You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Capture the Flag

What Can Americans Learn from the Israeli Protests? A Lot.

The powerful demonstrations in Tel Aviv and elsewhere can teach us a lot about how to build a truly unifying opposition.

A protest against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul bill outside the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv
A protest against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul bill outside the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv on July 11

Imagine it is January 2017, and Donald Trump has just been inaugurated. Moving boldly, he announces that as soon as he gets the opportunity, he will appoint justices to the Supreme Court committed to rolling back a half-century of hard-won legal rights, starting with abortion. He appoints a cabinet full of hard-right ministers dedicated to cutting taxes for the wealthiest, starving the public sector, despoiling federal lands, pumping money into private religious education, and attacking Muslims and immigrant communities. And every day he demonizes the press and his political opponents as unpatriotic traitors.

Imagine that in the first six months of such an administration, Americans rally to defend their democracy and their freedoms in unprecedented numbers. Every Saturday, in Washington, D.C., and in hundreds of locations around the country, one out of 30 Americans, or more than 10 million people, take to the streets demanding that Trump’s assault on democracy stop in its tracks, nearly all of them waving American flags. This goes on for 24 weeks with barely a break, and at least once a month there is also a national “day of disruption” on a workday, where tens of thousands nonviolently block roads and intersections and even interfere with access to the country’s main airports and ports. Meanwhile, Trump’s cabinet secretaries and spokespeople are bird-dogged everywhere by ordinary Americans shouting “shame, shame” at them, making it impossible for them to appear in public undisturbed.

Behind the scenes, a coordinating committee led by a bipartisan group of senior statesmen and women, including a former Republican secretary of defense, former Clinton and Obama chiefs of staff, and a former deputy attorney general, along with wealthy tech entrepreneurs, forms to provide sustenance to this movement. Through a mix of crowdfunding and larger donations, this coordinating committee raises a whopping half-billion dollars—none of which it keeps for itself or to build a big staff in Washington—that gets distributed across the country as fast as it comes in, paying for the legal, logistical, and promotional needs of thousands of protest groups (this is equivalent to all the money the Ford Foundation gives away in a typical year). Polls show that not only is this movement supported by the political left and center—even a third of Americans who voted for Trump agree he is going too far and must change course.

Alas, nothing this focused happened in America after Trump got elected. But this fantasy does describe, with adjustments made for population, the reality of what has been happening in Israel for the last six months. Every Saturday since January 7, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have turned out in opposition to Bibi Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition and its plan to drastically change how the country’s judicial system is run. Hundreds of pro-democracy groups are active in every corner of the country, and Israelis have donated more than $13.5 million to the cause, which would be nearly $500 million in the United States. By one estimate, more than two million Israelis have participated in at least one protest since January, and 700,000 poured into the streets spontaneously in late March, after Netanyahu miscalculated and fired his defense minister for publicly criticizing the push for the judicial overhaul. The movement has shown surprising staying power and managed to block, so far, a fundamental shift in how the country is governed.

Of course, no two countries are alike. The dynamics of Israel’s fluid multiparty unicameral democracy are different than America’s rigid two-party federal system. A polity of 9.5 million people where everyone lives a few hours’ drive from one another and consumes the same news media is different than a continent-sized country of 330 million people who live inside two different narrative universes. But some things are similar. Populist authoritarianism rooted in religious supremacy is on the march in both places. Obsessions with national security and racist attitudes toward darker-skinned people warp democratic institutions. Israeli politics, like American politics, has been centered for years on the incitements and foibles of one bombastic authoritarian politician, who has allied himself with right-wing religious extremists to build his power. Undemocratic flaws in the country’s electoral system have enabled a numerical minority to gain disproportionate power over the majority. Far-right militia movements abound. And a small group of wealthy right-wing philanthropists are financing an ongoing assault on the country’s more liberal democratic traditions and institutions. It’s not for nothing that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman refers to Israel as the “Off-Broadway” to America’s “Broadway.”

So the question arises: What can Israel’s gigantic pro-democracy movement teach those of us in America who want to protect democracy here? I’ve been talking to a variety of Israelis (and a few American observers) over the last few weeks and here are some observations.

Politics is a game of “capture the flag”

First, it would be a mistake to see the current movement in Israel as arising out of nowhere. As Shir Nosatzki, a veteran protest organizer, told me, “Israeli civil society has been, in a way, in a protest wave that has lasted for 12 years with all kinds of peaks and different framing.” She is referring, for starters, to the massive “tent protests” of the summer of 2011, which she helped lead. At its height, that movement saw more than a half-million Israelis camped out in the streets of 130 cities demanding action on social inequality, not unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement. Then came weekly street protests against the “Crime Minister” outside Netanyahu’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, which focused on his corruption scandals. In 2020, when Bibi closed the Knesset and the courts as part of the larger pandemic shutdown, the “Black Flags” movement—so named because black flags signify the highest level of danger—mobilized many in hyperlocal protests because Israelis were required to stay quarantined near their homes. And throughout these years, women’s groups, LGBTQ alliances, and anti-occupation activists have been a constant presence on the protest scene. Israeli activists have a lot of experience dealing with Bibi and the contortions he has put Israel through to retain an almost unbroken grip on power since the early 2000s. All those prior years of protesting have created local networks all over the country that can mobilize quickly. And Israelis have gotten wise to the games Bibi has played in the past to keep them divided and distracted.

Still, when Bibi won the 2022 election last November, and formed the most far-right coalition ever in Israeli history with a dominant 64-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, no one on the liberal side of the spectrum expected a mass protest movement to explode. Many, like Democrats in the U.S. after Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, were paralyzed and unsure of what to do. “In the beginning, there was about a month of shock, and nothing happened,” Noam Vidan, the head of IDEA, a network working to build support for liberal democracy from all sectors of Israeli society, told me. She and many of her partners believed there was no way to stop Bibi now. “Winter was coming. And this is a subject that’s too hard to explain. There won’t be demonstrations. The idea that taxi drivers would be explaining to me the specifics of judicial reform—as a civics teacher this is crazy to me. No one could have planned this.”

It wasn’t until January 4, just days after the new government formally took power, when incoming Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced he planned to overhaul Israel’s independent judicial system to put it firmly under the control of the ruling coalition in the Knesset, that the first protests were called. This first move, though, came from three left-leaning activist groups: Standing Together (Omdim Beyachad), a Jewish-Arab group; the Crime Minister anti-corruption group; and LGBTQ activists, on the alert because of proposals to allow business owners to refuse to serve people based on their religious beliefs and to blacklist LGBTQ people in the media. The result was that in those first days what Israelis saw were perhaps 20,000 people waving Palestinian, black, and rainbow flags calling for a halt to the judicial overhaul.

Then came a seminal shift, one that diverges crucially from the track laid by America’s anti-Trump “resistance” of 2017, which was led, in fairly chaotic fashion, by a mix of groups—new ones like the Women’s March and Indivisible and preexisting ones like the ACLU, MoveOn, the Working Families Party, Center for Popular Democracy, and People’s Action. The fact that the organized left captured the Women’s March and Indivisible could be the subject of an entirely separate article, but for current purposes it suffices to say that that development was propelled by two things: Veteran radicals like Harry Belafonte, who took advantage of identity politics to install younger proteges at the helm of the Women’s March, combined with the spinelessness of the entire Democratic political establishment. When Democratic leaders from Chuck Schumer on down started out taking a much more conciliatory stance toward Trump, for instance talking about how they looked forward to working with him on infrastructure funding, and others, including Barack Obama and the Clintons, disappeared from sight, it’s understandable that Indivisible’s leaders devoted much of their initial energies toward steeling Democrats’ spines rather than reaching out to political independents.

Things have worked very differently in Israel. Instead of allowing the political left to alone shoulder the burden of blocking Bibi, leaders from the center roused themselves to action. In the wake of the November election results, a new group, Mattei Ha’Ma’avak, or “Headquarters of the Struggle,” quietly decided to step in. One of its key founders is Orni Petruschka, a successful tech entrepreneur who has been active for many years in supporting efforts promoting democracy, Palestinian rights, and Jewish-Arab cooperation. Others include Moshe Ya’alon, a former defense minister under Netanyahu; Dan Halutz, a former Israeli Defense Force chief of staff; Gilead Sher, chief of staff to Prime Minister Ehud Barak; Dina Zilber, a former deputy attorney general; Yossi Kuchik, another prominent businessman and philanthropist; and Shikma Bressler, a physicist-turned-activist who co-founded the Black Flags movement and who often emcees the big rallies in Tel Aviv.

This group has steered the protests in a productive direction, partly by determining who will speak each week from the big rally stage on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, which gets the lion’s share of media attention. But the whole movement has also benefited from a kind of collective intelligence completely absent from the post-Trump “resistance” of 2017–2018: timely and detailed public opinion data exploring how the Israeli Jewish public is responding to the crisis, provided by aChord–Social Psychology for Social Change, a social-academic outfit based at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Starting in February, aChord began conducting detailed weekly surveys on public opinion, circulating their reports via WhatsApp, which is the nervous system for the whole movement. These surveys cover two broad questions. First, how well is the pro-democracy movement doing with the three key blocs in Israeli Jewish society, the left, the center, and the right, each of which make up about a third of the whole (not counting the ultra-orthodox population, which is rabidly supportive of the governing coalition). From the outset, the answer has been clear: The left is almost 100 percent opposed to the judicial reforms; the center is almost as convinced, with roughly 85 percent opposed. And on the right, about one-third say they oppose the reforms. This last group, which many refer to as the “liberal right,” has thus been a constant focus for the movement; it is made up of people who voted for Bibi or his coalition partners but who are having acute buyer’s remorse.

The second thing covered by aChord’s surveys has been the public’s responses to specific moves made by the opposition, including messaging as well as physical tactics. For example, following a national “Day of Disruption” on March 1, aChord’s survey looked at not just overall support/opposition across the left/center/right, but also what people thought of specific developments, like road blockages and a spontaneous and controversial protest where activists surrounded Sara Netanyahu, Bibi’s wife, while she was getting her hair done at a fancy salon. And aChord wasn’t afraid to spell out what this meant for the prospects of growing the movement, noting that “disruptive activities (such as blocking roads) as well as protesting irrelevant factors (such as the protest against Sara Netanyahu) increase support among the left and the center but decrease support among the right (including the right that is neutral and opposes the legal reform).” No such timely or granular information about particular protest rallies or tactics was ever developed back in the early days of the anti-Trump resistance in America. So activists did whatever they thought would click or connect, not knowing if each separate march or protest was moving the larger public in a helpful direction. (Meanwhile, most of liberal-left punditry was focused on debating the false choice of cultivating the white working class versus expanding the base.)

Petruschka told me that from the beginning the Mattei Ha’Ma’avak group sought to play an enabling role for all the groups that might arise in response to the new government’s initiatives, offering them legal, financial, and logistical support, along with as much synchronization and coordination as they would accept. (By contrast, nearly all the groups that benefited from the post-Trump surge in rage-giving, from the ACLU on down, tended to hoard their winnings and bulk up their central staff headcounts.) “This by definition created a sense of pluralism,” he told me. “When we saw the Palestinian flags [at the first demonstration] we decided we will not ask them to not raise those flags or put them down or anything like that. Many of us support the creation of a Palestinian state, but that’s not the issue. We thought that it is better that those flags will not be the main symbol of such demonstrations. [So] we thought it was better just to flood the square with Israeli flags.”

So Mattei Ha’Ma’avak put in a rushed purchase order for 5,000 blue and white Israeli flags to a factory in Kfar Saba. And the next Saturday’s mass demonstration was called by a different configuration of groups, including the Movement for Quality Government, an anti-corruption group not unlike America’s Common Cause. Speakers at this rally included Tzipi Livni, a long-serving centrist member of several prior governments who had retired from politics, and former Netanyahu’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. An approximated 80,000 people turned out, and many scooped up the flags that volunteers had left for them on the margins of the rally.

Since then, the blue and white Israeli national flag has become the dominant unifying symbol of the protests. According to Nadav Galon, a spokesperson for Mattei Ha’Ma’avak, through the end of May, more than 300,000 flags had been purchased and distributed across the country. After years where the far-right settlement movement seemed to own Israel’s flag, with a viciously anti-Arab annual parade through the streets of Old Jerusalem on “Flag Day” as a capstone of that claim, Israel’s center-left has effectively taken it back. “Nearly every leftist in Israel now has an Israeli flag on his car and he’s singing Hatikvah [the country’s national anthem] twice a week,” Ron Gerlitz, the executive director of aChord, half-jokingly told me.

If you look at the faces of Israelis as they grab the free flags being offered to them as they arrive at rallies, what you see are smiles of relief and pride. There’s a palpable sense of a common identity being affirmed or reaffirmed, and many talk about how the demonstrations have revived their hope that they can take their country back from the right. Many Israelis at the protests have taken to highlighting the words of the country’s Declaration of Independence which say that the state of Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” The phrase “Am Hofshi b’Artzeinu”— “a free people in their land”—is also a common theme.

“Social proof is real,” says Anat Shenker-Osorio, a strategic communications consultant who works closely with American pro-democracy groups, when I ask her about this phenomenon in Israel. “Humans are social creatures. People do the thing they think people like them do. And the fastest way to create that kind of social proof, besides the actual evidence of people being out and about, is symbology. And we know that well because we are subjected to it in the form of a red MAGA hat. That, more than anything, is more persuasive than any kind of rational fact-based argument.” And here in America, she adds ruefully, the pro-democracy camp has yet to find its unifying symbol.

The flag is not embraced by all Israelis, of course. The Palestinian-Arab minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the population, is notably absent from the protests. And many left-wing, anti-occupation Jewish Israelis aren’t picking it up either. But the pluralist strategy at the center of the movement has allowed to attract a wide swath of participants, and many have embraced more radical language precisely because they feel sheltered under that flag. Mickey Gitzin, the head of the New Israel Fund, a bulwark of center-left civil society in Israel, told me that centering the flag gave protest organizers the confidence to welcome the anti-occupation bloc into the larger movement. Pro-Palestinian messages have indeed been embraced. After Jewish settlers rampaged through the West Bank town of Huwara the night of February 26, setting dozens of homes and cars on fire, many pro-democracy protestors, not just the anti-occupation activists, shouted at police patrolling their protests, “Where were you when Huwara happened?” This, he said, was possible because “there are so many Israeli flags around, and this helped some people feel all of a sudden that they took ownership of the identity of the country. They don’t need to anymore apologize or to explain who they are. And that allowed more radical voices to be around too.”

And while some leftist activists chafe against the flag symbolism and dislike seeing ex-generals and other figures from the Zionist establishment on the stage at the big rallies, many also believe the massive movement has created an opening for their anti-occupation efforts, and they have endeavored to show up in large and visible ways at the weekly protests. “When we say ‘democracy is beautiful, but for everyone,’ it falls on an ear that was not there before,” Hannah Safran, a veteran feminist activist from Haifa, told Oren Siv, a reporter for Local Call. “No democracy with occupation” is another slogan often heard at the protests.

Shir Nosatzki, the veteran of the 2011 tent movement, agreed that the movement’s centrist positioning was critical to its vitality. “Our biggest success—first is how we reclaim the flag,” she told me. “And the second thing was the fact that we were able to connect to the people the idea that it’s not legislation, it’s a coup. The fact that this is a change in the basic system in changing the regime DNA, and when you understand that, you get the feeling of emergency, that then you must act.”

Indeed, this insistence on preventing a “coup” and the conversion of Israel to something like illiberal Hungary, is another one of the hallmarks of the pro-democracy movement’s success so far. Despite their centrist roots and tendencies, the movement’s leaders have not been shy to clearly name the stakes of the conflict. (This contrasts greatly with the behavior of Democratic Party leaders and the organizations clustered around them; even in 2020, when Trump’s plans to reject the election results if he lost were plain as day, opposition organizers counseled against referring to this as a potential “coup” because polling showed the word was demoralizing to Democratic voters. Only now, as the Federalist Society’s takeover of the Supreme Court hits the headlines every day, are they starting to talk about fascism.) The details of what Netanyahu’s government wants to do to Israel’s judicial system are actually quite complex. Had Justice Minister Levin not laid them out in their comprehensive scope from the very beginning, perhaps the movement would have never gained so much popular traction. But at rally after rally, Israelis have chanted one word: “De-mo-krat-ya.”

Perhaps the last key lesson from the Israeli movement is its willingness to disrupt business as usual to focus public attention on the struggle. It has been resolutely nonviolent, but not civil. That means it has welcomed tactics like in-your-face and noisy vigils outside the homes of right-wing Knesset members, mass blockades of major roadways and intersections, and at the zenith of the movement’s power, capital flight by top tech companies, mass work stoppages, and threats by Israeli soldiers and reservists to refuse military service if the judicial overhaul is pushed through. That last tactic initially came as a surprise to many Israelis, who for years have rejected efforts by anti-occupation activists to organize soldiers against serving in the West Bank and Gaza. Ron Gerlitz told me that 20 years ago, when he was much more left-wing and volunteered as the spokesman of Yesh Gvul, whose members refused to serve in the occupied territories, he was shunned by his reserve unit. Now he says “many of my buddies have told me that there’s no way they will continue to do their reserve service if the judicial reforms go through.”

This approach is again backed up by data from aChord. A 2020 paper written by Eric Shuman, an aChord researcher, along with Professor Eran Halperin, the center’s founder, and two other researchers found that when disadvantaged groups use a combination of “normative nonviolent” actions like peaceful rallies along with “nonnormative nonviolent action” like strikes, sit-ins, and blocking roads that disrupt day-to-day life, they tend to gain support from their opponents. The key variable, they found, is that protesters do best when they communicate constructive intentions while acting disruptively; overly aggressive behavior makes their opponents less open to concessions. It is interesting to note that when Israeli reservists prepared to go public in March with what many of them called their “nuclear option”—threatening to organize mass refusals to serve if the judicial overhaul passed—they decided to announce that as loyal Israelis, they wanted to continue to defend the country as long as the government didn’t pass the overhaul. Survey data following this announcement showed that at least in the center and left segments of the Israeli Jewish public, a solid majority approved of their stance. Even 31 percent of self-identified right-wingers expressed support.

Contrast that with the resolute politeness of America’s “resistance” to Trump. As Leah Greenberg, the co-founder of Indivisible, said to me, “One of the things I remember very keenly from the early stages is how often I would be at a rally speaking, and first you would hear a lot of Democratic politicians addressing a very activated, very energized crowd who had taken their day to do something because they were so worked up right now, and they’d be like, ‘Don’t forget to vote in November of 2018.’ Why? Why was the focus always on instructing people to do the lowest level commitment in a year-and-a-half as opposed to instructing them to deepen what they are doing right now and find really tangible ways of pushing back?”

L.A. Kauffman, a radical organizer and author of two books on protest in American politics, pointed out in the summer of 2018 in The Guardian that “non-violent direct action was surprisingly rare under Trump and small in scale relative to the numbers of people marching in the streets.” But compared to Israel, where even former Prime Minister Ehud Barak recently called for a “civil uprising” of “mass civil disobedience” to stop and maybe even topple the Netanyahu government, Democratic politicians in America speak positively of civil disobedience only when they are talking about past events like the civil rights movement. In that respect, America’s two-party duopoly has undoubtedly kept our anti-authoritarian protest movements in an unproductive box: To maintain access to Democratic leaders, movement organizers mostly avoided calling for disruptive tactics, and there are very few big donors on the left side of the aisle comfortable bucking the preferences of Democratic leadership.

It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that the Israeli pro-democracy protest movement is working with the efficiency of the servers and cooks at a Michelin-rated restaurant. The reality on the ground is much messier. “This is much more fragmented than you think,” Noam Vidan, the head of IDEA, told me. “One of the biggest strengths of protests is that they are a balagan, a mess,” Nosatzki added. “Most of the actions that are happening are not coordinated by Mattei Ha’Ma’avak. They just happen.”

Like their U.S. counterparts in the early days of the 2017 pushback to Trump, many Israelis who were previously uninvolved in politics have been in a frenzy of activism. That’s what has produced some blunders, like the spontaneous swarming of Sara Netanyahu while she was at her hairdresser. And the leaders of Mattei Ha’Ma’avak have made mistakes too. At one point, they tried to broaden the protest movement by targeting the many state subsidies given to the ultraorthodox, a sore point especially for many of the military reservists who have given the movement so much leverage, since hundreds of thousands of ultrareligious men are exempted from mandatory military service and instead paid to study Torah all day. But the call for action against the privileges of the Haredim failed to resonate, as many saw it as divisive and self-interested, unlike the movement’s core demand to protect democracy.

Despite facing a government that has shown no signs of falling from power, Israel’s pro-democracy movement has fought Netanyahu to a draw—something no one imagined possible last winter. Now, the movement faces a different challenge—instead of trying to rapidly pass the whole judicial overhaul, the government is looking to enact little pieces of it one at a time. Barak, who has been a behind-the-scenes mainstay of the movement, is now warning that this is the “Polish salami” strategy rather than the “Hungarian coup,” and that the movement will have to steel itself for the longer haul.

In the meantime, the reality of the movement’s staying power is that none of its tactical innovations alone—the adoption of a unifying, patriotic visual symbol, the focus on building support from the center outward rather than from the left inward, the development of a central clearinghouse for rapid dispersal of resources, and the embrace of nonnormative, nonviolent disruptive action—would be keeping it going now if its leaders and adherents alike weren’t convinced that they were truly in a democratic emergency.

Here in America, the facts point in that direction, too, but the message is much more mixed. “Democracy won” in 2020, according to President Biden, and it “won” again in 2022. Except we nearly had a coup against democracy on January 6, 2021, the party that supported that attempted coup now runs the House of Representatives, and it has taken over the third branch of government, the Supreme Court, with justices appointed by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by senators who represent a minority of the country. Perhaps, if Democrats prevail again in 2024, we will again be able to delay confrontation with our democratic emergency. But if they don’t prevail, here’s hoping that instead of repeating the chaotic resistance of 2017, we study the plot of the off-Broadway show now playing on the other end of the Mediterranean and prepare for the fight of our lives.