalcy that were ushered in with the cancellation of the military regime in 1966 were dashed with the outbreak of the 1967 war and Israel’s subsequent occupation of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Within weeks of the end of the war, on June 27, 1967, Israel took the first major step in what has become a long history of violating international law by expanding the municipal borders of West Jerusalem to include the eastern part of the city as well as some 28 adjacent villages that had been in Jordanian hands. With this decision, Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem, although the Basic Law: Jerusalem that declared the “complete and united” city the capital of Israel was not passed until 1980. Few Israelis questioned the legitimacy of this move, dismissing UNSC Resolution 478, which determined that Israel’s enactment of the law “constitutes a violation of international law,” as further proof that “the whole world is against us.” The elation that met Colonel Mordechai Gur’s cry that “the Temple Mount is in our hands!” was a clear indication that very few thought that the future of the city is negotiable, and even fewer gave a thought to the Palestinian residents who overnight were made strangers in their own land.

Also in 1967, the first Jewish settlement in the West Bank was established at Kfar Etzion. Within a decade, 32 settlements had been established in line with the strategic vision of Yigal Allon, who devised a plan to partition the West Bank between Israel and Jordan. This illegal settlement enterprise which began under Levi Eshkol’s Labor government was advanced primarily under the guise of security, with territorial acquisition being portrayed as necessary for strategic depth. From the beginning, however, there were those whose sense of attachment to Abraham’s Hebron and Joshua’s Jericho blinded them to considering the possibility that the Palestinians are an indigenous people with legitimate rights of ownership. Following the emergence of the Gush Emunim movement after the 1973 war and the victory of the right-wing’s Menachem Begin in 1977, the ideology of biblical linkage emerged as a key driver of Jewish encroachment on Palestinian lands.

Members of “Brothers In Arms” group (ex-Israeli soldiers) attack the anti-occupation block during the weekly anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, July 1, 2023.

In the Oslo years prior to the second intifada, opposition to settlement grew among the Israeli public. There were many circles, however, in which it rested not on recognition settlement as an obstacle to realization of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination but rather on secular antipathy to the messianic beliefs of the more radical settlers, as well as objections to the financial and military resources being expended to develop and defend the settlements. Slowly, however, distorted concepts such as “legal” and “illegal” settlements took hold, acclimatizing the public to the idea that government-approved settlement is legitimate. The Oslo negotiations gave birth to the concept of “settlement blocs” on which there is “consensus,” leading successive governments to dupe the public into believing that there is Palestinian and international agreement to certain settlements remaining in Israel’s hands, while failing to mention that such consensus is contingent on the execution of 1:1 land swaps. Time has also served to erode public awareness that Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev are settlements and not outlying Jerusalem neighborhoods, and most Israelis driving along Route 443 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv are ignorant of the fact that they are passing through the West Bank and that Palestinian property was expropriated in order to build the road.

Ignoring the Goal of Annexation

It is against this backdrop of decades of normalization of the Jewish sense of entitlement on both sides of the Green Line that Netanyahu put together his “fully, fully right-wing coalition” that is now trying to push through a judicial overhaul. Having spent years ruling over a public that has become largely anesthetized to the abuses perpetrated against the Palestinians, Netanyahu misjudged the breadth and depth of the opposition that has come from diverse sectors of society who are less worried about “the other” and more concerned that their individual rights will be trampled. “You took on the wrong generation,” they shout through their megaphones. The protestors worry not only about the independence of the Supreme Court but also about the politicization of all the authorities that govern our lives, the institutionalization of religious norms that discriminate against women and LGBTQ, and the imposition of halakhic law on the secular public. Democracy as they knew it – by Jews and for Jews – is under threat, and masses of Jews are turning out to protect it without recognizing that the good old days were not so good for the Palestinian citizens of Israel and under the impression that any antidemocratic practices against the Palestinians in the occupied territories are well deserved.

To understand why the Arab community is not among the crowds, one can begin with the fact that the organizers have not welcomed them, concerned that they would shatter the consensus that unites the demonstrators. Let’s call for equality as long as the demand doesn’t spill over into the question of the status of Israel’s Arab citizens. Let’s hold on to the illusion that we can subjugate millions of people beyond the Green Line and retain humanistic values on this side of it. Let’s bow down to the Air Force pilots who say they will not serve a dictatorship but have no problem carrying out blanket bombings of Palestinian targets. Let’s assemble under the banner of “Brothers in Arms,” making it clear to the Arab minority that they are not our brothers. And most important, let’s ignore the fact that among the aims of the judicial overhaul is the removal of any obstacles to annexation of the West Bank, because only anti-Semites would dare suggest that “the only democracy in the Middle East” is capable of practicing apartheid.