The situation in Israel is dire, requiring brutal honesty. The issue isn’t judicial reform, a highly complex and technical issue about which most of the country sees a need for some correction. And the issue isn’t democracy insofar as Israel will remain one regardless of the outcome of this conflict.
If anything, the fight is over the effects of democracy, given the demographic and political shifts that have taken place over the past generation.
This was bound to happen sooner or later. The judicial reforms are triggering strongly held views over a larger and more fundamental issue – what it means to be a Jewish state. It is at the core of how Israelis see themselves, their Jewishness and their incredible country.
What does mean to be a Jewish state?
Israel’s founders were mostly secular and saw Judaism as a nationality, a people on the losing end of history, reborn after 2000 years of dispersion.
In Israel’s early days the Orthodox were a small minority, obsessed with rebuilding the great European centers of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, gave them the opportunity to do so free of the obligation of military service.
In the years that followed, both sides performed spectacularly at their chosen tasks. Secular Israelis (along with some who were religious) created a powerful army, magnificent institutions of higher learning and a robust economy. And the ultra-Orthodox established yeshivot of size and substance that even exceeded the great institutions of Europe.
Most Israelis recognized the contributions of all Israel’s citizens and the importance of both a national defense and Torah learning. And a new demographic emerged of religious Zionists who studied Jewish texts and served in the army as well, many in an exemplary fashion.
But over time, two things drifted out of balance
As Israel’s voters moved steadily to the Right, the ultra-Orthodox, with many married couples each having ten or more children, became a major demographic and political force, controlling about fifteen percent of the Israeli parliament and exerting enormous influence in coalition negotiations.
And the secular-Left community, no longer a majority and shrinking rapidly in relative size and political power, nonetheless retained their influence and control through the Israeli Supreme Court. Under the leadership of Aharon Barak, the court’s power was reinterpreted to have the ultimate say over the nation’s laws, untethered to a constitution or other limiting jurisprudence.
Perhaps the gravest sign of a serious rift between the secular and the religious came when the Israeli government negotiated a resolution with the ultra-Orthodox community for limited exemptions from military service. It was a practical solution endorsed by many in the military.
But that settlement was rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court in September 2017. Recognizing the centrality of this dispute to Israel’s founding, Justice Miriam Naor observed, “the history of this societal controversy reflects the history of the State of Israel itself.” With that decision, many in the Orthodox community lost faith in the judicial process.
SO HERE we are today with the Israeli nation divided as never before. People speak openly about the risks of a civil war, while others recount how internal hatred within the Jewish community was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersion of Jews to foreign lands in 70 CE. And many note, as Israel approaches its 75th anniversary, that it has exceeded by only two years the longest prior period in which the Jewish people controlled the entire land of Israel from a capital in Jerusalem (David and Solomon reigned for 73 years).
Meanwhile, Israel’s enemies across the globe are salivating over the weakening of Israeli society. Israel is doing to itself what its enemies have never succeeded at doing.
“I love you all.”David Friedman
How do we right this listing ship?
To all my friends in Israel, Right, Center and Left, religious and secular, the first thing I need to say is that “I love you all.” The State of Israel, which you have created, has sustained me and countless other Jews in the Diaspora for generations.
Most of us see no future in Judaism without Israel and, whether you realize it or not, we are all deeply invested, in ways far more important than financially, in Israel’s future. Israel has done much for the Diaspora, but now it’s time for Israel to learn something from the Diaspora.
We in the Diaspora see the value of all Israel’s citizens. We think the Israel Defense Force is holy; it is not only one of the most powerful, but also one of the most moral, armies on earth. A Jew risking his life in the military defending the Jewish state, even if entirely secular, is performing a great mitzvah, perhaps equal in magnitude to all others.
And a Jew committing his life to the study of the Torah, accepting the poverty and self-sacrifice that accompanies such a choice, is performing a great mitzvah as well. Indeed, the midrash on the Book of Genesis speaks approvingly of the relationship between Jacob’s fifth and sixth sons, Issachar and Zevulun, by which the latter went to work to provide support for his brother’s Torah study.
Perhaps you in Israel are too close to the trees to see the entire forest. But in the Diaspora, we can see the entirety of Israel and it is a glorious, diverse, proud and miraculous manifestation of the Jewish people.
We need you all to keep Israeli society together; to keep things from boiling over. To the leaders of Israel, whether in the coalition or the opposition, this is your sacred task. The entire Jewish world is depending upon you, not to win your side of the internal conflict, but rather to find a solution in keeping with the dignity and holiness of every Israeli. If either side wins, we all lose.
I understand politics well, having lived in that world for several years. I understand campaign promises and the expectations of one’s political base. But in the end, the unity of Israeli society within its diverse population is its greatest asset. Any government that jeopardizes such unity cannot succeed, no matter how much it believes in the righteousness of its cause.
I suspect that I speak for the vast majority of Jews in the Diaspora and probably an equal amount in Israel when I say, please work harder to find a consensual resolution. End the vile rhetoric on both sides.
There are no dictators and there are no anarchists, there are only Jews trying in good faith to address a highly complex situation as best they can. Please lower the volume and give the process time to succeed. May God bless you all.
The writer was US ambassador to Israel, 2017-2021.