‘Heading Toward Dictatorship’: Why Israeli High-tech Workers Held Their First-ever Strike

Around 1,000 workers downed digital tools on Tuesday to protest government plans to weaken the judicial system, with some talking of leaving the country if the overhaul is implemented

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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הפגנת הייטקיסטים ת"א 2023
High-tech workers protesting against the government's plans to weaken the judiciary. "No democracy, no high-tech" was a popular sign.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

It wasn’t an ordinary strike. It wasn’t about better pay, and it wasn’t about better working conditions. Rather, it was about preventing an overthrow of the system of government that could easily wipe out the industry that employs and sustains them.

Hundreds of high-tech workers, perhaps as many as a thousand, participated in Tuesday’s hour-long strike – from 11 A.M. to noon – in one of the main industry hubs in Tel Aviv, just outside the Defense Ministry headquarters. They came carrying Israeli flags and signs that read “No democracy, no high-tech” and “No freedom, no high-tech.”

They came dressed in jeans and T-shirts, some of the women stripping down to tank tops to stay cool on an unseasonably warm late January day.

Many said they had already participated in the big anti-government demonstrations of recent weeks. But few, if any, had ever been part of a proper workers’ strike before. After all, they wouldn’t have had any reason to: High-tech workers are among the best paid in Israel and are rarely unionized.

This was not about any standoff with their employers. In fact, many of their employers had encouraged them to participate in the strike. Not only at the main venue, on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, but also at other high-tech hubs in and around the city, and even as far away as Haifa.

“I’m here today because I’m convinced this country is heading toward a dictatorship,” said Amir Schnabel, 56, the co-founder of IdentiFire – a startup specializing in blockchain technology. “Innovation is a major pillar of high-tech, and you can’t have innovation if people don’t enjoy equality. If the government has its way, the courts in Israel will be powerless, and there will no longer be an institution that can guarantee equality for all.”

A protester sitting in the street with a sign reading "No freedom, no high-tech."Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Schnabel said more and more foreign investors in Israeli high-tech have been voicing concerns in recent weeks about where the country is headed. “Many are sitting on the fence right now, waiting to see what happens,” he said. “It’s a matter of pure and simple economics. You don’t invest in a country where at any moment the government can simply decide to change the rules of the game.”

Middle-aged and with gray hair, Schnabel was not particularly representative of the crowd. For the most part, the strikers were hip young Israelis in their twenties and thirties – some of them fresh out of the army, like Karin Schwartz.

“I think this whole reform is a bad idea,” said the 21-year-old DevOps engineer, referring to the government’s plan to strip the judiciary of its key powers. “Nobody is going to want to invest in Israel if this happens.”

Schwartz, who hails from the central Israeli city of Yavneh, has spent the past few months working at a small startup in Tel Aviv. She was carrying a protest sign that invoked the Bible. It read: “We’ve completed the Book of Judges. Moving on to the Book of Kings.”

The strikers gathered in the Sarona complex – a large park surrounding a restored German Templer village built in the 19th century – where they were supposed to stay. But soon after 11 A.M., many headed into Kaplan Street, blocking traffic on this busy thoroughfare in both directions. They refused to obey police orders to get off the street, and the police did not press them.

Equipped with bullhorns and noisemakers, they chanted “Democracy or revolt” and “Shame.” They had especially harsh words for Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the driving force behind the plan to neuter the judiciary (“Levin, this is not Polin” – as Poland is known in Hebrew), and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife (“Bibi and Sara, this is not Hungaria” – as Hungary is known in Hebrew).

The jewel in the crown of Israeli industry, high-tech accounts for a large share of the country’s exports and is a huge draw for foreign investment. It is also responsible for much of the rise in Israel’s GDP in recent decades. When speaking with foreign audiences, Netanyahu regularly boasts about Israel’s high-tech prowess.

Alluding to the repercussions of a blow to the sector, several Startup Nation activists in the crowd carried signs that warned: “No high-tech, no taxes.”

Ran Avnimelech, a data scientist at ZipRecruiter – a corporation headquartered in California with an office in Tel Aviv – was carrying a handmade sign, written in English, that read: “Malware Government.”

“What we are witnessing right now is an attempted putsch,” said the 50-year-old father of two. “This government wants to destroy our democratic system, which even in the best of times is far from perfect.” Since the formation of the extremist government, he said, he has been seriously considering leaving Israel.

Demonstrators at the protest by high-tech workers in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Liana Halpern, 32, was among the first strikers to arrive in Sarona. A senior commercial client success analyst at Similarweb, which specializes in digital intelligence tools, she said she had decided to participate in the hope of making a difference. “I’m afraid of what’s happening now, and I want to protect our democracy and the quality of life here,” she said.

Gilad Aloni, the director of product management at Waves Audio (a developer of technologies used in the music industry), said he “strongly preferred” not to live in a country where so much power might be centralized in the hands of the government.

But when asked if he was thinking of leaving, the 53-year-old father of three replied: “Not at all. I’m thinking of staying forever and fighting.”

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