Have you heard of a country that is “drowning in a sea of sensed betrayal?” That is “awash in a sea of resentment?” That is “sinking in a sea of mutual hatred?” That “may not make it back to shore?” That is in a “death spiral?”
Are you familiar with a country where “religious and nationalist extremists seek to turn back the clock to medieval times” and to “impose, intimidate, repress, coerce, and dictate their intolerant views” on a beleaguered and heretofore “enlightened” society?
Well, welcome to the no-longer Jewish and democratic State of Israel, according to the most radical rhetoricians of the far left, who are convulsing this country with “days of rage” demonstrations and near-traitorous refusals to carry out the most essential tasks of national security service.
In their extreme discourse, Israeli democracy is under attack by dark forces of ultra-nationalism, racism, fascism, and religious radicalism – all rolled into one nefarious judicial reform package.
As a result, thousands of riled-up people are blocking highways and airports, threatening not to show up for military service, taking their money out of the country and encouraging others to do so too, barricading the homes of government ministers and the offices of conservative think tanks, and brazenly calling upon foreign governments to boycott Israeli officials and investments.
I say beware this doomsday discourse about irreparable depredations in Israel’s democratic moorings. Israel is far haler and heartier than the worked-into-a-frenzy protesters would have us believe.
It is simply wrong to portray the current moment as a choice between two competing narratives: that of an isolationist-nationalist Israeli Right, and a liberal-democratic-peace-seeking Israeli Left; that of an immoral and illiberal Israeli Right, and a moral and liberal Israel Left. This is a false dichotomy, and an untrue picture of Israeli society.
Over-the-top attacks make the political opposition sound just as crude and intolerant as the caricature of the government on which they are basing themselves.
The opposition makes itself sound cruel
IT IS CRITICALLY important how we approach public policy debates. Like Britain, France, Germany, and the US these days, there is a real and worthy debate in Israel over important public policy matters, and there is a continuum of respectable views that defy simplistic categorization as democratic or anti-democratic.
It is important to acknowledge this, and to abjure accusations that every controversial policy innovation is motivated by hatred, moral insensitivity, or authoritarianism.
Taking up one side of the debate, I will argue that neither hawkish Israeli foreign policies, nor conservative Israeli socioeconomic and cultural policies, nor right-wing constitutional tinkering, automatically make this country less free, enlightened, noble, creative, or exciting.
Let us say, for example, that the judicial appointments process is altered to deny Supreme Court judges a veto over selection of their successors. Is that the “end of democratic Israel”? Of course not! In no other democratic country in the world do judges get to choose their colleagues and successors.
Let us say that the Knesset reinstates the limitations of “standing” and “justiciability” for Supreme Court decision-making, as they exist everywhere else in the world and as they applied in Israel before Justice Aharon Barak’s unilateral and self-declared “judicial revolution” of the 1980s. Will that be the “end of Israeli democracy”? Of course not!
Let us say that the Knesset breaks up the Labor Party’s kibbutz-controlled food cartels, or that it passes a law overriding the Supreme Court and instead of expelling Israelis from their homes in Judea and Samaria it mandates compensation for absentee Palestinian proprietors for land on which Israelis have been living for forty plus years. Is that the “end of democratic Israel”? Of course not!
My point is that opposition to public policy reforms must be debated on their merits, without semi-automatic screeching about intolerance, repression, dictatorship, thought police, and the crushing of democratic norms.
Of course, no one should pooh-pooh the civic challenges faced by Israeli society. For a decade, the Israel Democracy Institute’s “democracy index” has found a significant drop in public trust in government institutions and politicians; and an increasing willingness to marginalize minorities, such as Israeli Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews and settlers.
But perhaps, just perhaps, that is because most voters want the country to move in one direction, while the “elites” in academia, the media, and the legal establishment have stymied them with less-than-democratic tools.
IN THE end, which hopefully will be soon, before Passover, there probably will be compromise on a package of political reforms that completely satisfies neither side but will go a long way toward repair of current judicial distortions and will end the current chapter of increasingly violent protests.
Compromise is a necessity, if for no other reason than the fact the government must move on to dealing with other urgent matters like the budget, managing Palestinian terrorism, and confronting Iran.
But what will remain of Israeli societal solidarity and sense of community after the hefkerut (abandon) of recent weeks – the lawlessness of language, the intemperance of boycott, the recklessness of rebellion, the seditiousness of seeking to crash Israel’s economy?
Remember too that in engaging in overwrought protestations and painting the situation in dire colors, opposition actors are throwing the baby out with the bath water. After all, there are forces always-hostile to Israel who are exploiting this situation to crash Israel’s diplomatic relations and to undermine Israel-Diaspora relations with false accusations of Israel’s descent into barbarism.
People like Tom Friedman of The New York Times swiftly have grabbed the opportunity to declare Israel a lost cause and seem only too happy to jettison their associations with Israel and Judaism. Reading between his lines, you can hear Friedman’s elation at Israel’s assumed moral fall and the relief he feels from the need to any longer support Israel.
Picking up on the radical rhetoric of parts of the Israeli opposition, Friedman and his ilk are thrilled to enthusiastically insinuate that Israel is no longer a democracy that shares America’s values.
So, beware the doomsday discourse about irreparable depredations in Israel’s democratic moorings. It’s neither accurate nor wise. The poison it pumps into Israel’s soul and standing is far worse than its proximate cause.
The writer is a senior fellow at The Kohelet Forum and at Israel’s Defense and Security Forum (Habithonistim). The views expressed here are his own. His diplomatic, defense, political, and Jewish world columns over the past 26 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com.