Isabel Kershner on Israel and its Divisions

Isabel Kershner
Photo by Rina Castelnuovo

Isabel Kershner is a reporter at The New York Times and the author of a new book called The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul.

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It’s very hard to understand what’s happening today without looking at the roots of all these divisions and at the interests of the different communities and their long-held resentments against the establishment of the country.

Isabel Kershner

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:37
  • Mizrahi and Askenazi – 5:31
  • Immigration – 18:08
  • Ultra-Orthodox – 28:12
  • Netanyahu’s Judiciary Proposal – 39:27

Podcast Transcript

Widespread protests broke out in Israel in February and March over a proposed judiciary reform that many saw as removing the only real check on parliament. It’s hard to overstate the significance of the protests. Many of the protests numbered well over 100,000 people and a few had around 250,000. The narrative around the protests was largely about a populist leader trying to consolidate power and citizens rising up to defend liberal democracy. And honestly, I’m not here to dispute that characterization. However, it does simplify the debate and leave out a lot of the political context. 

I wanted to know more about the divisions in Israeli society that have polarized its politics. So, I reached out to Isabel Kershner. Isabel is a reporter at The New York Times and the author of a new book called The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul. Her book is among the best at explaining the divisions and fault lines in Israel. She’s also followed recent events in Israel closely in her reporting.

Our conversation explores some of the key divisions in Israeli society. We then turn to reconsider how those divisions have brought about the debate over the judiciary in Israel. I feel this conversation will offer a different perspective on the tensions in Israel and provides some meaningful context.

If you like this episode and want to support the podcast, please support the podcast as a monthly donor on Patreon or a paid subscriber on Apple Podcasts. For just $5/month you’ll get access to a growing library of bonus episodes. Last week’s bonus episode featured Larry Diamond in a conversation about the legacy of Seymour Martin Lipset. It’s part of a larger series where the podcast explores the contributions of important scholars of democracy like Robert Dahl, Juan Linz, and many others. There is a link in the show notes to get access. As always you can send questions or comments to But for now… This is my conversation with Isabel Kershner…


Isabel Kershner, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Isabel Kershner

Thank you, Justin, for having me.


Well, Isabel, I loved your book, The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul. I thought that it was really relevant for the moment, like what Israel’s going through right now. In fact, I was actually listening to the Times of Israel’s Daily Briefing Podcast earlier and they said that your book was prescient. They even described you as a prophetess.

Isabel Kershner

Yes. That was a first.


Yeah. Because the themes of your book just touch on questions that are so relevant with all the protests going on about judicial reform and other questions about Israeli society. So, I’d like to just start out by asking how you came to write such a forward-looking book.

Isabel Kershner

Well, it’s a good question. I must say it does feel as if this judicial overhaul crisis has just popped up in the last three months out of nowhere. But actually, it is the result of long processes in Israel of generational change as well as social, political, and demographic change. I just spent so long delving into all of those aspects in so many different communities within Israel that it was clear that this was set up for a clash. I mean, the divisions are so deep. The worldviews are so different and it’s going in that direction. Without you knowing it, you might not know exactly what would spark it off.

It could be something other than the judicial overhaul. It could be, for example, other issues on the agenda now including the military draft or ‘not draft’ of the ultra-Orthodox communities, 18-year-olds, et cetera. All of these issues reflect those divisions and those competing agendas. So really, you don’t have to be a prophet or a prophetess to see that these divisions, once they are so deep and so acute are going to burst out.


So, for my part, I saw this as almost a perfect primer on Israel itself. Even though you don’t really get into the politics or direct policies of Israel, I mean, you do touch on it in terms of the military and in terms of some other issues and some of the backstory. But you don’t get into deep constitutional issues or anything like that. What you do do is you do an incredibly deep and meaningful dive into the different groups and peoples of Israel. And I think, to be honest with you, that is the heart of any country. To understand who the people are is really to understand where the country is now and where the country’s going to be going, because that’s going to determine everything about the politics, everything about the policies.

In the end, it’s really just going to come down to who those people are. So, let me dive in with a group that I was unaware of, but is incredibly meaningful for Israeli society. It’s the Mizrahim. Can you talk a little bit about who they are and what makes them distinct?

Isabel Kershner

Absolutely. Well, the state of Israel was really originally founded by European immigrants who came mostly from Eastern Europe. Many came with a socialist agenda. They were really the early pioneers who established the state in the run up to 1948. Once the state had been established, the Arab regimes around were obviously furious and anti-Zionist so many of the Jewish communities who had lived for centuries in those Islamic and Arab countries were no longer welcome. Some of them were eager to leave out of Zionist ideals as well. Others were forced out and had to leave behind all their property. So, essentially masses of Jews from the Islamic and Arab world landed in Israel within a short space of time, doubling the population of the place in the early 1950s. They are known as the Mizrahi Jews, Mizrahi meaning Eastern.

Many of them ended up being dumped in transit camps and spent the first few years in real conditions of hardship, living in tents and then sheds in the snow, in the rain, in the beating sun of the summer, far from the commercial centers of the country. These transit camps often turned into what were called development towns, which were fairly soulless developments of cheap housing projects, often in areas where either the original Arab population had fled or been expelled from. They were empty lands or abandoned lands that Israel wanted to claim or as a matter of settling the borders of the new state. So, often these towns were in rather remote areas with little employment and little prospect of getting on in life. These places often remained poor and disadvantaged.

So, the Mizrahi population was extremely resentful of the European descended Ashkenazi, so-called white elite, who had put them there and basically dominated Israeli politics and the establishment here for the first decades of the state. There you have it set up essentially. The Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide lives on even though you would expect that with generational change, old resentments might fade away. That has not happened in Israel. In some ways they’ve become more acute because the younger generation of Mizrahi, regardless of the fact that many families are now mixed and many children are born to mixed families of a Mizrahi mother and Ashkenazi father or vice versa. But what you have is a younger generation who are much more educated and politically engaged than their parents were or grandparents. They say their parents and grandparents were basically just busy trying to get by and get through the month.

This younger generation have started digging through the archives and beginning to demand to redress some of the wrongs whether it’s in land claims, access to lands, or abiding gaps in education in academia. One of the issues that we’re seeing now around the judicial overhaul is the true sense that there have been very few Mizrahi judges appointed to the Supreme Court. That is one of the issues that is – even though this judicial reform proposal of the governments does not directly address that issue per se – driving a lot of the call for change.


So, in Israel, one of the big divides then seems to be between the Ashkenazis, who are seen as the elites, both in terms of wealth, in terms of education, and in terms of political positions. The Mizrahi are seen as being given the short end of the stick on pretty much all of those different measures that seem to be important in terms of rising up in society. But at the same time, a lot of them have risen up and as you said that a lot of them are now in mixed families. If somebody has an Ashkenazi father and a Mizrahi mother, or vice versa, how do they identify themselves?

Isabel Kershner

That’s an interesting point because there has been research done that shows that if your father is Ashkenazi and your surname is Goldberg or Friedman, then your chances of getting a job, a good job or a well-paid job, increase as opposed to if your mother is Ashkenazi and your father is Mizrahi and you have an identifiably Mizrahi surname. There was one documentary made here, which I cited in the book where a young couple were talking about this. They were a a mixed couple let’s say. She is Mizrahi and he is Ashkenazi, and he advised her ‘When you are applying for a job to use my Ashkenazi surname and when you’re applying for a grant for university, use your Mizrahi maiden name.’

So, it’s not so much a matter of how people identify themselves in these situations as much as how it is projected to wider society. Because as I said, there are still these gaps. But it’s a big mix now and it’s very difficult to always tell the difference. It’s very difficult to identify who is Mizrahi and who is Ashkenazi. In many cases, there are stellar Mizrahi in the cultural world here. There’s been a real cultural revival of Mizrahi music and poetry and even the Arabic language is being used by artists here who hailed from Arabic speaking countries, whereas when their parents first came or their grandparents first came, that was a complete taboo. That was the language of the enemy.

So, you’re seeing a real change in politics. There’s been a changing of the guard here where the old elites are no longer the elites. There hasn’t yet been a Mizrahi Prime Minister, but there are Ashkenazi Prime ministers starting with Menachem Begin in the 1970s who claim to have spoken on behalf of the underdogs, the Mizrahim at the time. There has been a cultural changing of the guard. There’s the political revolution, really since the 1970s, where that domination of the old socialist founders was ended. Most of the governments since the 1970s have actually been ruled by the Likud party for the most part which, as I said, Menachem Begin very much took on the Mizrahi cause and rode that wave of resentment to power and has been in power for most of the years since then.


That’s one of the most remarkable things to me. The fact that today the Mizrahi supports Netanyahu, the heir of the Legacy of Begin and Netanyahu is associated with the political right. It’s interesting to me that the Ashkenazim are associated with not just the political left, but socialism as well, because you would think that people who are the underdogs would be attracted to socialist ideals. That’s what we think of. I mean, we think that socialism is supposed to be pulling people up from the bottom, but that’s not what they’ve been attracted to. They’ve completely rejected that because they see that as identified with the old Ashkenazi elites. Can you talk a little bit about why the Ashkenazi, the people that are considered the elites, the people that are well to do, have long been associated with socialism and the left?

Isabel Kershner

Well, I think it goes back probably a hundred years and definitely with the ideas that were brought here from Europe. If you look at the ideals of the Zionist enterprise in its earliest years, the experiment of the kibbutz, the rural communes that were set up, they were considered the creme de la crème. They were communities that were Marxist in many cases and saw communal life as the most efficient way of settling the land, settling the borders, living in often remote places, and this ideal of Hebrew labor working the land and not relying on outside help. That was the ideal at that time. Now, it was always a minority of the population that was engaged in that activity. The majority of Jews were living in cities like Tel Aviv and engaging in commerce, so it wasn’t ever a totally socialist country.

But there was certainly an ideal there, an equality and the kibbutz idiom of each according to their ability and each according to their need, meaning that you work as much as you can and as hard as you can, and in as sophisticated away as you can, and you get whatever you need regardless. Well, that is all gone and now some of the most diehard of the kibbutz are now finally going through a privatization process after hanging on for many years after most of the others went that way, because it simply doesn’t fit in today’s Israel.

Then, yes, you have the flip side where the Mizrahim, who were long considered the underdogs and certainly considered themselves the underdogs, didn’t subscribe to that at all. They came from traditional societies in the Muslim and Arabic speaking world. They were much more attached emotionally and traditionally to Judaism, not necessarily in a strictly orthodox observant manner, but certainly in terms of tradition. It was almost tribal. This visceral hatred and resentment of the Ashkenazi elite establishment that they saw as shutting them out from the time that they arrived, even though Ben-Gurion so needed to increase the population here, but became almost a tribal and visceral hatred that has just been passed on from parents to children.


So, at the heart of the conflict between the Ashkenazi and the Mizrahi seems to be the fact that the Mizrahi feel like they came late to the party in a lot of ways that Ben-Gurion encouraged immigration, but didn’t really have a great process for integrating people back into the community, into the nation. And that’s not something that was an isolated case. I mean, your book shows that wave after wave of immigrants have continued to struggle to be able to find their way into Israeli society, even as Israel has continued to encourage large waves of Jewish settlers to immigrate back to the country, to continue right to return, and continue bringing new people into their country. Can you talk a little bit about how immigration continues to shape Israel generation after generation?

Isabel Kershner

Absolutely. I think after the Mizrahi waves of the 1950s, we then saw one wave from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, which was fairly small and those people did integrate quite well and quite quickly. Then we saw a huge wave of nearly a million Jews and relatives of Jews who qualified under the law of return coming from the former Soviet Union as it was crumbling in the very late 80s and through the 90s. There we began to see as well as just the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide, Israel splitting into another divide, which was the center of the country and the periphery. Now when I say periphery, I’m not only talking geographically, but also a socioeconomic periphery, even within the cities of poorer neighborhoods or kind of ghettos in some cases, which you saw growing up.

Now you also had immigration from Ethiopia. Israel airlifted Ethiopian Jews here in a very daring operation, which lasted a weekend and many of the Ethiopian Jews also because of cheaper housing ended up in neighborhoods, which became almost exclusively Ethiopian and we have seen them suffering from racism. We have seen them finding it very difficult to lift themselves up and out of those neighborhoods, in many cases. So, yes, the former Soviet Union aliyah or immigration has actually on the whole been quite successful in the end economically because they came with a lot of education and culture. The problem was they were overeducated for the opportunities that they had. So, at the beginning, you would see doctors and engineers and professional musicians working as cleaners, because they simply didn’t have the opportunity to work in their own professions right away.

But they have a very, very strong, disciplined work ethic and ethic of excellence, which they passed on to their children. The children have been very successful and to a large degree have integrated and are now among the elites. But there you have a different problem, because there’s another divide. It’s almost like a Russian doll, where each one you open, there’s another one inside. But many of the immigrants who came from the former Soviet Union came under the law of return, which applies to Jews and non-Jewish spouses and children and also grandchildren. So, if you are a person who has one Jewish grandparent that makes you eligible under the current law to come to Israel and automatically become a citizen of the state.

What it doesn’t give you is an automatic recognition within the state as a Jew, according to halakha, the Orthodox Jewish law. Because there is an orthodox monopoly here on religious affairs and lifecycle events where the Orthodox rabbinic authorities basically have a monopoly over marriage, divorce, burial, there are hundreds of thousands of full Israeli citizens here, many of whom did come from the former Soviet Union or their parents did, who basically cannot get married here. So, you have a whole other level of complication coming from these waves of immigration. This is something that has not been resolved. There is no civil marriage. There is no official way of getting married unless you are considered Jewish under Orthodox Jewish law.


So, this is not a new law that was put in place, because people from the Soviet Union were coming to Israel. But it feels like the reason why this is relevant to the Russian wave of immigrants, and we say Russian loosely, because many of the immigrants are coming from places like Ukraine and Central Asia and many other places that were all part of the former Soviet Union. But many people didn’t take advantage of the fact that you could come to Israel and become a citizen because your grandparents were Jewish because you had opportunity in other places, whether it was the United States or maybe your home country, wherever it might be. You had a life and you didn’t want to uproot your life and come to another country where maybe the opportunities weren’t going to be as strong for you.

But in the case of the post-Soviet wave of immigrants, they really felt like this was their best opportunity. They felt that their country was crumbling all around them and that this was a real opportunity that was in front of them. That even with the limitations on their citizenship, even with the limitations on what they could do within Israel, it was still worth the journey for many of them. Am I understanding that right? That that’s the reason why this is so relevant to this wave of immigrants?

Isabel Kershner

Yes, I mean, there was a concerted effort at the time by the Israeli government to get the US to limit the offers it was making to refugees or people coming under refugee status from the Soviet Union, because Israel very much wanted these people. Israel saw these immigrants as high-quality potential citizens who would lift the state up. They actively encouraged them to come and discouraged them from going to the US, which would’ve been the first choice of many. But Israel was offering temporary housing, special breaks on mortgages and stipends to help you get set up. There’s a very, very good free health system here. So, there were many advantages, plus many people had family already here and some kind of support system. So, yes, it was not an unattractive proposition.


It’s remarkable to me the way that Israel actively courted immigrants, especially in this era where Europe and the United States are trying to put up barriers and restrictions to bringing in immigrants. That seems to be one of the real conflicts of our time right now. Israel throughout its history has been going out of its way to be able to bring in immigrants. Now, obviously, they need to have some ties to the Jewish people. It can’t just be anybody, but they are actively going out of their way to be able to bring in people and as a result, as a consequence, the population continues to grow partly out of birth rates, but also through consistent immigration to some extent. How has the population growth of Israel and the demographic change as well affected Israel over time?

Isabel Kershner

Well, I think the huge wave from the former Soviet Union affected Israel for many years. It gave a huge boost to the secular Israel at a time when the country was moving more to the religious right. Some people have credited it with the ascendance of the government of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, which was a flip back revolution from the Likud hegemony of the previous years, allowing the beginnings of the peace process with the Palestinians. It definitely strengthened that secular side of Israel, but now we’re in the 2020s.

The more significant demographic change is actually happening from within and that is as a result of the extremely high birth rate among the ultra-orthodox Jews here. You see different figures, but it’s roughly between seven to nine children on average per family. It is by far the highest birth rate in the OECD country. It is the fastest growing sector within Israel and the rise of the ultra-orthodox population is now becoming the most significant factor when we look at Israel’s demography.


Now my understanding is the ultra-orthodox are the group that are called the haredi. Where did they come from? Like is this something that’s always been in Israel? Is it something that we see globally? What is the history behind these people?

Isabel Kershner

Well, we see ultra-orthodoxy in Jewish communities all over the world for sure. There was an ultra-orthodox community here before the state. The original Jews in Jerusalem, many were ultra-orthodox. These are terms we’re using now. They probably weren’t the terms that would’ve been used then. There was a kind of bargain done in order for Ben-Gurion to get their buy-in or to have them not oppose the establishment of the state of Israel, because in the ultra-orthodox ideology, there shouldn’t be a sovereign state of the Jewish people until the Messiah comes. Therefore, many ultra-orthodox still today say that they give de facto recognition to the state that they live in and in whose governments they serve, but do not fully recognize the state and are not signed on, signed up Zionists. They’re very ambivalent about Zionism, if not in some quarters, anti-Zionist.

But Ben-Gurion did a bargain with the ultra-orthodox at the time when the state was being founded, which involved giving the ultra-orthodox autonomy over their education and bringing in certain guidelines of kosher foods in public spaces, the Sabbath being the day off, no public transportation on the Sabbath, and also crucially an exemption from military service for ultra-orthodox youth who were engaged in full-time Torah study in the Yeshivas or the religious seminaries. Now back in 1948 or 1950, you were talking about a few hundred people. Now with the population of the ultra-orthodox having grown exponentially since then, you’re talking about some people would put it at 16 to 20% of the intake of any year’s draft age Israelis.

Now, the logic at the time was partially the feeling of the need to rebuild Torah scholarship after it was almost decimated in Europe during the Holocaust. There was respect for the fact that there are Jews who have dedicated their lives and want to dedicate their lives to Torah study and to building up that scholarship again. Ben-Gurion was accommodating towards that. But I think at the same time it is said that he also believed it would fade out. The modern state was bound to win over the ultra-orthodox of this community and that in the end it would fade out. Well, we can see how wrong he was.


Now, this community is a key part of Netanyahu’s Coalition, but it’s not a key constituency of the Likud Party. Why is it that they’ve aligned themselves so strongly with Likud rather than being willing to be a king maker that might shift its loyalties between different coalitions?

Isabel Kershner

This is something that’s happened over the last decade. There were times before where the ultra-orthodox parties, who are primarily interested in maintaining and preserving the interests of their own community rather than changing the whole system in Israel, were swing parties and would go with more left-wing governments or whoever was willing to go along with preserving their interests at the time. But we’ve seen in more recent years, as you noted, a much stronger alliance between the ultra-orthodox and the right-wing that is at this point led by Likud. One of the elements as explained to me by some ultra-orthodox colleagues and experts is that as the peace process with the Palestinians has faded and floundered, the left-wing parties in Israel had to change their agenda.

So, they are less focused on peacemaking and more focused on social and civic issues whether gay rights or pushing for transportation on the Sabbath and opening up more businesses on the Sabbath and being more accommodating to secular Israel. These are things that the ultra-orthodox parties cannot live with. At the same time, there are political strategists here who made that alliance. They persuaded the Likud and the ultra-orthodox parties that they belonged together and the more traditional bent toward Judaism that you found among the right-wing voters, even for the secular right=wing parties seems to go better with the ultra-orthodox. So, they just basically formed an alliance that has become so strong now that it seems unbreakable.


So, the ultra-orthodox would be supportive of a more serious peace process with the Palestinians then?

Isabel Kershner

In the past, the ultra-orthodox politicians did not align themselves against peace moves with the Palestinians. Traditionally, the ultra-orthodox don’t like to provoke the outside world. They’d rather have the Jews keep their heads down and not take controversial positions that are likely to create hatred and anger from outside. In fact, originally some of the main rabbis were opposed to settlement building in the occupied West Bank for that reason. They didn’t want to have Israel at odds with the world. But that has changed partly because of just purely utilitarian needs.

The ultra-orthodox community is so large now and their traditional neighborhoods and towns within Israel so overcrowded that the largest settlements in the occupied West Bank are now in fact almost fully ultra-orthodox with tens of thousands of residents. They are mainly close to the former ‘67 line. The idea being that in any future potential deal with the Palestinians, there could be some kind of land swap where they would be included within the state of Israel in return for an exchange of land. But they’ve become more and more identified with the goals of the right as a result.


Now, it’s not just the ultra-orthodox who are in these settlements. You also talked about millennials who have moved into these settlements as a way to build a new life and don’t even think of themselves as particularly radical. They just have adopted a certain type of life there. Can you talk a little bit about who those people are living in the settlements?

Isabel Kershner

Oh, Justin, look, most of the groups in Israel that we are talking about are not homogeneous. Even among the ultra-orthodox, you have the more ultra-orthodox and the slightly less ultra-orthodox. You have ultra-orthodox who eschew going out to work or if they work then only within their communities and not outside and you have ultra-orthodox who insist on remaining within the walls of the yeshiva.

Similarly, among the population of settlers in the occupied West Bank, you have secular settlers who moved for quote unquote quality of life because the settlements were offering single family homes with gardens a ten-minute drive away from Israel proper, if you will. Then you have the very ideological settlers who are mainly now religious as well, who moved to the more remote areas, which are more heavily populated by the Palestinian population of the West Bank and have an agenda, which is to actually prevent an Israeli withdrawal from those areas in the future.

Now, among these different types of settlers, one of the groups I described as the outpost millennials are young religious families who were seeking like-minded people and communities and found them on the hilltops of the West Bank. Some of them are kind of quite New Agey. Some of them are producing fine wines. Some of them are producing sushi and they are what we could term as the grownup hilltop youth. In the 1990s when Israel had committed itself to the administration in Washington to not build new settlements, Ariel Sharon at the time found a way around and told people to basically go and grab the hilltops and set up these kind of pirate outposts that were not considered legal. Even under Israeli terms, they were not authorized, but the government either turned a blind eye or in some cases helped them out.

Now 20 years on we now have a government in place that is pledging to fully authorize them all and make them either parts of larger nearby settlements and make sure they have all the same infrastructure that the official settlements have or to just increase them and have them as satellite settlements of their own. The people who were those young teens who went out and grabbed those hilltops, they’re now 30, 40-year-olds with children of their own. They never had permits to build permanent homes and many of them lived in prefab modular homes, which in some cases they’ve covered with stone to make them look like permanent homes and expanded them and extended them. So, yes, they are living, a very middle-class life out on these hilltops.


So, there’s obviously even more that we could go into in terms of the people. I mean, we could talk more about the Palestinians. We could talk more about the Ethiopians. But I wanted to bring these different groups together to better understand what’s going on in this dispute over the judiciary. The more that I’m reading your book and I’m looking at the current events in the news and the protests that were happening not that long ago. It gave me the impression that this was really a dispute between the old elite Ashkenazi groups and something that was more of the Mizrahi and other groups that supported Netanyahu. That’s an oversimplification, because I feel that there’s even more groups that are involved in this. But I wanted to understand from you how these different groups were creating different dynamics in this dispute over the judiciary.

Isabel Kershner

I think you’re right to say it’s not delineated along clean lines, but what you are seeing is a general division here between liberal Israelis – Israelis who believe in a liberal democracy here, however, flawed and challenged that is always going to be being a Jewish democratic state – and the more nationalist elements plus ultra-orthodox who have always seen the Supreme Court as a bastian of the Ashkenazi liberal elite. Each have their own reasons and their own historical pet cases that they hold against the court whether in the ultra-orthodox case, it’s the court striking down legislation in Parliament that basically allowed for a wholesale exemption from obligatory army service on grounds of the court trying to preserve the principle of equality.

In the settler’s cases and the nationalist cases, even though the court has not ruled settlement to be illegal, whereas much of the world sees settlement building in the occupied West Bank as a clear violation of international law, but it has very much upheld a prohibition of building settlements on privately owned Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. This has been a bugbear of the settlement movement and the right-wing parties in Israel. So, each has their own reasons and, as you say, there’s also this groundswell of Mizrahi support for judicial reform or change also based on the notion that the Supreme Court has not been open to appointing or hiring enough judges that reflect the diversity of Israeli society, because half the Jewish population here is of Mizrahi origin. In no way are half of the Supreme Court judges Mizrahi origin.

So, you have a perfect storm where many of these different strands and resentments are coming together. Now, if you asked most Israelis a year ago, should there be judicial reform, they would say yes, absolutely. If you asked why, they would say, ‘Because it takes years and years and years for a case to get through the courts here. They need to have more judges. They need to speed things up. They need to make this more efficient.’ But I think few people would’ve said to you, ‘We want the government to appoint the judges or we want judicial review to be strictly curbed.’

So, this form of judicial reform, which the government has put on the table since January after being sworn in was a surprise for a lot of people. The dizzying pace with which they tried to push it through was also quite shocking. It is now stalled. But yes, I think if you look back, it’s very hard to understand what’s happening today without looking at the roots of all these divisions and at the interests of the different communities and their long-held resentments against the establishment of the country.


From a liberal democracy perspective, it’s impossible not to have concerns over the judicial reform because you’re taking away the one and only check that really exists over parliament. I mean, as an outsider that just raises enormous red flags for me and that’s raised enormous red flags for lots of other people. But one of the only points that I think others have made that I think does make some sense is that there seems to be a need for a constitution. Of course, Netanyahu hasn’t made any proposal for an actual constitution or a constitutional convention. But I’d like to get your take as to whether it’s even possible to bring together such a diverse society with such diverse interests to be able to produce a constitution at this point that the whole of society or the vast majority of society would actually be able to support.

Isabel Kershner

Well, as you pointed out, the system in Israel, while it’s a very dynamic democracy with a very free press and many freedoms here, for many people, it is very fragile and flawed. We have one house of Parliament. There is no federal system. There’s no constituency-based system. We have a president who is basically a figurehead, a symbolic role for the most part. What you do have is whoever couples together the coalition after any given election and manages to command 61 seats out of a 120-seat parliament has all the power. There is no formal written constitution and there is only the Supreme Court at this point, as you say, giving protection or guaranteeing some kind of protection for minorities against what could potentially just be a tyranny of the majority.

So, this is a very fundamental fight that’s going on here right now. Why don’t we have a constitution? There have been efforts in the past, which have always failed. Some people who’ve been involved in those efforts will tell you that it was exactly on this point that they failed – Who gets the last word? Is it the governing coalition or is it the judges? Do you have a majority government here that has all the power or do you have a government that defers to the rule of law as defined by the court? So, we’re kind of back to square one. But there are also issues like equality. The word equality does not appear in any Israeli law.

What we have are some basic laws that the Supreme Court in the 1990s gave a quasi-constitutional status and interpreted them as meaning that there should be equality and have judged other laws passed by the Parliament since then against those standards. So, if they don’t meet those standards, like the military draft law exempting ultra-orthodox 18-year-olds, it has struck them down. Could there be a constitution now? You don’t hear Netanyahu talking about it because I think with the coalition he has right now, satisfying the ultra-orthodox, the ultranationalists in his government and the opposition in one document would appear to be an impossible feat. We have heard President Isaac Herzog, who is hosting a dialogue to try and reach some kind of consensus or compromise on these judicial proposals, saying that maybe this is the time to turn this into a constitutional moment.

I don’t believe that is going to happen right now. At the moment, even the negotiations for a consensus on the judicial overhaul appear to be stalled. So, I think a constitution right now is probably a little ambitious, but very necessary. What you see in the protests, the mass protests against the government’s proposal for judicial overhaul, are hundreds of thousands of Israelis carrying the Israeli flag, but also evoking the Declaration of Independence that was written in 1948 as the foundational document of the state of Israel. Now, the Declaration of Independence was very clear that this is a Jewish homeland, but one that will give equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of religion or race or creed or color.

This is something that liberal Israelis are now holding onto and waving. You see huge banners of the Declaration of Independence hanging from buildings. This has become a symbol now of the protest movement, the pro-democracy, liberal democracy movement, if you will. Of course, it was not a legally binding document in any way. It has no legal status here. There are some people who say, ‘Why don’t we just turn that into the constitution?’ So this is where we’re at. But the people who are trying to push forward the judicial overhaul will say, ‘It has no legal status and it will not have any legal status. It was never intended as that.’


Well, Isabel, thank you so much for joining me today. I want to mention the book one more time. It’s The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for its Inner Soul. It’s an absolute must read for right now. To understand Israel, you really need to read this book. So, thank you so much for writing it. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Isabel Kershner

Thank you very much, Justin. Thank you for having me on.

Key Links

The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul by Isabel Kershner

Read more from Isabel Kershner at The New York Times

Follow Isabel Kershner on Twitter @IKershner

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