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Etgar Keret: Israel's democracy is in danger

Stefan Dege
March 18, 2023

In Israel, protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned judicial reform have been going on for weeks. Cultural activists say Israel's democracy is in danger. Writer Etgar Keret explains why.

Etgar Keret looks towards the camera.
Keret is one of Israel’s best-known writers Image: Anto Magzan/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Etgar Keret is a superstar of Israel's literary scene. The Jewish Museum in Berlin is currently dedicating an exhibition to him titled "Inside Out" in which the author's work and life is presented. Keret, who was born in 1967 in Israel, is considered a master of short story writing and stands firm on his political views, including protesting the judicial reform in his country. "All the demonstrators have one thing in common," Keret said back in February in an interview with journalist Uri Schneider reporting for DW from Israel, "they don't want democracy to be robbed from them."

Keret is also one of the signatories of a letter to the ambassadors of Germany and the UK in Israel. In the letter, around 1,000 Israeli artists, writers and intellectuals called for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inaugural visits to Berlin and London to be cancelled.

According to a report in the Israeli news outlet "Haaretz," the cultural activists who signed the letter say Israel is in the most serious crisis in its history and is "on the way from a vibrant democracy to a theocratic dictatorship." Prominent signatories include writer David Grossmann and sculptor Sigalit Landau. Nevertheless, Netanyahu arrived in the German capital on March 16 where he met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Less power for the Supreme Court

The new reform calls for more power for the government and less rule of law controlled by an independent judiciary. Critics accuse Netanyahu and his right-wing religious coalition of weakening the judicial system and thus undermining democracy. The government in Jerusalem, which has been in office since December, wants the reform to strengthen its influence in selecting judges, among other things.

Under the new law, the Supreme Court's powers will be restricted. Authorities justify such a move with claims that judges have interfered in politics. Netanyahu, who is in coalition with ultra-Orthodox and right-wing extremists, is currently facing trial for corruption charges. "The whole state," Keret says, "is hostage to this man who — like Nero or Caligula — considers himself more important than the state."

"This protest movement doesn't need writers to explain the world," Keret said in the interview. "Every liberal democrat understands that a court under the control of the prime minister is a weak court." The same is true, he said, if the government hires a "misogynist, homophobic racist" in the Education Ministry. "My son then learns misogynistic and homophobic attitudes. You don't have to be a genius to understand that. Everybody gets that."

Benjamin Netanyahu standing next to Chancellor Scholz in Berlin.
Benjamin Netanyahu visited Chancellor Scholz in Berlin on March 16, 2023Image: Matthias Rietschel/REUTERS

A widespread protest movement

In Keret's observation, the protest movement unites people in Israel, across political divides. "In my whole life, I've never been to demonstrations with so many people with whom I have almost nothing in common," reports Keret. "To my left are hipsters with a joint in their mouth, to my right are high tech entrepreneurs, and behind me are communists. A range of rich and poor, people from the army and conscientious objectors." What they all have in common, he said, is a fear of losing democracy.

Older people in particular took to the streets. There's a reason for that, Keret said, and it's because Israel is a country of immigration. "A large part of the people who came here did so because they watched the democracies they came from collapse." Older people in particular shaped the image of the demonstrations today, he said, "They are the ones who come week after week. In the rain. In the cold. Maybe because they know the price we will pay if these government plans go through."

People demonstrate in Jerusalemm playing drums and holding up Israeli flags.
Protesters against the judicial reform have taken to the streets in recent weeksImage: Saeed Qaq/imago images/ZUMA Wire

Religious fundamentalists in the government

The State of Israel, founded in 1948, defines itself as Jewish and democratic, Keret said. "But it's actually a Jewish state that is also democratic as a hobby." Those who talk to members of the religious camp, he said, are told: "Democracy is a temporary phenomenon." Judaism existed before and will exist after democracy, he said. "They don't care about the weakening of democracy, because in the end only God decides anyway."

The interview was conducted by Uri Schneider and this article was translated from German.