Jewish peoplehood, the judicial reforms and the future of the State of Israel

An interview with WZO Vice Chairman Dr. Yizhar Hess.

 YIZHAR HESS, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization. (photo credit: WZO)
YIZHAR HESS, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization.
(photo credit: WZO)

‘I am a worried, heavy-hearted Israeli,” says Dr. Yizhar Hess. As vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Hess is concerned about the proposed judicial reforms being considered by the current coalition – not only on how they may affect life in Israel but for the possible effect they will have on world Jewry.

Hess has a broad range of experience in Jewish communal service. After holding the deputy director position at the Shorashim Centre for Jewish Studies, he served as the Jewish Agency’s community shaliach (emissary) to Tucson, Arizona. Upon his return to Israel, he worked for the Jewish Agency as director of partnerships. Between 2007-2020, Hess served as the executive director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, part of the worldwide

Conservative/Masorti Movement. Hess represented the Masorti Movement in the negotiations with the Israeli government regarding egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, and he is one of the leading voices in Israel promoting Jewish pluralism.

“As a devoted Zionist and a tenth-generation Jerusalemite who speaks Hebrew, lives in Hebrew and dreams in Hebrew,” he says, “I feel that the attempt to change the nature of the State of Israel today is risking the soul of Zionism.” Hess explains that for many years, Israel has celebrated the fact that it was both a Jewish and a democratic country.

“This legislation puts at risk Israel’s future as a democracy, and strategically would limit our ability to defend the State of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East."

“We are a democracy and a Jewish state all at once. Without one of these elements, the journey that the Jewish people went through in the past 126 years since the first World Zionist Congress in Basel is in jeopardy because we can live in a non-Jewish democracy, but not in a non-democratic Jewish state.”

How would the proposed judicial reforms harm democracy? Hess explains: “In Israel, there are not really three authorities – there are only two de facto: the government on one side, and the Supreme Court on the other side. It is not that the government is limited from doing the majority of things it wants to do, but the ability of the Supreme Court to occasionally limit the ability of the government to overreach is crucial. Democracy is not only the will of the majority of the people, but it is also the ability of the powers of government to be restrained by a legal system that defends human rights. The rights of the minority are no less important than the rule of the majority. That balance was able to be reached in Israel by a strong Supreme Court that was able to restrain the power of government. The desire of the government to weaken the Supreme Court is a risk to democracy.”

Israel has no constitution, he adds. While some democracies have parliamentary supremacy clauses which ensure that the legislative body has absolute sovereignty and is supreme over all other government institutions, including executive or judicial bodies, such countries also have a bill of rights or constitution. “Here in Israel, we don’t have a constitution; if the judicial reforms are passed, a coalition majority could pass laws without having any restraints. It would make the democratic system collapse on its principles.”

 HESCHEL WITH Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) HESCHEL WITH Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

An additional proposal put forth by the coalition would allow ministerial legal advisers, who heretofore have been appointed by tender, to become political appointees, assigned by the ministers themselves. Hess dismisses the claim that ministries are limited by the legal advisers provided to each ministry.

“There is a myth that legal advisers limit the ministers and the government,” he says. “Over the years, the government of Israel has done many things, conducted wars and made peace, and built and torn down settlements as it pleases. It was all done with the legal advisers and Supreme Court, proving that when the government wants to do something, it can.”

Turning his attention to the effects that the proposed legislation may have on world Jewry should it go into law, Hess states that for years, Israel could say it was the only democracy in the Middle East and that Israel, the United States and other democracies shared the same liberal democratic values. 

‘This legislation puts at risk Israel’s future as a democracy’

Now, he says, these two pillars are in danger of collapsing, which may also affect Jewish communities around the world: “It is not only significant for Zionism and the State of Israel, but strategically, when it comes to the ability to work with other friendly countries, and to get the support of Jewish communities around the world and allow them to feel at home here, we will be sawing off the branch we are sitting on.”

Hess hastens to add that not everyone in the World Zionist Organization agrees with his point of view. As a representative body of Jews from different backgrounds and philosophies, the WZO represents different opinions. “I represent my views as the senior representative of MERCAZ, the Zionist Organization of the Conservative/Masorti Movement, but there are other views, and I acknowledge them.”

He adds that there have been disputes and different points of view in the WZO since its inception: “Theodor Herzl left us with the only round table that allows Jews from around the world to discuss, dispute and think together and take care of our joint assets as the Jewish people. This is the very essence of Jewish peoplehood.”

Since the reforms were announced, Hess has attended the demonstrations held every Saturday night and calls on Jews around the world who object to the plan to make their voices heard. “I was educated that Israel does not belong only to Israelis but to Jews around the world,” he says. “It is a necessity to hear the Jewish voice outside Israel. I call on those who love Israel to make their voices heard. It is not a coincidence that we are seeing people who never spoke about internal Israeli issues speak up. Even people that tried to avoid saying anything that would influence things in Israel have decided to do so.”

‘We want all Jews to be able to feel that they are part of the Zionist endeavor, even if they don’t make aliyah’

Hess cites such well-known supporters of Israel as retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and former justice minister and attorney general of Canada Irwin Cotler, who have expressed their opposition to the proposals.

If the judicial reforms pass in their current form, Hess says that the ramifications for Israeli society could be quite serious, from economic disaster to a concern that some Israelis might opt to leave the country. “I am fearful. Just as the founding of the state in 1948 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 were critical junctures in the country’s history, I feel that 2023 will be remembered as an existential juncture in the history of the State of Israel.”

Hess also expressed his opposition to those who want to change Israel’s Law of Return and remove the law’s Grandchild Clause, which allows individuals with one Jewish grandparent to obtain Israeli citizenship.

“The attempt to change the Law of Return is dangerous not only because it is a value that defined what Zionism is,” he says, “but also because for decades, it has defined the practical boundaries of the Jewish collective.

“Regardless of the halachic questions, the eligibility to make aliyah according to the Law of Return has been the criterion we used for many years to recruit people into programs such as Birthright, Masa and summer camps. We were fortunate to have waves of aliyah based on the Law of Return.

“Some of those who came converted, and some became part of Zionism and the Jewish journey without converting. We were smart enough to accept and absorb them as part of our national fabric. The attempts of ultra-Orthodox and Hardal (nationalist haredi politicians) to change this would harm dramatically, symbolically and practically the ability of Zionism and the Jewish people to maintain our Jewish collective.”

 RABBI ABRAHAM Joshua Heschel speaking at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in 1972. (credit: Central Zionist Archives) RABBI ABRAHAM Joshua Heschel speaking at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in 1972. (credit: Central Zionist Archives)

In Hess’s view, the essence of Zionism is what is called “Jewish peoplehood,” cooperating, respecting and understanding Jewish communities outside of Israel. “For years, we spoke rightly about aliyah, and we should continue to do so, as it is one of the cores of Zionism, but we couldn’t look at Jewish life outside Israel as a legitimate option with Jewish meaning.”

Now that the State of Israel is thriving, says Hess, “I can look at Jewish life outside Israel and say that good things happen there as well. As a Zionist, I want to be proud of my brothers and sisters on the other side of the ocean and say the fact that I acknowledge your successes and Jewish way of life doesn’t minimize my own.

“I can look at Jewish life in other places and say, as much as I want you to learn from me, I can learn from you, too. I think we are mature enough to base our relationship on mutual respect and recognition. I want to celebrate Jewish peoplehood as a core Zionist value.”

One of the ways that the World Zionist Organization is promoting the idea of Jewish peoplehood is a set of programs about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and thinkers of the 20th century. “We have always celebrated important Zionist thinkers like Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan and Berl Katznelson,” says Hess, “but we never paid attention to other giants from the perspective of Jewish peoplehood who are important to Jewish identity and Zionist thinking.” 

The WZO featured Heschel at a convention on Israel-Diaspora relations and Jewish peoplehood last year and also initiated a play about Heschel’s life, focusing on the connection between Heschel, Zionism and human rights.Summing up, Hess says, “We want all Jews to be able to feel that they are part of the Zionist endeavor, even if they don’t make aliyah. This is the essence of Jewish peoplehood. 

“Israel is such an important component of Judaism today that you can’t live anywhere in the world today without having Israel as part of your Jewish identity. If Israel changes, and it ceases to remain the democracy it has been until now, it will harm Jewish continuity.”

This article was written in cooperation with the World Zionist Organization.