Particle physicist Shikma Bressler is the face of the Israeli democracy movement. In the interview she talks about the fact that her country is not only threatened from outside.
If you google Shikma Bressler, you will find pictures in which a petite, blonde woman smiles confidently into the camera against a blurry background. A larger portion of the search results, however, show a visibly upset woman in a black T-shirt with a clenched fist printed on it. She holds a microphone in one hand and holds up an Israeli flag with the other.
The 43-year-old is an important voice in the Israeli democracy movement – and has a doctorate in particle physics. Until the attack on Israel by the Palestinian terrorist militia Hamas on October 7, 2023, she regularly took to the streets together with hundreds of thousands of other Israelis against the judicial reform of the right-wing religious government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the interview, she talks about how the reform plans paved the way for war, what role Netanyahu played in it and what all of this means for her research.
“Spektrum.de”: First of all: How are you?
Shikma Bressler: Look, it was just over four weeks ago that Hamas carried out this massacre of the Israeli population. It is shocking and an attack on our Israeli self-image. I’m sure we’ll recover from this one day. But the pain is great. We will have to reshape Israel. But no one knows yet what will happen next.
You are a particle physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and conduct research at the particle accelerator at the European Nuclear Research Center CERN in Switzerland. Can you think about your work right now?
Of course, it’s anything but easy to concentrate on work at the moment. But of course the projects continue. At CERN, I lead the Israeli participation in the detector upgrade of the ATLAS experiment. ATLAS is one of four particle detectors distributed along the entire length of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
Does work help you distract yourself for a few hours a day and think about other things?
That is hardly possible. War is everywhere. In the conversations in the hallways, on the radio, when looking out the window. Not to mention the sirens we hear every day at the institute. Hundreds of people have been kidnapped into the Gaza Strip and are being held hostage there. There are 30 children among them, some younger than my youngest daughter.
You can’t even imagine what they’ll experience there. Furthermore, Israel is not particularly big. Everyone here knows someone who was killed or kidnapped or who was involved in the military offensive. We have to see what happens now.
The last time we were in contact, you wrote that it was inconvenient to make a phone call because there was a missile alarm. What is the current situation where you live?
I work in Rehovot, but I live in the Jezreel Plain. This is an area in northern Israel near Haifa. Fortunately, we have only had very few missile alarms so far. But my brother has now been drafted into the army.
War and its effects are all around us. Luckily the children are relatively safe. But my youngest always checks that the door is actually locked and the windows are closed. A lot has changed.
They have five daughters – the eldest is 17 years old, the youngest is just 5. How do the girls experience the situation?
People grow up here knowing that the country has enemies and that Hamas is a threat. The children are aware of this, but don’t necessarily understand what it might mean. In the current situation, we can only hope that Hezbollah, which is active in Lebanon, does not interfere.
Since I come from the north, I still have vivid memories of the 2006 Lebanon War, when we were directly in the line of fire. After the current attack, the girls initially had neither school nor kindergarten – and even now that they are going back, nothing is as it was.
A few months ago you tried to stop the Israeli government’s judicial reform. They have publicly stood up for democracy and against corruption and abuse of power. Now there is war and other things are the order of the day. How much do you still think about the reform?
I don’t think the war has changed my view of reform and the Israeli government. The 225 bills that the government put on the parliamentary table are still there. The money is still going to the wrong places. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s machinery to expand his power is in full swing, as is his propaganda on social media.
He is trying to shift responsibility for the Hamas attack onto the military and society. Under the pretext of security, Netanyahu and his fundamentalist ministers are trying to pass all sorts of crazy laws, such as allowing police to shoot at protesters when they block streets. And even if the current situation requires some things, such laws can then also be used and misused in other ways.
How did you become the face of the protest movement against judicial reform? It’s not necessarily obvious that a particle physicist would become an activist…
Back in 2020, during the first Covid lockdown, Israel had just completed its third consecutive election. That means we had an unelected government, a poorly functioning parliament and then, a few days before Netanyahu was due to stand trial, the courts were closed.
The democratic system in Israel is based on the mutual control of these three bodies, and suddenly we not only had an unofficially legitimate government, but also no other state body that could question its decisions.
So we took to the streets to ensure the democracy of the state. For me, from the beginning it was a fight for a better, more democratic future. A video of me calling on people to join us on the way to Parliament went viral on social media.
And when people were looking for people to speak publicly on a stage for the next big wave of protests in the summer, I was asked. And, well, it took on a life of its own. It was never my intention to become the face of this democracy movement, it just happened that way.
In your opinion, is there a connection between judicial reform and the war?
Hamas started this war. Their intention is to weaken Israel. First of all, this is independent of what is going on in the country. However, the fact that our intelligence agencies did not know in advance about the planned date of the brutal attack is a major mistake that needs to be investigated.
However, over the past year, a number of high-ranking military and security politicians, both current and former, have repeatedly stated that the reform also represents a threat to Israel’s security. Our defense minister was fired in March for saying this very thing publicly.
So in a way it’s intertwined. We protested in the summer of 2023 to protect the country. Now, just a few months later, we are fighting to protect the country. We want a decent country whose government stands up for its citizens instead of betraying them. Although we are now in a war against a threat from outside, the danger from within has not been averted. The government is truly a disgrace.
What is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role in this war?
You don’t have to quote me, but you can repeat what Netanyahu himself said in 2006, when he was still opposition leader: The responsibility lies with the prime minister – every single day. The defense minister, the military leadership and the secret service are all secondary. It is his fault alone that the country has collapsed to such an extent.
Netanyahu has chosen people for the highest office based solely on their loyalty to him. He nominated people to serve him, not the people. People who have no expertise, no skills, no skills in moving the country forward. Everything that doesn’t work in Israel is his responsibility.
Even if the war were to end tomorrow – which we all obviously wish it would be – Israel is still wounded. What does that mean for the future? How does it go from here?
We need new elections and a new government. But it won’t be easy to achieve this. Netanyahu will cling very tightly to his power. I’m not sure yet what will happen to all of society’s fear and pain. The only thing that is certain is that we will not give up our country without a fight. We have to make sure that all the suffering turns into something good. We need to make this a place that benefits everyone equally.
It is also important to me to emphasize that it is not just our values that are under attack here, but those of the entire western, democratic world. Everyone who, like me, dreams of living in a country where children can grow up in peace and have all the opportunities they need should work to end this war as quickly as possible. Humanity must win. Democracy must win.