The growing threat to Israeli constitutional democracy

The Supreme Court has ruled blanket draft exemption for haredim as unconstitutional and the clock the court set has been ticking for legislation to be passed that it deems constitutional.

April 18, 2019 21:12
The growing threat to Israeli constitutional democracy

An ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jewish man walks past Israeli soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Haredi infantry battalion during their swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)


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Avigdor Liberman has foiled the short-lived but fervently hopeful speculation by some that he would not recommend Benjamin Netanyahu to head the next government, which would have forced the forming of a unity government with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party.

Liberman recommended Netanyahu to President Reuven Rivlin, but that still does not mean Liberman will bring his party, Yisrael Beytenu, into the coalition. He did the same thing four years ago: recommend that Netanyahu receive the mandate to form the government but then stayed in the opposition for a year until Netanyahu brought him in as defense minister, ending all chances for a unity government with Labor.

Liberman says that what he will ask in return for adding his much-desired five seats to the coalition are the Defense and Immigrant Absorption ministries. Russian immigrants and their children are his base, so this is no surprise; these are the ministries his party held in the previous government.

But, he says, what he will really demand is passage of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) enlistment bill that he crafted during the last Knesset, which the haredi parties torpedoed with the threat to bring down the government.

The Supreme Court has ruled blanket draft exemption for haredim as unconstitutional and the clock the court set, and several times extended, has been ticking for legislation to be passed that it deems constitutional. The whole issue got put on hold with the election but it has to be on the new Knesset’s immediate agenda.

So now – and this is what really requires our attention: the haredi parties are making one of their demands that Likud MK Yariv Levin be appointed justice minister. This is because Levin backs legislation to gut the Supreme Court’s authority through legislation that would allow the Knesset to override a court ruling with a simple 61-MK majority vote.

I have long been saying in the context of the corruption-ridden Western Wall deal – that the haredi establishment does not “just” represent regressive, fundamentalist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic Judaism. But it is as grave a threat to constitutional democracy as any we face from right-wing politicians or parties.

And now, it has joined forces openly with the party that leads that threat, Likud, whose MK Miki Zohar said that the people’s vote for Netanyahu last week should override – i.e., end – any judicial proceeding against him. Illiberal democracy, like that of Hungary, is now the declared policy objective of the Likud.

So this is not “just” a religious issue. It goes to the very bases of our existence as a constitutional democracy.

It always has. This is nothing new. The absurd dismissal of the threat the haredi establishment poses has been among the most mind-boggling of blindnesses here. Oh, so let them have the Kotel, piles of rocks, avoda zara (idol worship). So we’ll hold our noses and do marriage their way, it’s 10 minutes. So they erase women’s faces from ads; establish gender-segregated sidewalks and demand segregation or total erasure and silencing of women in other public spaces and at professional and national events; and work to expand their reach even into the Diaspora, deciding who is a rabbi there, even among Orthodox rabbis.

Then again, much of Israel, including the defense and intelligence establishments, dismissed Hamas way back when as being “just religious” and thus less of a threat than supposedly secular nationalists in Fatah – and therefore, worthy of backing. Yes, backing, in Gaza. We see how well that worked out for us.

So now we have it, right in our faces, though it’s been there very clearly all along.

Gantz got into politics over this issue – protecting the institutions of a constitutional democracy – the police, the courts, a free press, even the army – from active threats. This is why I voted for him.

Levin and the Likud; the haredi parties and the massive yeshiva establishment they are linked to, funded by our tax money; the extreme-right party Union of Right-Wing Parties, headed by overt racist, homophobe, misogynist Bezalel Smotrich – have constitutional democracy in their sights. Smotrich was in Bnei Brak this week trying to forge a deal with the Lithuanian yeshiva establishment for a joint front in the coalition negotiations to render the Supreme Court meaningless.

Shas is less likely to join any such alliance. All those on the other side are Ashkenazim, after all. But presumably, even if their leader, Interior Minister Arye Deri, finds himself back in jail for the same corruption that landed him there some years ago, inspired leadership will keep that party – up two seats, to eight, from the last Knesset – on the same track as Levin and the rest of the haredi establishment.

The entire haredi establishment rests on the power and money base, which is these yeshivas. It will move as one to gut the Supreme Court.

Likud and the haredi establishment: onward to illiberal democracy; to theocracy.

The haredi establishment in its entirety signed on to the Kotel deal. They ultimately reneged under pressure from their street, fomented by an anti-haredi religious faction opposed to the deal. But inquiring minds really should ask why they signed on to that deal, which would have given state recognition and funding to religious movements they revile, in the first place. What is in the Kotel deal that is not in the least progressive? That so advances that establishment’s suffocating interests that it would agree to the recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism in exchange?

If Liberman stands his ground on this issue, new elections could come about after a tortured period of failed coalition negotiations.

In the meantime, so long as the justice system remains intact, the criminal processes against Netanyahu, and several leaders of various haredi parties, proceed. And more could be added.

Stable, it won’t be here.

But everything is at stake.

The writer is a professor emerita of Jewish studies and history.

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