Interview. We spoke with Orly Noy, an activist for the rights of Mizrahim (Middle Eastern) Jews. ‘We are calling for a new democracy that would include everyone without exception, from Arab citizens to Ethiopian Jews, poor Mizrahim and also migrant workers.’

Orly Noy: Israel needs a new democracy based on equality for all

On Sunday evening, hundreds of thousands of Israelis held mass rallies and marches in Tel Aviv and 180 other cities and towns against the draft judicial reform being pushed by the Netanyahu government in the Knesset. Starting on Monday, they planned to cause a “week of paralysis” in the country. We interviewed Orly Noy, a historic activist for the rights of Mizrahim (Middle Eastern) Jews. Noy has launched a call for a new Israeli democracy, no longer Jewish alone but for all citizens.

In the coming days, heedless of the protests and tensions, including in the armed forces, the Netanyahu government will speed up the process in the Knesset so that the justice reform would become law as soon as possible. What will happen next?

We don’t know. The Supreme Court, the oversight body that is among the majority’s main targets, may not give its approval to the new laws. The Justice Minister has already threatened the judges. “Do not dare to reject the reform,” he warned. If they do, what will happen? Will we have two sources of authority in the country, the government and the Supreme Court? Jurists and experts don’t have a clear answer to these questions.

At the center of this clash are the Supreme Court and the autonomy of judges. But there is also an aspect that is little talked about. The reform aims to give greater weight to the role of rabbinical, religious courts.

This is a key point that the protests only address to a small extent. The expansion of the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts will be devastating, especially for socially weaker women, such as Mizrahi women. It will give more power to men. Now men are already able to extort favorable terms in divorce cases before religious judges who (based on Jewish religious law) don’t guarantee equal rights to men and women. Many women give up their rights in order to obtain a divorce, even give up custody of their children in order to separate from abusive husbands. After the reform, it will all get worse.

Changes are also planned for education.

Those in government aim at the privatization of the education system. There will be negative consequences, especially for the communities kept on the margins, such as Palestinians (citizens of Israel) and Ethiopian Jews. In the end, this will widen the educational gap between children from affluent families and those with low incomes, and between Jews and Arabs more generally.

A few days ago, the Haaretz newspaper wrote that the mass protest against Netanyahu is very important, but at the same time this is the protest of the privileged, highlighting the absence from the streets of the Arab-Palestinian minority, as well as the Ethiopian Jews and some of the Mizrahim.

Those who are protesting are those who find the so-called Jewish democracy acceptable and would like to go back to the situation before the far-right came to power. Why are the Palestinians (in Israel) not taking part in the protests? To answer this question, it is enough to look at the marches themselves: a sea of Israeli flags waved by hundreds of convinced Zionists – true, aligned against Netanyahu, but strongly nationalist. It’s a world to which the Arab minority [21 percent of the total population] feel they don’t belong. The personalities the protest organizers are inviting to speak at the rallies are almost always former senior IDF officers and former police chiefs who describe themselves as the true patriots defending Jewish and democratic Israel. Speakers include people like former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who dedicated his life to fighting the Palestinians. Let us not forget that the Supreme Court approved the law proclaiming Israel the state of the Jewish nation, not of all its citizens. As a result, the Arab community doesn’t feel involved in the protest against Netanyahu, even though they know that this far-right government will hit them hard.

Similarly, Ethiopian Jews are staying away from the streets. They are against Netanyahu and aware that the independence of the judiciary means protection for them. But they remember that the Supreme Court remained silent in the face of unprecedented police violence against their community. Just as the Supreme Court failed to intervene against the removal of so many poor Mizrahi Jewish families from Kfar Shalem, Givat Amal and other areas subject to ruthless gentrification aimed at facilitating large-scale housing investments. These and other communities on the margins demand true justice, true democracy, true equality, not the old order.

What kind of democracy does the Mizrahi Civic Collective propose, of which you are a member?

We are a group of activists who are horrified at the revolution being carried out by the Netanyahu government. At the same time, we don’t believe in the Israeli democracy that the protesters in the streets are singing praises to. We think the struggle against the discrimination [by Ashkenazi Jews, of European descent] that still plagues Jews of Middle Eastern origin must join that of Palestinians in Israel and the Territories. We are calling for a new democracy that would include everyone without exception, from Arab citizens to Ethiopian Jews, poor Mizrahim and also migrant workers, on a level of complete equality and of social and economic justice. We call for an immediate end to the military occupation of the Territories and for Palestinians to enjoy all their rights as a people and as individuals. This is the Israel of the future that we want.

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