Israel's Right, Left need a chill pill and some humility - opinion

The government’s my-way-or-the-highway rush to revolutionize Israel’s basic rules of the road has triggered a my-way-or-the-highway resistance.

 A MASS protest against the government’s proposed changes to the legal system took place on Saturday night in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
A MASS protest against the government’s proposed changes to the legal system took place on Saturday night in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“I knew everything about Israel,” a left-leaning first-timer in Israel told me Friday night. “Then, I arrived here.”

“Enough!” a right-leaning friend exclaimed Saturday night as we discussed Tel Aviv’s 80,000-person anti-government protest, “where’s the humility – on either side?”

Both are correct: let’s acknowledge complexity, with humility.

Israel's Right and Left both need humility

Speedily, since returning to power, Benjamin Netanyahu has demolished one of the previous government’s greatest achievements – calming Israel. For the first year of Naftali Bennett’s tenure, Israelis’ political anxiety levels plummeted. As that government teetered, that feeling vanished.

Now, with arsonists running the state boiler room, Netanyahu’s clique of corrupt court-defiers, crude court-underminers, and crusading court-bashers is driving the country crazy. Ignoring complexity, lacking humility, this government’s rapid-fire reforms – and the opposition they’ve triggered – have unnerved everybody. Structural change in a democracy must be cultivated.

Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Bibi beware: Bull-in-a-china-shop governance leaves lasting shards of ill-will and illegitimacy. As someone who writes in his memoirs that economic power feeds military and diplomatic power, he should remember that social chaos can undermine power, too.

Yariv Levin’s assault on Aharon Barak’s judicial regime proves how judicial revolutions trigger counterrevolutions. Each reform should be assessed carefully. The sky-is-falling, democracy-is-over opposition should note that democracy is not one-size-fits-all. Different democracies follow different constitutional arrangements.

Politicians select America’s Supreme Court judges – some US judges are elected. Canada’s “notwithstanding clause” allows the majority to override fundamental rights, temporarily, including freedom of speech. Moreover, David Ben-Gurion opposed delegating “authority to the court to decide whether the laws are kosher or not kosher.”

Still, Netanyahu should know better: you don’t charge toward constitutional change like a starved lion pursuing prey.

In a divided country, with a delicate political ecosphere and no constitution, shoving dramatic systemic changes down Israelis’ throats violates Israel’s unwritten constitution – that unspoken tissue of sensibilities, understandings, and mutual respect that keeps us cooperating.

“Sakin b’sakin,” knife sharpens knife. The government’s my-way-or-the-highway rush to revolutionize Israel’s basic rules of the road has triggered a my-way-or-the-highway resistance.

So, yes, this government should listen to President Isaac Herzog and others urging it to slow down, consult, explain, and debate, creating a healthier process around the court reforms and other structural changes. Justifying your own insensitivity to consensus-building by yelling “the other guys did it first” treats the Knesset like nursery school.

But the opposition must take a breath, too. Talk of “coups” ignores the election results; predicting “civil war” essentially threatens civil war.

Outrageously, instead of leading toward calm, the Supreme Court’s president fed the hysteria. Confirming right-wing stereotypes of judges as arrogant, change-resistant and dismissive of criticism, Esther Hayut claimed that if the reforms succeed, Israel’s “75th year will be remembered as the year in which Israel’s democracy suffered a fatal blow.” Hayut should have acknowledged some problems with the current system, while advocating a more deliberate process.

Justice Hayut also unwittingly sabotaged her own case. Explaining that the court doesn’t overstretch, she said in 30 years it only “intervened in 21 laws.” Such judiciousness suggests that Israel’s unwritten constitution keeps Israel democratic: democracy might not need that rarely wielded power of judicial review to survive.

Saturday night’s protests furthered the frenzy. Since 1995, liberals have blamed Netanyahu for Yitzhak Rabin’s murder – because Netanyahu attended a rally with that infamous poster showing Rabin supposedly wearing an SS uniform.

Yet, once again, when challenged about the Nazi analogies and Palestinian flags at these ant-Bibi rallies, many liberals claimed they can’t be responsible for every protester. Then, what about a speaker, Dan Netanyahu, the prime minister’s cousin, who compared the proposed judicial reforms to Nazi Germany’s “enabling act?”

Another banner – photographed in The Washington Post – declared “Iran is here.” Really? Surely, it was a misprint. Patriotic protesters needed banners saying “Iran is still there,” reminding everyone to ratchet down the rhetoric and remember our true enemies.

Such restraint, alas, is less fun than a hissy fit, as Haaretz anticipates “the destruction of the state itself.”

Not every reform threatens democracy. Reflecting this new oppositional tic, the Jerusalem Journalists Association called the communications minister’s shrinking the public broadcasting budget “another coup,” reflecting “the salami technique of dismantling democracy.”

POPULAR MYTHOLOGY claims religious Jews blocked a constitution to respect the Torah. In fact, the super-secular Ben-Gurion derailed constitution-writing attempts in 1949. He feared distracting the new nation with divisive theoretical debates when millions of Jews had to be defended, absorbed, empowered.

He opposed a “reactionary” court or constitution subverting the people’s will. He embraced Israel’s Proclamation of Independence as a defining document. And, ultimately, he trusted the Jewish people’s deeply democratic “instincts.”

I am too American, too enamored of the delicate, power-diffusing dance between the president, the courts, a bicameral legislature, the states, and the Constitution, to accept one untrammeled parliament. We’re seeing just how corrupting concentrating too much power can be. But there’s much room for prolonged, reasoned and thoughtful debate – without this government’s brute impatience or the opposition’s panic.

So let’s support Herzog’s noble attempt to mediate. Other grownups – including some right-wing lawyers critical of the Court – should echo his calming calls.

And let’s all take a Zionist chill pill, with a humility chaser. Synthesize Ben-Gurion’s majoritarianism with Aharon Barak’s rights-based constitutionalism, lightened with Israel’s 300 days of annual sunshine and 75 years of an unwritten constitution that has kept Israel free. Wash it down with Jeremiah 9’s modesty-inducing warning to the seemingly wise ones of the Left: don’t be too dazzled by your wisdom; and to the strongmen of the Right: don’t be too dazzled by your temporary might.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and four on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).