Disquietude in the Holy Land| March 21, 2023
As I chronicled the decline and fall of the United States, however, I was always buoyed by the thought that at least the Jews have a haven to which they can flee: Israel
I have long looked on aghast at my native America. For one thing, America has become the world’s leading incubator of bad ideas. It is quite literally going insane. Over 30 percent of teenage girls have experienced suicidal ideation in the past year.
To name just a few of those bad ideas: “identity politics/equity” — the idea that your doctor or airline pilot should be chosen by skin color or gender orientation rather than by competence; radical gender choice, including the irreversible physical mutilation of children and teens, and allowing biological men to compete in women’s sports, and reparations — $5 million for every black person in San Francisco.
No country in which Donald Trump and Joe Biden may face off for the presidency, not once, but twice, can face the future with confidence that things are going well. Or that it is led by those capable of thinking about the multitude of challenges facing America.
Even more distressing yet is the visceral anger and dismissive contempt of citizens toward one another, and the lost sense of being joined by a common national identity. When disunion and secession are talking points, things have reached a sad pass.
All that I have said so far applies to all Americans. But to that mix must be added resurgent anti-Semitism from both the right and left, sometimes in the guise of anti-Zionism, but increasingly straight up. To the campus left, Jews are the exemplars of white supremacy, and to the radical right they are dangerous interlopers, a foreign breed, in a country not their own.
AS I CHRONICLED the decline and fall of the United States, however, I was always buoyed by the thought that at least the Jews have a haven to which they can flee: Israel. “Woke” ideas have gained relatively little traction in Israel. The need to defend ourselves from a multitude of enemies has made Israelis more reality-based, and less prone to “goodism” — actions designed to prove one’s goodness without actually helping anyone.
Finally, I have always viewed the Israeli Jewish fertility rate — the highest in the OECD, by more than one child per women — as proof that Israel’s Jews look to the future with optimism and a sense of a common mission.
THE PAST FEW MONTHS, since the announcement by the government of a package of judicial reforms, however, have put a considerable dent in those favorable comparisons to the United States. The anger we are witnessing has thrust us back to the dark days after the Rabin assassination, when a person wearing a kippah could hardly ride a bus without being accused of murder — if not back to the sinking of the Altalena.
A former IDF chief of staff and prime minister, Ehud Barak, counseled soldiers to disobey orders, and another former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, stated that “great battles are never won without blood in the streets” and that the weeks of demonstrations should be viewed as only a prelude to more serious confrontations to come. (Incidentally, Olmert’s autobiography is filled with sharp criticism of Israel’s High Court.)
A squadron of reserve pilots refused to show up for regularly scheduled training in protest, though they said they would continue to fly operational missions. Do they think that should the decision be made to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, they won’t need every possible drop of training? And El Al pilots refused to fly Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu abroad to meet with foreign leaders, with predictable consequences for Israel’s international standing.
Every day, we are showered with grave warnings that Israel’s economic miracle will be brought to a halt by the threat to democracy represented by the reforms. And the wealthier among the opponents of the reforms are doing everything possible to turn those dire warnings into self-fulfilling prophesies by removing their money from Israel to Silicon Valley. (Many of those were lucky not to lose tens of millions of dollars in the collapse of SVB.)
Those demonstrating in the streets have convinced themselves that they are the White Rose students battling Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Germany. That pose strikes me as just a little bit hysterical. As Harvard law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz has noted, even if all the reforms were enacted, they would not spell the end of Israeli democracy, but rather place Israel together with a number of other Anglophone democracies.
The demonstrators have wrapped themselves in the mantle of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. But the High Court envisioned by the reformers is much closer to what existed at the time of independence and the first four decades of Israel’s existence than that which followed former Court President Aharon Barak’s announcement of a constitutional revolution.
If enacted, the reforms would not even take the High Court back to 1995. And as former US attorney general Michael Mukasey has pointed out, the reforms do not go far enough to solve the overriding problem of the High Court’s involvement in every single decision by any government official.
The basic question is: Where were all those concerned about protecting Israel’s democracy 30 years ago, when one man effectively declared and executed a constitutional revolution? Even if one were to concede that the proposed reforms leave few checks and balances on the government — ignoring that every governing coalition consists of multiple parties, and that keeping them aligned is often comparable to herding cats — so did Barak’s revolution leave the High Court unchecked and unbound. And if forced to choose between a reform package legislated by the Knesset and the handiwork of one man — Barak — which is a bigger threat to democracy?
Hebrew University Professor of Law Netta Barak-Gorren — a critic of most of the reforms as currently drafted — provides an understated summary of the behavior of High Court that gave rise to those reforms: “The High Court of Justice, and the government legal counsel apparatus in its wake, expanded its sphere of involvement to include political issues, arrogated the authority to determine the contents of basic constitutional principles, based its judicial review of Knesset legislation and executive agencies on vague value-based tests whose application is unconvincing, strayed from the professional and institutional expertise of the judicial system, and placed state authorities in a state of constant uncertainty about the validity of their decisions.” Without some acknowledgment of the scope of the problem, no fruitful discussion of the proposed reforms can take place.
Thus, when journalist Matti Friedman, whose work I have always admired, describes the judiciary and police as the institutions that hold our fractured society together, I think he must be kidding. Rather, an overreaching Court has caused 50 percent of the population to feel they are being ruled by the nearly defunct Meretz Party. Even when the right wins elections, it’s still “heads I win, tails you lose.”
With respect to the police, Israelis long ago coined a term — “the Branja” — for the government legal system, which has a file on every opponent, to be opened as needed. Remember when Professor Yaakov Neeman was briefly appointed justice minister before being forced to resign on trumped-up charges, quickly dismissed by the court? Or when Reuven Rivlin, the future president, had to withdraw from consideration for justice minister upon announcement of a police investigation against him?
YET REFUTING OPPONENTS of judicial reform strikes me as increasingly beside the point. As Friedman himself writes, describing the demonstrations as being about judicial reform is like saying World War I was about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. When Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevi, and Daniel Gordis — among Israel’s most eloquent defenders in English for decades — call upon American Jewry to rise up in protest, their anger cannot be ignored.
They are scared, and their fears must be addressed. They and the demonstrators in the street wonder whether there will still be a place for them in Israel as the population becomes increasingly religious and right-wing. That is what made proposals for a rash of religious legislation at the outset of the new government, and the hasty cobbling together of a “Basic Law” for the sole purpose of allowing Aryeh Deri to serve as a minister, so ill-considered. (Calls for blood in the streets by leading public figures in the opposition do not exactly encourage national unity, either.)
ISRAEL CANNOT EMULATE the example of the United States — where too many politicians have found it easier to whip up hatred of the other side than to produce an attractive program for the future to better the lives of all citizens — and survive. But Israel does have some clear advantages over the US in this respect. It is still a relatively small country, where it is possible to bring people together to meet one another. And the Jewish citizens are part of a people that has a 3.000-year-plus history of shared experience.
The discussion that we need to be having with one another is less about judicial reform and more about how we can live together, without any group feeling threatened by the other. Mrs. Tzila Schneider of Kesher Yehudi told me last week that she wants to ask the 1,400 students in pre-induction academies with which Kesher Yehudi works to ask their parents to invite a group of their friends to their homes, and she will bring an equal number of chareidim. Such meetings would be a step in the right direction.
Very much in his cups, one of my sons rose at the family Purim meal to declare that those now demonstrating in the streets are good people, our fellow Jews, and we dare not forget it. That is at least part of the message we must get across to ourselves and to those who fear us.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 954)
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