Q&A: Isabel Kershner on The Battle for Israel’s Soul

By | Jul 27, 2023
Highlights, Israel, Latest

Isabel Kershner is a correspondent for The New York Times in Jerusalem, covering both Israeli and Palestinian politics and society. Previously, she was a senior editor at The Jerusalem Report. Born in Manchester, England, she graduated from Oxford University, and has been living with her family in Jerusalem since 1990. Kershner is the author of the recently released book, The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul. Moment Editor Sarah Breger talks with Kershner about the Israel of the past, the present and hopefully the future. (The is an excerpt from a MomentLive! event. Watch the entire recording here.) 


Could you describe what’s been happening in Israel over the past three days?

What the government did was cancel the court’s ability to use the grounds of reasonableness, a quite vague and rather subjective legal standard, which kind of measures the ethics of decisions, but it fills a hole for the judges when all the other legal grounds they have don’t quite fit. Without it, they are quite hobbled, and it opens the way to appointments that are unreasonable, government policy decisions that are unreasonable, and other corrupt actions. So, this is actually a very large step, even though it was presented as just a small piece of legislation by the government. And we’ve seen, as you know, stormy protests and a very fractured nation.

A lot of people have been saying this is the first time the nation has been as fractured as it is. But your book actually looks back and sees the roots of all these divisions. Could you talk a little bit about what you found when you were researching this book?

If you go back in time, not just to the 75 years that the State of Israel has existed in its current form, but even pre-State, there was a split between the Ben-Gurion pragmatic factions, and the more militant forces of the Irgun under future prime minister Menachem Begin, as well as other paramilitary organizations. You had wildly different visions of what this country should be, and where it should be, how big it should be. And so, in a way, yes, the division is nothing new, and there were times when the undergrounds were fighting each other, and came to the brink of a civil war, just as the State was being established. And you had the famous Altalena affair, where the newly minted Israeli IDF army was firing on a ship bringing arms to the Irgun.

There have always been divisions here—ethnic divisions, rivalries and different world-views. But I think what we’ve been seeing now is a shift. We’re seeing a demographic shift and a generational shift. And within all these different tribes in Israel, whether it’s the religious or the secular, Jewish or Arab, the liberal camp or the right wing nationalist, settler camp, religious Zionism, and of course the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredi sector, we’re seeing a changing of the guard, where the old Ashkenazi semi-socialist elites that founded the country largely, and dominated politics here for the first few decades, have really been overtaken. And in this government, it has manifested in quite an extreme form.

One of the tensions you explore in the book is between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. What are the roots of that tension that still exist today?

It’s a really interesting divide here that has, in a way, faded, because you have a lot of mixed families, and everybody is kind of friends with everybody on a day-to-day level. You have this kind of split screen here, where day-to-day everything seems fine, but if you zoom out, you have these long-festering resentments, which have only become more acute. 

The Ashkenazim were largely the pioneering people who came from Europe, Central Eastern Europe, before the State was founded or in the early years, and they drained the swamps, and built the kibbutzim, and set up the first institutions of State or quasi-Statehood. And the Mizrahim were largely the Jews from the Arabic-speaking countries and the Islamic world, who came throughout the 1950s in huge waves, and doubled the Jewish population in Israel, at a time when the state needed population. And that was a great national goal, to actually bring in a gathering of the exiles. But many of the Mizrahim were coming from less developed countries. They had to leave their property behind. Many of them came with nothing, and were basically dumped in fairly remote areas of the country a lot of the time—in transit camps, which grew into so-called development towns, or in places where there wasn’t that much employment or commerce. They were sometimes employed by the local kibbutzim.

And a sentiment of resentment grew, which the younger generations, even though they’re much more educated and mobile, still carry with them. And the way people vote here is almost tribal. So you have Menachem Begin coming to power at the end of the 1970s, and overturning those years of the Labor socialist rule, riding in on a huge wave of resentment, fueled, to a large part, by the Mizrahim. And many of them have stuck with the Likud party to this day.

Part of the divide is not purely ethnic; it has become social and political. It becomes a divide between the so-called periphery, the geographical margins of the country, and the more prosperous center of the country. 

People in these “development towns” love Bibi so much. You spoke to so many people who said, “We hate Ashkenazi elites, but we love Bibi, we’d do anything for him.” How does that work?

There’s a loyalty to the leader in the Likud. Bibi is seen as a strong leader who represents Israel abroad, has raised Israel’s profile on the world stage, and has made many Israelis proud. He certainly has credits. He had a lot to do with building the economy here. And yes, there is a kind of tribal love for the Likud, and whoever the leader of the Likud is at any given time will get the vote of the Likud base. It’s a very solid base.

In the Labor Party, they change leaders like people change socks. Usually as soon as a leader has failed to win an election, the leader is out. That’s not been the case in the last couple of years, but Labor has been decimated anyway, and the Labor Party that used to run Israel is now not even making it through the threshold to get into the Knesset in every poll that has been done for the last year.

And I’d like to say, day-to-day, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim live together, work together. It is very unclear who counts as which a lot of the time, and nobody really cares. My children who have grown up here tell me this whole thing now has nothing to do with Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. And yet, whenever we come to an election time here, you see what is known here as the ethnic demon, the so-called ethnic demon coming out again, which is the politicians’ cynical use of this ethnic divide, in order to keep the base loyal. And even today, from the podium of the Knesset, you will hear Likud ministers, Mizrahi Likud ministers, talking about  the posh North Tel Aviv Ashkenazi types in a derogatory way. And it’s being used very cynically and divisively in order to keep the politicians in their seats.

I’ve seen some arguments that this is the root of the judicial fight because so many judges on the supreme court are so-called elite Ashkenazi men. And so this is a way for more Mizrahim to have a voice.

Well, the Supreme Court, to be honest, has not been very diverse when it comes to the ethnic mix that Israel is, and that has not gone unnoticed. Therefore yes, there is Mizrahi resentment of the Supreme Court, and a desire to see a more diverse panel of judges there. But that doesn’t mean that Mizrahim in general are supportive of weakening the court, or curbing its authorities, necessarily. And a lot of this judicial overhaul package, the details have kind of been subsumed by this almost tribal divide. It’s not just left and right, and it’s not just Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, and it’s not just religious settlers versus secular Israelis, but it does somewhat divide along the lines of liberals versus more traditional conservative right-wing nationalist forces. And in the poorer peripheral areas, yes, the Likud and these other parties do get much more of the vote.

Bibi, he always seems pretty canny. How did he end up in this position where he is now?

Yeah, it’s really hard to understand. We’ve all been getting into Bibi’s heart in the last week, because he got fitted with a pacemaker and went straight from the hospital to the Knesset to vote. But nobody really knows what’s going on in his head. So, one strong feeling that’s emerging here is that, although he said at the beginning that he has his hands on the wheel, and that he will be the one navigating policy, and no one needs to worry, he seems to have been hijacked by the more extreme elements in his coalition. And his desire to keep the coalition together seems to supersede everything else. As some put it, he’d rather keep the coalition together than keep the country together.

There are really only two choices here. He was either unable to change the course of the government’s action or he was unwilling to. If he’s unable, then yes, he’s become a captive of the more extreme forces in the government. If he’s just unwilling, maybe he does have some absolute burning personal interest in this judicial overhaul being carried out. Bibi says he has no personal interest in this and he has no intention of using this for his own benefit. But the fact of the matter is that he is on trial on corruption charges. He was not supposed to be dealing with the judicial overhaul, that was part of the conflict of interest agreement he came to with the courts. And as the Attorney General has now been saying, there are ways that this judicial overhaul can help him, and puts him in a conflict of interest.

If we just take one example, the law that was passed this week which means that the court can’t strike down appointments made by the government on the grounds of them being unreasonable, means that the Attorney General could find herself being fired. Again, Netanyahu has said that’s not his intention, but in the last few months, many things he says are not his intention have ended up happening. If the Attorney General is fired, and replaced with a more sympathetic, loyal person, we might find that the trial has gone away, that there’s been a decision to reexamine all the materials, or to come to some comfortable plea arrangement with Netanyahu, which ends the prosecution but still allows him to remain in public life. These are potential outcomes.

But it does seem, meanwhile, the economy is in trouble; people have stopped trusting Bibi when he says the economy will be fine. He has lost some of this international trust that existed.

The markets abroad and investors abroad are looking at Israel, and seeing hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, and a government just going head-on on a collision course, and are just saying, “Whoa.” Just the uncertainty is a risk. So, I wouldn’t say the economy’s in trouble at this point. Macro, it’s a strong economy, and nobody’s starving here. But we are seeing a sharp drop in investment from abroad into the high-tech industry, which is the engine of the Israeli economy. The cost of living here is ridiculous, and just keeps going up. You wouldn’t believe how much I pay to just go and buy some in-season summer fruit at my local shops. We are talking about nearly a hundred dollars to come home with a bit of fruit. It’s really ridiculous, and the feeling is that the government is just not dealing with any of this, that this is a government that doesn’t care enough about the actual concerns of the citizens, and is much more involved in ideological and power play.

Your book explains how one of the reasons why maybe these internal tensions have come more to the fore is because Israel’s not as worried about their external enemies. Could this change if military reservists refuse to serve?

This is a huge concern here. I think if you look 75 years back, Israel was divided. There was never one Israel. People had competing world-views and aspirations, and there was never one consensus, which is why we never managed to get a constitution together, a formal constitution. But there was a purpose, a common purpose, in the early years of the State, and that purpose was to build the country and to defend it against its outside enemies. Now here we are, thank God, in 2023, and the country is built. The country is largely built. It’s a prosperous, strong, amazing country, a miracle. And the outside enemies, there’s a feeling here that that threat is less existential. We have relations with many of the Arab countries. Iran, obviously, is still the big threat, but I think people feel it’s less existential.

But what is a massive threat is the potential implosion of the model of the so called People’s Army here, the IDF. And what we’re seeing now is a huge threat to the cohesion of the army, which plays such a huge role in not only the security of the country, but also in the social life of the country. And the reservists, they’re volunteers. They’re not obliged to show up in their forties and even their fifties for reserve duty. They do it, and have done it up to now, out of a feeling of mission, and identification, and love of the country. But now many of them have declared that they feel that the contract with the State has been broken. They’re not prepared to serve for a less democratic government. It’s not just a matter of conscience, there are pilots and special forces units and people who are actually worried that if you have a less democratic Israel, and a defanged Supreme Court, that they will be exposed to international prosecution.

And the big fear now is that this polarization and the bitter political discourse could actually start to seep into the ranks of the standing army. And if that happens, if you have political division within the cockpit, or within the army base, really you’re looking at a very frightening situation, and a potential implosion of this model that has really been the secret sauce here, and has been the secret of the success of the army.

Do you think what’s happening now will affect the relationship between the US and Israel?

When it comes to the military assistance, I don’t see it ending too quickly, because it benefits the American industries as much as it benefits Israel. And Israel is bound to spend most of that money in the United States on weaponry from the United States. We’ve seen how dependent Israel is on the US for rearming, for example, in the middle of long campaigns against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, where suddenly you need more iron dome missiles. And there’s a kind of codependency there that I don’t see ending too quickly. But when we talk about the relationship that’s based on shared values and democracy, and a respect for each other, I think we are in trouble. We’re seeing, on both sides, much more polarization. And we’re seeing Netanyahu, who’s now more than six months in office, not having been invited to the White House. There is clearly open tension here.

When it comes to Israel needing to deal with Iran, it cannot do that without the United States. It can’t deal with Iran’s nuclear program in any major way militarily without the United States. And when it comes to peace, when it comes to normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia, which is a goal of both Netanyahu and President Biden, that can’t be done without the United States either. The Saudis are much more interested in what they can get from the United States for normalizing than what Israel can give them. And so it is a very crucial relationship. We’re still told that it’s iron clad and isn’t going anywhere at the national security level and intelligence-sharing level and all those things that count right now. But in terms of sentiment, you just see what’s happening within the Democratic Party on your side too, there’s definitely an erosion. And for American Jews who are also split on what’s going on here, and are such an important backbone of support for Israel, it’s not a good situation.

Are these things being discussed internally among Israelis, or are they really focused on the here and now of what’s going on?

They’re very focused on what’s going on here. The government itself, many of the elements of it, the main parties in it, are very parochial, even by Israeli standards, very sectoral, very involved in their own constituencies and what they can get for their own communities. Certainly when we’re talking about the Haredi parties and also when we’re talking about religious Zionism, which is very focused on settlement, and the future of the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, as they would refer to it. And you’ve even had some Israeli ministers basically telling President Biden to mind his own business. That’s been the level of the discourse from the government. Of course not entirely, and you still have Netanyahu saying everything’s fine, everything will be okay, the relationship’s solid. Down at street level Israelis are very keen to get included in the visa waiver program, that’s for sure. That would delight many Israelis. But when it comes to the relationship and the Jewish diaspora, there’s very little awareness and very little discussion, and that’s unfortunate.

In terms of the left wing in Israel, your book seemed like a little bit of an elegy to the left, secular Israelis who built the country. But I’m curious if you think there’s been a resurrection, or maybe just a reinvigoration, of this group over the past seven months with these protests?

So first of all, yes, the actual left has dwindled to the point where it maybe counts for 5 percent of the electorate here. If there’s an air of an elegy there it’s because for many of these people, it was their blood, sweat, and tears that really founded this place. And many of the people that are out on the streets now say they’re there for both their grandparents and for their children, to honor the past and also to ensure the future. Interestingly, there’s been a big reassessment within the Mizrahi community and beyond about the contribution that the Mizrahim have also made to the building of this country. By being dumped in far away places in tents, transit camps, and development towns, they were populating the sparse areas of the country that the government needed populating, and they suffered, and they worked hard. And some of these cities are now flourishing, like Dimona in the Negev. They want their part too in the narrative of the foundation of and building of the State, and quite rightly so.

But if you look at who’s out on the streets today, much of the popularity of the left was decimated by all the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada. The peace camp was almost wiped out, and has not really recovered, in part because on the other side, on the Palestinian side, there’s so much division and violence that the prospect of peace has just been pushed further and further down the agenda. So, you see a lot of Israelis have shifted to the center, as we call it, the amorphous center. They’re kind of center left, or center center, or center soft right.

But I think what we’re seeing out on the streets is that you can’t really divide it as a left or right thing. It’s liberals, Israelis who want to honor the values of the Declaration of Independence, the values on which the State was founded of equality, and equal opportunity, and liberalism, and to have an open and pluralistic society and a strong supreme court in a country that has no other real check on government power, because we lack a formal constitution, because we have one house of parliament, because we don’t have a federal system, or even a constituency-based system; all we have is the supreme court to protect citizens’ rights and minority rights. So the people out on the streets are those people who want to defend that against a government that apparently wants more power in the hands of the elected representatives of government, and less power in the hands of unelected judges. Now, that sounds logical, but as I say, in a country where the court and the judges are the only check on government power, then it’s a slippery slope to a tyranny of the majority.

Could you explain why Israel doesn’t have a constitution?

They just have not been able to agree on enough basics to put it down in writing. So, there are parts of Israeli society that don’t agree with equality. They might say we respect every individual’s rights, and citizens’ individual rights will always be protected. But as groups, there are many people here who don’t want full equality for groups, whether it’s ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox people who don’t want full group rights for LGBTQ people, or the Arab minority, or for women. People who’ve worked on trying to write constitutions in the past will also say a major sticking point was exactly what’s on the table today, which is the role of the Supreme Court, and the judges, and how much power each branch of government should have. And so we’re seeing that being fought out right now.

We do have a body of basic laws which have quasi-constitutional status here that the Supreme Court then interprets and uses as a standard by which to interpret other laws. So, if they see that a law, a new law, contradicts a basic law, that will be grounds for striking the new law down. It hasn’t happened much, but it has happened a couple of dozen times. But a basic law here can be changed with a bare majority in parliament. So, it doesn’t really have a strong constitutional status.

What is the mood in Israel right now? Is anyone scared of real violence breaking out?

There is a real fear here of civil war. If you would’ve asked me that six months ago, I would’ve said, “You’re crazy. Israelis? A civil war? Fighting each other?” But we all hope it won’t come to that. But if people really feel their back is to the wall? 

This country, the national anthem, Hatikvah, The Hope, it’s about being free people in our land. The whole point of having a Jewish state for the Jewish people is to be free. What if people feel those freedoms are being taken away? I think people’s tempers are rising. On late Monday night after the vote, we saw a car drive into protestors on a main highway near Ra’anana. We saw somebody firing in the air outside a kibbutz in the south. Emotions are running very high.We’ve seen surveys of a third of the people asked and even more saying that they do actually fear a civil war.

What do you think is going to happen next with the law itself? Can the Supreme Court overturn this reasonableness law, when it comes to them?

We’re in a constitutional pickle here, and it’s going to likely turn into a real constitutional crisis. The first thing that happened after this law passed was petitions were taken to the Supreme Court by opposition parties, activists, Quality of Government, NGOs, asking the court to rule on the legality of this new amendment. Now, you’re asking the Supreme Court to rule on a law which is about not having the Supreme Court intervene in government decisions. So, it’s actually a very topsy-turvy situation, but the court has apparently accepted taking on the case. It will take time. These things can take months.

At the end of the day, if the court does find grounds, whether it’s using the reasonability clause that they’re now not supposed to use, or whether they find different grounds, whether it’s conflict of interest or whatever it is, to strike down this law, then we really are in a constitutional crisis, because the government will have to decide if it is going to obey the rule of law or not. And every institution here will have to decide whether they’re going to obey the rule of law or not. And it just shows how far we’ve come, and why I say it’s not necessarily a matter of left and right, because Menachem Begin was very, very much a stickler for the rule of law, and for the supremacy of the law. And now we’re in a situation where we have a government that wants to curb that supremacy and overturn it.

You’re a foreign correspondent reporting for a foreign newspaper, but you’re also a stakeholder in the country; you raised your family here. How do you navigate between those two tensions?

It’s sometimes stressful, but it’s actually a wonderful place to be, because I love living in this country. I am a stakeholder. I have brought up my family here. And I think it works for me, having both the perspective  of an insider looking out, and having an outsider view also looking in. So, I feel that it does help me. I don’t find myself too often in any great conflict because, at the end of the day, journalism is a profession, and whether you’re working for a local newspaper or website, or a foreign one, journalism is journalism. You’re telling a story, you’re trying to be as accurate and intellectually honest and as fair as you can be. And in a way, it doesn’t really matter. Obviously you can be an American writing for an American paper, and you would have your own political views and opinions, but you would be working in journalism under the rules of journalism.


2 thoughts on “Q&A: Isabel Kershner on The Battle for Israel’s Soul

  1. hag says:

    AMAZING… NO ANSWERS… judaism is going down the toilet

    BUT I will answer… It is the fight for Judaism’s soul… I for one cannot accept a religion that is so UNcaring.. so egocentric…and so lacking in the precepts of judaism… and please stop telling me that god wants this

  2. Davida Brown says:

    There are answers, my friend. Check out the Bible…that’s where they are!

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