Having caught Athens while its devastating war with Sparta was only in its second year, “the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law,” wrote the war’s historian (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2:52).
The plague helped lead Sparta to victory in the war that its overconfident archenemy had sought. Athens, at the same time, lost not only the power, glory and pride with which it entered the war, but also its fabled democracy.
Back when the war was still young, the man who led Athens to the peak of its prosperity, beauty and might – the great statesman and orator Pericles – said that Athenians “are not suspicious of each other” and are “prevented from doing wrong” because they have “respect for the authorities and for the laws.”
As noted this week by The Atlantic’s Katherine Kelaidis, the plague made Athenian democracy lose its self-confidence, as Athenians “revealed something about themselves they could never forget.”
The corona pandemic is no Plague of Athens. Even so, if it’s up to the masterminds of the Plot against Zion, its victims will include our democracy.
THE ATTACK on Israel’s democracy was waged in three phases. The first was Benjamin Netanyahu’s televised response to his indictment last fall.
The prime minister’s charges that he faced “an attempted coup,” that the prosecution “framed” him, and that he was being “libeled” added up to a declaration of war.
The second phase was the installment of a willing accomplice as justice minister. Amir Ohana’s appointment delivered its dividends quickly: first he rejected the attorney-general’s candidate for state-attorney, then he planted there his own man, who summarily ordered an investigation against the rival of Ohana’s patron, and then Ohana used the plague to delay that patron’s trial.
The third phase in the war on the judiciary would see it joined by people who, unlike Ohana, did not plan to be its conscripts, but – in the spirit of these testing times’ lingo – would be infected by the anti-judicial bug. That phase arrived this week, and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein was its tragic recruit.
FACED WITH the newly elected Knesset’s intention to replace him, the Cold War hero who stood up to the KGB and survived Soviet gulags would now fall as a battlefield runner in Netanyahu’s inglorious war.
Edelstein, who for seven years was mostly noncontroversial and always civic-minded, first tried to suspend the Knesset’s assembly. Then, when faced with a High Court of Justice demand that he do his job and assemble the Knesset, the speaker was shoved into the trenches of the prime minister’s war.
“The court decision destroys the work of the Knesset!” charged the departing speaker in what sounded like a misaimed snipe fired from under an oversized helmet.
Refusing to obey the justices’ order that he do what the voters elected him to do and make the legislature work, Edelstein’s voice suddenly made way for Netanyahu’s words, which now sprang from his throat like a dybbuk’s yelp:
“The Supreme Court’s decision is not based on law,” he charged, and worse: “The court decision undermines the basis of Israeli democracy!”
Regardless of his office, which made the fight he picked unbecoming; and notwithstanding the plague’s circumstances, which rendered his statements reckless, Edelstein’s charges were baseless.
The five-person judicial panel, which included conservative justices Neil Hendel and Yitzhak Amit, actually set out to defend the Knesset and reinforce its power in the face of the minority that had hijacked it.
Edelstein’s personal tragedy, an admired freedom fighter captured by the judicial war’s architects, picked up this week from where it left off last spring, when this column lamented his morphing into Netanyahu’s chess piece (“Yuli Edelstein’s fatal mistake,” June 27, 2019).
Yet the real tragedy is the plot that was brewed by the people who turned Edelstein into their unholy war’s cannon fodder; the people who, unlike the resigning speaker, consciously conspire the conquest of Zion’s judiciary, the way others have done to the judiciaries of Poland, Hungary and Turkey.
For these people, the likes of Ohana and Likud faction chairman Miki Zohar, the plague that for others means perplexity, uncertainty, paralysis and fear is for them an opportunity; an opportunity to do their horse thieving while public attention is elsewhere.
That is the difference between our democratic crisis and that of ancient Athens: the Athenian democracy was felled by a foreign occupation, which installed a tyranny that murdered, exiled and dispossessed thousands of democracy’s supporters. The siege on Israel’s democracy is being laid by its own lawmakers.
THE GOOD news is that not all the prime minister’s men and women are following his march to the authoritarian abyss.
Agriculture Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked all came to their senses this week and publicly opposed Edelstein’s move.
They know the truth. They know Netanyahu does not want the unity government he claims he wants, for had he wanted it, he would have approached Benny Gantz privately, not publicly.
They know Netanyahu needs an atmosphere of public rift because that is how he hopes to concoct yet another premature election, and while at it keep his anti-judicial war alive, his trial on sedation, his verdict on ice, and justice on leash.
Such is the plot against Zion; the same Zion that once, when diagnosed by Isaiah (1: 6) as plagued “from the sole of the foot even unto the head” because its “princes are rebellious and companions of thieves” – was also told what no war on Jewish justice will ever silence: “Zion shall be redeemed with justice.”
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.