Ambiguity holds a storied place in the annals of Israeli decision-making. Historically, proponents of Israel's self-definition as a state that is both Jewish and democratic have fallen back on prevarication for the sake of satisfying diverse constituencies while realizing a dream of independence. But now, with Israelis turning out in the hundreds of thousands to resist government-proposed changes to Israel's judiciary, the ambiguity train may have reached the end of the line.
The project of renewed Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel has always been an exercise in compromise. Its “Jewish and democratic” brand aspired, and still aspires, to represent the passions of Israel's multifaceted population, but its success has hinged on leaving the finer details of this brand obscure. Trying to unpack it would potentially fry the delicate circuitry of Israel's founding ethos.
Israel's birth was midwifed by a series of ad hoc deals of dubious longevity between factions with disparate agendas. The objective of returning the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland after the ravages of the Holocaust required compromise, however organic or inorganic, between Jews. In 1947, Jewish Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion vigorously courted the support of the religious Agudath Israel movement in order to advance the cause of Jewish statehood in Mandatory Palestine. The quid pro quo of that backing was a concession by Ben-Gurion—soon to be Israel's first prime minister—that in contemporary Israel, the strictures of Shabbat and kashrut would be observed in public institutions, and rabbinic control would be exercised over matters of marriage and divorce. The secular Ben-Gurion and the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel each reasoned that the other was destined to become obsolete anyway. Both were wrong. Their status quo arrangement and its attendant tensions between their camps endure to this day.
The protests raging currently across Israel are, at their core, about this conflict over the essence of what it means to be a Jewish democracy. Recent polling by the Israel Democracy Institute indicates that only 19 percent of Israelis are comfortable with the existing balance between the Jewish and democratic features of their society; 38 percent responded that Israel is “too Jewish,” and 25 percent said that it's “too democratic.” The dissonance lies in divergent concepts of what “Jewish” and “democratic” enjoin.
Conservative, traditionalist champions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition attest that democratic principles infuse their commitment to majority rule—which, at this moment in time, has put the government in their hands. Democracy, by their telling, entitles them to circumscribe the remit of Israel's Supreme Court while expanding the reach of the country's religious tribunals, legalize outposts in the West Bank, and even ban leavened products from hospitals during Passover. For their liberal, non-Orthodox nemeses, democracy enshrines, above all, the rights of the individual, who stands to be negatively affected by these measures. For them, Israel's Jewish character is more about nationality and culture than faith, and certainly not about the imposition of religious praxis.
The Netanyahu government is deploying its interpretation of democracy to reboot Israel's operating system. Its blueprint would claim practically unchecked power for the legislative branch and, by extension, the executive branch (with its 64-seat hold over the 120-seat Knesset) to determine the law of the land. The judicial branch—which functions, from their perspective, as an unelected guild of elitists with no appreciation for Israel's true Jewish and democratic values—will be virtually silenced when it comes to the appointment of cabinet ministers or the passage of legislation. Netanyahu's assertions that these reforms are perfectly compatible with Western norms ring hollow amid vocal pushback from respected jurists in many of those same countries.
Opponents of the pending bills, with the wind of legal establishment in their sails, are insisting vehemently that the agnostic Supreme Court remain the final arbiter of justice in Israel. Civil disobedience is gaining steam. Recent weeks have witnessed the flight of capital away from Israeli banks, a stream of criticism from Israel's allies in the world, and, most ominously, growing numbers of IDF reservists refusing to report for duty.
The demonstrators are crying dictatorship and accusing the government of undermining Israel's achievements. Official spokesmen shoot back that it is the actions of these dissenting “anarchists”—Netanyahu's son has likened them to “terrorists” and Nazis—who are inflicting harm on Israel's global standing because they are unable to accept the results of last November's election. While the Hatfields and the McCoys duke it out, adjudicating their past and present grievances, Israel burns.
This is a dangerous moment for Israel. The debate over the source of absolute authority is sucking all the air out of the room, leaving other challenges to fester. It is obliterating internal cohesion. It is draining brains and investments from the country. And it is putting the nation in genuine peril.
Iran, Israel's mortal enemy, is producing uranium of 84-percent purity—near weapons-grade—while Israel's communications minister tells air force pilots who are unwilling to serve their country, including many who may be pressed into service against Iran's nuclear program, that they should “go to hell.” (A February 22 segment on Israel's Eretz Nehederet satire revue portrayed Iran's previous president Hassan Rouhani and Hezbollah's secretary general Hassan Nasrallah watching this spectacle and commenting that “maybe we'll have to use [our uranium] for civilian purposes after all,” since Israel is disintegrating without any extra help from Iranian warheads.)
Judging from popular sentiment, most Israelis favor some version of judicial reform, but object to the way in which the Netanyahu government is going about it. The problem is that, under the prevailing circumstances, there is little tolerance—on either side of the aisle—for crafting a solution cooperatively. There is rampant discussion of a doomsday scenario in which the Knesset passes its reforms, the Supreme Court then rejects them, and Israelis are forced to choose whether to obey the pronouncements of their parliamentarians or their judges. No matter the outcome of this crisis, animosities will be difficult to roll back.
The way forward for a stable Israel will demand a new social contract between its citizens. A situation where the contours of “Jewish” and “democratic” remain ambiguous will only perpetuate the tug-of-war between various demographics and their competing visions for Israel. It will continue to erode the country's foundations from within. Israel and its friends need the country to get back on track.
Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.
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