Israeli clinical psychologist Ira Goldner holds a sign that reads “I was born in the Soviet Union... I can't accept that my kids grow up in a dictatorship in Israel.” After Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the extreme right emerged victorious in November, Israel’s Justice Minister announced sweeping judicial reforms that would upend the relationship between the Knesset and the judiciary. (Via Ira Goldner)

On November 1st, 2022, Ira Goldner, a clinical psychologist in Rehovot, Israel, was glued to the screen. She watched as exit polls indicated that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the extreme right had emerged victorious after four indecisive election rounds in two years. Netanyahu’s ruling coalition included a joint list of ultranationalist religious Zionist parties, which garnered a third of the votes. Among its leaders are Itamar Ben-Gvir, who displayed a photograph of a Jewish mass-murderer in his living room, and Bezalel Smotrich, who expressed support for segregating Jewish and Arab mothers in maternity wards.  

After seeing the results, Goldner turned to her husband and said, “I don’t see a future here.”  

 “Wait, people will take to the streets,” he assured her. She was skeptical.  

On January 4th, Israel’s Justice Minister announced sweeping judicial reforms that would upend the relationship between the Knesset—Israel’s parliament—and the judiciary. Notable among them is the “override clause,” which would allow the government to override Israel’s highest court, rendering the bench powerless to strike down legislation it deems unconstitutional. Legal experts from Poland and Hungary have argued that Israel’s proposed evisceration of judicial review echoes their own experience with authoritarianism.  

The planned judicial reform sparked one of the largest protest movements in Israeli history. At times, half a million Israelis filled the streets across the country, protesting Netanyahu’s attack on judicial independence. Many military reservists said they would refuse to report for duty, no small matter in a country on a war footing. The country’s premier labor union called a general strike, shutting down Israel’s largest airport and embassies worldwide. On March 27th, the unwavering demonstrations and President Joe Biden’s emphatic opposition to the legislation impelled Netanyahu to halt the pursuit of judicial reforms temporarily.  

Goldner lives with her husband and three young kids in a mid-sized city in central Israel. Before January, she participated in just one protest, whose cause she struggles to recall. “Something with kids,” she says. Now, she demonstrates at least once a week, sometimes twice or three times.  

Goldner is confident she is not the only Israeli whose political sensibilities were awakened by the new government. Among the crowds occupying Israel’s streets are citizens who never cared much for political activism but realized that this might be their last chance to defend their democracy. “I am embarrassed I did not protest earlier,” Goldner says. “But I am hoping it is not too late.”  

Goldner was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, and moved to Israel in 1990 with her mom when she was eight years old, two months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like many immigrants from the Eastern Bloc, Goldner’s family was wary of the Israeli left. Goldner recalls supporting Netanyahu in the late 1990s, during his first stint as Prime Minister. After serving in the Israeli Defense Forces and graduating from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Goldner’s political opinions shifted from Likud. Untethered, she has voted for numerous parties on both sides of the political map: Labor, Jewish Home, and most recently, Benny Gantz’s National Unity. Though she became wary of “Bibi” Netanyahu as he was indicted on three corruption charges in 2019, she did not take to the streets, even as demonstrators decried his rule and failure to handle the COVID-19 pandemic during his previous stint as prime minister.  

Goldner admits that she did not feel a sense of urgency. “Even if there are things that I disagree with, it is more important to go to work, to ride a bike with the kids, and then one day when they will grow up, I will go to protest,” Goldner says of her attitude then.  

During the past two election rounds—in March 2021 and November 2022—the severity of the attack on Israel’s democracy crystallized in her eyes. “It was clear that Bibi is doing a lot of damage,” she says. “It is no longer ideology but his personal survival.” Though she believes that Netanyahu has heeded only his personal interests for years, since the formation of the new coalition, he forgoes even the pretense. “It is like watching a madman charge into the abyss,” says Goldner. “I didn’t feel that he was this willing to let everything burn. If he ever had a drop of care for the country, nothing is left.”  

Goldner watched with trepidation as the results of the November 2022 elections became apparent. “Until the last moment, I hoped that the balance would tilt the other way,” she says. “The same day, I started looking at how much apartments in Canada and New Zealand cost. Until this point, I never considered living anywhere but Israel.” Goldner’s husband, however, would not hear of moving abroad. “It is fight, flight, or freeze,” she realized. “If not flight, then we need to fight.” 

The mother of Maayan, Itay, and Bar first became involved with parent protest groups, concerned about the new government’s likely changes to the education system. Particularly, she was concerned with the authority the government sought to grant Avi Maoz, an openly homophobic member of Knesset who urges more religious content in schools, over programs in the Ministry of Education.  

The judicial reform only worsened Goldner’s anxiety about Israel’s trajectory. “If before [the reforms] they intended to do awful things, there still is the hope of the judicial system,” she told me. Once Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced the reforms, it became clear that Netanyahu and his extremist allies intend to sweep away the one check on their power.  

Goldner is not only protesting the judicial reforms, which she believes are merely one manifestation of the coalition’s anti-democratic agenda. “They are trying to change the character of the country,” she says. The psychologist believes the ascension of Jewish supremacists like Ben-Gvir legitimizes violence against the marginalized. “If in the past people were embarrassed to say that they don’t care if Arabs are killed, now it is the norm,” she says. In Rehovot, she helped organize a protest against a settler attack on Hawara, a Palestinian village, that left a Palestinian dead and injured hundreds. In response to her protest, she received online threats.  

Though Netanyahu paints the protesters as “anarchists,” Goldner is far from radical, as evidenced by her past votes for the conservative Jewish Home, the liberal Labor Party, and Netanyahu himself. “My opinions are a fusion between left and right,” she says. Still fluent in Russian, the 41-year-old volunteers to translate social media videos of protest leaders who speak Hebrew into Russian, determined to make their messages as accessible as possible.  

The protesters marked an impressive victory when Netanyahu bowed to the public outcry and delayed a vote on neutering the judiciary. But Goldner says she “was more anxious than relieved” by the time-out. “Netanyahu is counting on fatigue,” she says. Determined not to repeat the sin of political apathy, she attended the weekly Saturday protest in Rehovot after the announcement and was concerned to see a thinner crowd.  

Meanwhile, Netanyahu remains committed to his judiciary legislation. After Biden implored Netanyahu to lay the reforms to rest, Bibi fired back that Israel would “make its decisions.” In another worrying development, to compel Minister of National Security Ben-Gvir to accept the temporary freeze, Netanyahu agreed to form a “national guard” under Ben-Gvir’s jurisdiction. Protesters, including Goldner, are alarmed that a man previously convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist group, will spearhead what many call a “private militia.”  

Though her husband was correct, and Israelis did take to the streets, Goldner is not confident that the hand of authoritarianism can be stayed. “I live on two concurrent channels,” she says. “On the one hand, I am doing everything that is possible, and on the other hand, I am not certain that we will succeed. If we don’t, I can’t see a future for my kids here.”  

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Gall Sigler

Gall Sigler is a senior at Yale University and an intern at the Washington Monthly. Follow him at @GallOlleSigler.