Israel dispatch: ‘we serve the kingdom, not the king’ say reservists striking to protest Knesset bill curtailing judicial power Dispatches
© JURIST / John-Michael Graves
Israel dispatch: ‘we serve the kingdom, not the king’ say reservists striking to protest Knesset bill curtailing judicial power

Israeli law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting Israel. This dispatch is from Mayan Lawent, a law student in the Buchmann Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University and a JURIST Staff Correspondent in Israel. 

On Monday, July 24th, a highly controversial bill curtailing the reasonableness doctrine was passed in the Knesset. It comes as a part of a larger judicial overhaul that is controversial, to say the least. The decision was met with protesting crowds and strikes across the Israeli workforce. Here are just a few things that have happened:

  • The largest labor union in the country, which represents around 800,000 workers, announced a nationwide general strike.
  • The Israel Medical Association announced a general strike, though the labor courts limited it to a few hours so as to reduce possible harm to patients.
  • A group of high-tech companies paid for four major newspapers to publish front pages covered in black ink, with the words ‘A black day for Israeli democracy’, the day after the vote.
  • 150 of the largest companies in Israel staged a day-strike.

It’s not just economy the economy that is influenced by the strikes, but security as well:

“We serve the kingdom, not the king.”

This phrase was used by a leader of the reservist strike in response to criticism leveled at the striking reservists. In a rare and drastic step, over 10,000 military reservists have threatened to walk out. To understand what this means in Israeli society, it’s crucial to understand the role the IDF plays. National service is mandatory and acts as a cultural unifier in many ways. Groups who do not serve are a major point of contention, so this step by reservists is a powerful statement but also very controversial.

The majority of Israelis who fulfill their mandatory military service partake in annual reserve duty. However, those who served in special units, such as pilots, are expected to volunteer for ongoing responsibilities within the reserves, a commitment they usually undertake willingly. Given the specific roles they hold, special forces troops and reserve pilots tend to participate more regularly in training and missions – much of which is volunteer. Only around 11% of reservists are considered volunteers and the rest are legally bound to serve. As of 2022, there are around 120,000 active reservists.

Thousands of Israeli reservists have threatened to refuse service, and of these 1,142 are air force reservists whose service is both crucial and voluntary.  It is unclear what, if any, repercussions volunteer reservists will face, as legally they do not have to serve.  As for those who are legally bound to serve it is unclear what the full repercussions will be, but there have already been a few fines and arrests.

While rare, refusing to serve has been a form of protest in Israel from the state’s conception, though never in these numbers. In addition, this is the first-time that refusal to serve has been used to influence government policy, as opposed to military policy. This has led to criticism from many, though mostly from supporters of the judicial overhaul, who say they are “changing the rules of the game” and “holding the country hostage”.

Proponents of the strike see it as a last resort, a non-violent way to speak to the fear of losing democracy. The people “serve the kingdom, not the king” – and undermining the liberal-democratic nature of the country is harming it. The strike comes from a heavy heart, out of true fear and worry for their country and they are calling for the decision on the reasonable standard and the powers of the Supreme Court to be put on hold until a broad consensus can be reached.

In response to right-wing politicians lambasting the reservist strike, the IDF Chief of Staff has called for unity and has asked the government not to incite anger against the striking reservists, but rather find a way to close the rift. According to him, the IDF is apolitical and is necessary to ensure safety that will allow for political discourse. Though currently stable and prepared, if the reservists’ strike lasts long term, Israel could be facing a security problem.

I am writing this on an annual Jewish fast day that mourns the destruction of the Second Temple. In Jewish culture the destruction of the Temple is tied to strife and discord amongst the people, and it feels sadly poetic this year, as tensions continue to rise between Israeli citizens. My hope is that the strikes, both military and civilian, will have their intended effect – to bring the government to the negotiating table. Making changes that will undermine Israel’s democracy cannot be done when close to half the country (or more, depending on the polls) is so vehemently against it.

It is unclear how any of this will play out in the long term, though tensions are not lessening. Already multiple filings against the bill to limit the reasonableness doctrine have been filed with the Supreme Court. In September they will be ruling on a bill that limits the judiciary’s independence – whatever their ruling is, it will have a massive impact on the country moving forward.