Is Israel heading in the direction of theocracy? - opinion

Even before the final results were announced, Likud members, the far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties were making their demands.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his new government celebrate following their swearing-in at the Knesset last month. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his new government celebrate following their swearing-in at the Knesset last month.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Lao Tzu once said, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lately, it seems like Israel is heading in the direction of theocracy.

Even before the final results of the recent election were declared, members of the Likud, the far-Right and ultra-Orthodox parties immediately began rolling out their demands for the next government. These demands, once deemed fringe extremism, have found a new home in the highest echelons of power and nothing is off limits.

From Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party to Arye Deri of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, our new leaders are stepping up to declare that Halacha, or Jewish law, ought to constitute the defining structure of the Israeli government.

United Torah Judaism, has demanded that all prayer at the Western Wall follow the strict standards set by the Chief Rabbinate. In other words, women and egalitarian-minded Jews are out. If you do not pray according to ultra-Orthodox custom, you’ll be barred from praying at Judaism’s holiest prayer site.

Meanwhile, in the education sector, alarm bells should be sounding over key appointments. Under the new coalition, right-wing extremists, like Orit Struck, Avi Maoz, and Deri, now control Jewish education in public schools. Maoz, who is famous for his incitement against progressive Jews, members of the LGBTQ community and women, now has the final say in deciding which organizations are allowed to come to schools, religious and secular alike.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, national security minister and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at the swearing in ceremony of the new israeli government at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)Itamar Ben-Gvir, national security minister and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at the swearing in ceremony of the new israeli government at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Schools are a potential breeding ground for extremism. The new coalition knows this and its agenda paints a bleak picture. In its vision, Israeli students will learn that there is only one way to engage with Judaism, far-Right Orthodoxy. They will not learn about the rich diversity that exists in Jewish practice.

They will not see women in religious leadership and they may not even know that it is possible for women to be spiritual leaders. They will not learn about pluralism and respect for all Jews. They will learn the exact opposite, with Judaism being distorted and watered-down into a set of rigid, black-and-white rules.

Israeli knowledge of the Diaspora, already severely lacking, will likely depreciate further. More than half of Diaspora Jewry identifies as non-Orthodox, meaning the majority of Jews’ practices and traditions around the world will be deemed illegitimate per the Israeli education system. With this messaging, what kind of leaders will our children grow up to be?

What kind of leaders will our children grow up to be?

The hijacking of our education system and who defines Judaism is only one part of the plan. Perhaps the most insidious threat to Israeli democracy is the dismantling of the court, paving the way for an expanded ultra-Orthodox monopoly on our civil rights.

Until now, the court system in Israel has been the only form of checks and balances against the ultra-Orthodox agenda. It is our judicial system that defines Israel as a democratic state. Thanks to the courts, women have the right to pray out loud at the Western Wall, cannot be forced to – literally – sit at the back of the bus and more. Women and minorities have gained civil rights legally through the court system when all other power structures did not allow for such progress.

WE CANNOT take these hard-won freedoms for granted. If the aforementioned parties succeed with their anti-judiciary agenda, Israel may never be the same. Members of the new government have already threatened freedom of worship at the Kotel but to what end?

We may, in the very near future, return to headlines of women being dragged away and detained by police officers for the offense of wearing a prayer shawl at our holy site. The egalitarian section itself may be closed permanently.

Extremism will not stop at the Kotel and if we begin to backslide on women’s fundamental rights, there is no telling where we may end up as a nation. Without a strong court protecting our civil rights, women may begin to disappear from the public arena. Without a pluralistic education system, we may see a generation of Israelis indoctrinated by extremism disguised as Judaism.

How can Jews around the world connect to an Israel that does not champion equality and basic human rights? Israel cannot thrive if we turn our backs on liberal democracy and freedom.

In Israel, we are standing at a crossroads. We have two options for the kind of country we want to be. Do we want to be a thriving democracy and a respected player on the world stage, or do we want to become a theocratic republic and a pariah state?

Our current political GPS is navigating the country toward the latter and now is the time to course-correct. The first lesson we are taught in the IDF is that some commands have a red flag waving above them, meaning that one must show restraint and listen to his or her conscience instead of blindly following orders.

Today, the red flag is waving. We must not ignore it or excuse extremism on disingenuous religious grounds. We must wave the flag of equality and respect. We cannot change who sits in this coalition but we can still make our voices heard and create an impact. Outside of Israel, each member of the Jewish community has the power to support causes that promote pluralistic ideals in Israel.

Meanwhile, here in Israel, we must continue to put public pressure on our locally-elected officials – it is within the municipal governments that we can fight extremism coming from the Knesset. Together as liberally-minded Jews, it is up to us to ensure that we don’t backslide on democracy and human rights. It’s time we listen to our hearts, consider our future as a nation and act accordingly.

The writer is the executive director of Women of the Wall.