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Debate Over Judicial Reform In Israel Raises Concerns Of Societal Division And Potential Civil War

Israel's Judicial Reform Sparks Divisions and Fears of Societal Crisis

In the days since the Knesset passed the first part of the judicial reform package put forward by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the bitterness of the debate over this issue has raised fears that Israel is on the verge of a societal crisis if not a civil war. In response to this dangerous situation, both supporters and critics of the measure have issued calls for unity.

Protesters and Israeli police officers clash during a demonstration near the Israeli Knesset on July 24, 2023 in Jerusalem, Israel. Some 20,000 anti-government protestors marched from Tel Aviv and converged in Jerusalem outside parliament as the controversial bill was being voted on, after weeks of protest against the government’s plans to restrain the judiciary. AMIR LEVY/GETTY IMAGES 

Those who love Israel can only hope that such appeals will be heeded. For all of its military prowess and wealth, Israel is still a small country beset by foes whose security is not something to take for granted. Perhaps its greatest strengths are to be found in the genius of its people and a communal spirit that gives its society enormous resilience in the face of great challenges.

The divisions that debate about judicial reform has exposed are putting an enormous strain on that resilience. But the worst thing about it is that the spirit driving the mass protests seems not so much driven by convictions about constitutional principles or objections to the details of the proposed changes to the system as they are by the anger of some groups of citizens against other Israelis.

The discord is partly based on the idea by some that other Jews are not as good as they are; it is front and center in this political conflict. That this is nothing new and has its roots in Jewish, Zionist and Israeli history does not make it any easier to take. But among the worst elements of the commentary about this controversy in the American media has been a willingness on the part of those who claim to care deeply about Israel to pour fuel upon the flames of this particularly unpleasant variety of communal strife.

Looking down on the non-elites

No better example of this can be found than a column by Bret Stephens published this week in The New York Times. The piece didn’t argue that judicial reform was wrong. Far from agreeing with the claims that the government’s proposals were aimed at destroying democracy, he conceded that it was “all too democratic” and that the country’s “unusually powerful judiciary” needed to be “reined in.” Rather, it was that the effort was being pursued by the wrong sort of people and for bad motives. And he considered the willingness of that wrong sort to attempt to govern Israel even after they won an election to be worse than the actions of antisemitic BDS supporters.

The divisions that debate about judicial reform has exposed are putting an enormous strain on that resilience. But the worst thing about it is that the spirit driving the mass protests seems not so much driven by convictions about constitutional principles or objections to the details of the proposed changes to the system as they are by the anger of some groups of citizens against other Israelis. EYAL WARSHAVSKY/GETTY IMAGES 

Stephens, an American who was editor of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004 before returning to the United States, where he has served as a columnist at The Wall Street Journal and then the Times, wrote that the opponents of judicial reform were:

“Its most productive and civically engaged citizens. With those citizens—the tech entrepreneurs, the air force reservists, the world-famous novelists and doctors—Israel stands in a league with Switzerland and Singapore: a boutique nation, small and imperfect but widely associated with excellence in dozens of fields. Without those citizens, Israel is in the club with Hungary and Serbia: a little country, insular and pettily corrupt and good mainly at nursing its grievances.

That’s why the particulars of the legislation matter less than the way it was carried out and the motives of those who championed it. For the most part, they represent Israel’s least productive and engaged citizens—ultra-Orthodox Jews who want military exemptions and welfare, settlers who want to be a law unto themselves, ideologues in think tanks—abusing their temporary majority to secure exemptions, entitlements, immunities and other privileges that mock the idea of equality under law.”

Stripped of the crude and somewhat misleading generalizations Stephens has employed in which he heaps bouquets of praise on the protesters and treats supporters of reform with sneering contempt, this passage can be boiled down to one disgusting thought. The “good” Jews deserve to run Israel, regardless of whether they are outvoted by the “bad” Jews. The reforms can’t be allowed because a mechanism—in this case, a judiciary that has arrogated to itself the power to rule as the sovereigns of the nation—must be put in place to ensure that the “bad” Jews are kept in their place.

This is the sort of sentiment that ought to be condemned by every rational Jew and sympathizer with Israel, regardless of what you think of Netanyahu or judicial reform.

If unity and efforts at compromise, which have been repeatedly refused by the opposition to Netanyahu, appear to be impossible at this moment, it is because of attitudes like the one Stephens exhibits. That’s bad enough when it is voiced on the streets of Tel Aviv by people caught up in the emotion of the moment and egged on by crowds of sympathizers. When it comes from someone writing from a distance and published in the pages of a newspaper whose institutional hostility to Israel and Zionism has been a source of pain for Jews for generations, it is nothing less than a disgrace.

The tribal nature of Israeli politics is a fact of life. The demonstrators are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, secular and liberal in their politics. And what they fear is the idea that a change to restore some balance between the courts and the Knesset will empower the largely Mizrachi, religious and nationalist Jews who vote for the parties that make up Netanyahu’s coalition.

The country’s liberal elites worry that people for whom they have little respect are increasingly in charge of the country. That sense that Israel’s shifting demography would be its political destiny was reinforced by the results of last November’s elections when a quarter of the vote went to religious parties; combined with those who voted for Likud, it led to a 64-seat majority in the Knesset for a nationalist and religious coalition with no left-leaning “centrists” to balance them.

Stephens is echoing those fears in terms that are meant to persuade supporters of Israel that if its nationalist and religious majority has its way, the Jewish state will not be the sort of country they want to be associated with.

American Jews have long been cheerleaders with the vision of Ashkenazi liberal Israel—the Israel of Leon Uris’ Exodus, whose hero was played in the movie version by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed screen idol Paul Newman (whose father was Jewish). They cheer the Israel of “startup nation” tech geniuses who, similarly, are disproportionately Ashkenazi, secular and liberal. Mizrachi Jews who don’t look like the fictional Ari Ben Canaan and are likely to be religious and conservative/nationalist in their politics or the black-clothed haredim are not so attractive to them.

A history of communal prejudice

These sorts of attitudes are also part of Israel’s history.

In the 1930s, the immigration certificates to Palestine that turned out to be an escape path for doomed European Jews were controlled by the Labor Zionist movement. They gave preference to those who shared their movement’s beliefs and were interested in farming. City-dwellers and religious Jews, unless part of groups planning on joining settlements, were often put to the back of the line.

The same attitudes characterized the way the newborn State of Israel, whose government was run by Labor Zionists, received the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were thrown out or forced to flee their homes in the Arab and Muslim world after May 1948. The absorption of this Mizrachi population is one of Israel’s great success stories but also a source of lingering resentment. The immigrants were treated with disdain rooted in prejudice. They were sent to live in “development towns” on the fledgling nation’s perimeter, where they lived in tents and poverty.

Those divisions have lessened as the Mizrachim, who now constitute half of Israel’s Jewish population, rose in prominence in Israeli society and intermarriage with fellow Ashkenazi Jews became more commonplace. Still, the sectarian nature of the political divide within Israel persists. The old Ashkenazi elites still tend to vote for parties on the left, and the Mizrachim, for whom Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a champion, primarily for the right. 

Since 1977, when Labor was dethroned for the first time, those Jews whom Stephens and others regard with such contempt have been winning most of the elections. And it was only in the years after this political upheaval that leftist jurists—led by former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak—decided to embark upon their own revolution in which they claimed that the courts had the power to overrule any government action for virtually any reason. In this way, the left has retained outsized power and the representatives of nationalist and religious voters have been kept in check no matter how many elections they win.

Leave aside the fact that, contrary to Stephens’ assertions, religious Zionists of the sort who support Netanyahu and the reforms are now the most avid volunteers for service in elite units once dominated by the Ashkenazi elites. That he thinks there’s something wrong with conservative think tanks in Israel that promote the same ideas he sometimes champions in his columns shows how his writing, which used to be so intellectually rigorous, has declined in quality due to his political, cultural and religious biases.

Still, even if you sympathize with secular Ashkenazi liberals and regard Jews who think, dress or pray differently as slightly alien, the kind of Jew vs. Jew-hatred that Stephens had no compunction about venting in the pages of the Times ought to repel you.

Those who believe in Jewish unity are compelled to accept and even love all fellow Jews, no matter their background. Given the depths of the differences that divide us, this can be difficult. Nevertheless, to declare that a Mizrachi, nationalist and religious Israel is no longer worthy of support from or the love of Diaspora Jews is not so much wrongheaded as it is redolent of a spirit of prejudice that has done so much harm to Israel and the Jews. The contempt for other Jews that Stephens is unashamed to exhibit should stand as a warning to all sides in this conflict of the dangers of overheated rhetoric and a willingness to view opponents as somehow a lesser form of human being or Jew than oneself.

Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate

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