Shikma Bressler: “The Israeli government wants to carry out a coup d’état”

  • Interview with the physicist and one of the driving forces behind the protests against Netanyahu's government

VilaWeb
Andreu Barnils
25.04.2023 - 11:17
Actualització: 25.04.2023 - 13:17

[Llegiu l’entrevista en català]

Shikma Bressler (1980) is a PhD in physics who works at the Weizmann Institute of Science and is part of the team working on the particle accelerator at CERN. She is also one of the visible faces of the massive protests against the Netanyahu government, which have been going on for sixteen weeks and have reached unprecedented proportions in Israel. VilaWeb conducted a video call interview with Mrs. Bressler to learn firsthand the reasons that have led thousands of protesters to take to the streets against the Israeli government.

–Sixteen weeks of street protests. How did we get here, and why?
–In the last election, Netanyahu and his bloc won 64 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. In his first speech as the newly elected Prime Minister, Netanyahu listed the issues his government wanted to address (Israel’s economic situation, Iran and its nuclear weapon, etc.). But a couple of days later, the new Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, declared in a speech of his own that the government wanted to undertake a judicial reform. We saw that in Israel, the government wanted to stage a coup and change the regime: they want to shift from a democratic state to a dictatorship with a strong flavor of Judaism and racism. And since then, they have been working towards that goal.

–What do you mean by “working towards that goal”?
–They want the government to take control of the judicial system. Surprisingly, a couple of weeks ago, Yariv Levin gave an interview on one of his television channels in which he said that if the originally proposed changes in laws had been approved, Israel would have been left with one authority. Only the government. Executive. Neither legislative nor judicial. Only the government, governing. This is the end of Israeli democracy. This is how we know that the ideology of this government is to change the structure of Israel and turn it from a democracy to a dictatorship. And we also know that they are willing to sacrifice basically everything that is good in Israel to carry out their ideology. Sacrificing the Israeli economy, the Israeli education system, the healthcare system, as clearly stated by 99.99% of experts in each of these fields. Academics. And finally, we also realized that they are willing to sacrifice the security of the nation.

–What do you mean?
–The Defense Minister, Yoav Galant, said that if the government continued with this coup, it would wreck the army and put Israel in real danger. Well, they shut him up! Then, hundreds of thousands of Israelis spontaneously took to the streets. Overnight. They want to change Israel and shift from a democracy to a dictatorship. And they are willing to sacrifice everything, including our national security and our soldiers, to make them vulnerable.

–What support do the protests have?
–Current polls say that more than 70% of the population does not want these changes. The protest is now in its sixteenth week. We have seen that we are able to stop them. The government had to abandon this attempted coup. However, there is nothing clear.

–Why?
–Because all the laws they want are, at most, a couple of hours away from being passed by parliament. They have never accepted or said that they will withdraw their plan completely, which is one of the main demands of the protest. And they have also not accepted the second demand: that any profound change, any change in the constitutional structure of Israel, must have the consent of the vote. In conclusion, they were forced to stop, but this is a very fragile stop. That’s why we’re still

–Give me examples of some of the more than one hundred and twenty laws they want to change, please.
–One, for example, that leads us towards a religious state is the one that gives more power and authority to the set of religious norms, based on biblical law. Currently, these are the laws that are used for marriage. If you are not Jewish, you cannot get married in Israel. More weight is being given to these laws, and in matters that go beyond marriage. There are laws that lead us towards racism. But this is more complicated, because no one talks about it openly. It should be known that in the Israeli system, we do not have a constitution as such, we do not have fundamental laws that uphold human rights, equality, or minorities. This falls to the Supreme Court, which can revoke laws that go beyond these fields. Now they want to take this power away from the Supreme Court. And this would mean that the Knesset, the parliament, could approve a law saying that certain minorities cannot vote, and the Supreme Court could not prevent it. There would be no counterbalance to stop it. And we know that this always ends in racism.

There are people who talk about a kind of latent civil war in Israel. Do you agree?
—I wouldn’t call it a civil war in the sense of the Spanish Civil War. But I do believe we’re in the phase of redefining Israel for the decades to come. There are a few extremists who are trying to exercise control. Some are paving the way for Netanyahu to avoid his pending trial, and likely prison. They are the extremists who promote ideas of Jewish supremacy. They are very few, in number, but with a great deal of political power because of Netanyahu’s need for them. Polls show that the majority of Israel does not support them. And here is a conflict. And I hope it doesn’t lead to… But, in fact, we’ve already seen a lot of violence on the streets, always against the protesters, and by the extremists and racists. If we compare the numbers of our demonstrations and theirs, those who support the coup, we are hundreds of thousands, and they are hundreds. And they use a lot of violence. A lot.

Is civil disobedience expected in the coming days by the protesters?
—We talk about civil disobedience not because we want to, but because we know we need it to achieve change. Scientific research shows that polite protests do not achieve objectives, or have much less chance of success than protests that include civil disobedience. And if Israel follows in the footsteps of Poland and Hungary and heads towards a kind of dictatorship, what else is left for us to do? The future will depend largely on how the political map is repositioned and what the government does. If they go straight ahead without finding consensus, and continue with the judicial upheaval, I hope the protests will grow and show more civil disobedience. But if they stop, I don’t know what could happen. In Poland, for example, they stopped because of the reaction, and then implemented the changes slowly, so that it wouldn’t be noticed. Now the real danger in Israel is this.

—How did a physicist like you become a social activist?
—It starts with a mistake, I would say. I have never been a social activist. I never intended to be one, and I would have laughed if someone had told me a few years ago. But I am very happy to say that in Israel there are many people who care about the country. In my case, I want to raise my children in a country with an open future, where they can decide what to do and how to do it. And when you see the changes happening in front of you and how we are heading towards religious power, and how the Supreme Court is losing its authority to strike down unjust laws… We know for sure that women will suffer. We already see it in some parts of Israel, where women can only sit at the back of the bus. Only men can sit at the front. I don’t want to live in a country like that. That’s why we come out, worried about the future of our children.

—You went from using the black flag to the Israeli flag. Why?
—In Israel, the black flag means danger. When you are at sea and see danger, you hoist the black flag. It is also hoisted when you want to tell soldiers not to obey the orders they have received, that the situation has changed and is alarming. Now what you have to do is not obey the commander. When we started, it was the flag we used. Danger! We know that Netanyahu has needs and ambitions, but they don’t know where they’re going. It was the flag of being alert. But now, after Yari Levin’s declaration about the government’s plans, it was no longer a matter of being alert. You don’t hoist the flag of concern. Now we fight for the country, because they are attacking the country. So you raise the flag of the country, one of the symbols of the country, like the anthem and the declaration of independence. It’s no longer a threat. Now we are fighting for the very existence of the country.

—I saw that you have raised ten million shekels to organize yourselves.
—We have raised more than 20 million shekels [5 million euros]. It’s the largest amount ever raised in Israel. And the donors are tens of thousands of citizens. We have 20% of the population actively protesting. Everyone does as much as they can. This is not the success of the protest, but the awakening of the majority of people who have been silent for many years, and who were being led down a path they didn’t want. For years we felt alone and under attack. Where are the good people? And now you see them in Israel. And you see how the good people rise above almost the entire political map. And you see that they are the majority. It’s a sunrise.

—Some will say that Netanyahu, like Trump, has been able to seduce people who were left behind. People with reasons, who had been abandoned. Not the elite. Do you agree?
—The numbers tell us that this kind of people Netanyahu is able to attract is just a little over 10%. It’s not a big number. We have to understand the amount of money coming from outside to control social networks and conventional media. It’s very obvious when you see it. And he was able to drag and get support from other parts of the country. It’s half and half. He has the support of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who need to change democracy towards a dictatorship, because they need their children not to go to the army. That’s their main reason. And that they don’t study the basics at school: neither math nor English. That they stay behind. And their politicians want it, because they can control them more easily. The other group that supports Netanyahu are racists. Very racist. They cannot live in a democracy either, because they have to justify not giving the same rights to all Israeli citizens, and even denying us citizenship. And then you have Netanyahu’s own group that you mentioned. There’s the famous recorded conversation of one of his closest advisers, who said, “We have made them hate. And that’s what unites us.” Netanyahu has been in power for almost fourteen years. And there are people in the country who certainly fall behind. But who should we blame? It’s the one who has been governing for the past fourteen years! He has been able to do it by manipulating, injecting enormous amounts of money into the system via extremists from the United States, but not only. The country’s numbers show that 70% is democratic, and 30% is not. The question is how do we change the political map and reach a tipping point. And it’s not trivial at all. Because Netanyahu has a very effective machinery and a lot of money to keep things as they are. It’s a big stake we have. A challenge similar to what Americans had with Trump, and many more democratic countries. Israel’s best minds work for change. People who have never been involved.

—Anything else to add?
—A friend warned me: with journalists, send your message, whether they ask for it or not. Nothing to add, I’ve already done it. Thank you very much for your attention.

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