Reconciling tradition with modernity is our fate - opinion

Some commentators use the protests to predict Israel’s downfall by pointing out our societal contrasts. However, we are bound by something stronger.

'Handmaid's Tale'-inspired protests across Israel on March 16, 2023 (photo credit: SHAY KORIANSKI)
'Handmaid's Tale'-inspired protests across Israel on March 16, 2023
(photo credit: SHAY KORIANSKI)

Many Israeli citizens strongly support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s much-needed judicial reform. I am among them. I am also keenly aware of many of our American allies’ concerns about the situation in Israel and the judicial reform’s long-term effects. Even among the most enthusiastic reform supporters, there is a reckoning not on its necessity or underlying logic but about how many of our fellow citizens are unready to consider the proposed changes.

In calmer times, it is easier to notice how most Israelis agree that our judicial system, including the State Attorney’s Office, is far from infallible and requires a profound overhaul. When I asked one of my colleagues on the Left why they could not seem to judge the reform on its merits, he responded, “It’s not the lyrics I am concerned about. It’s the music”. And here, perhaps, lies our proverbial blind spot.

Today, our responsibility is to restore confidence in our intentions and motives at home and abroad. Our allies, partners and particularly our brothers and sisters in the American Jewish communities certainly deserve more than a modicum of such reassurance.

First, we must acknowledge what brought us to this inevitable moment; the United States and Israel are humanity’s most audacious and extraordinary experiments. The pilgrims who embarked on an exodus to a world anew shared the same passion and purpose that led our Zionist forefathers to establish a modern state for an ancient people while enduring fundamentally different circumstances.

The meticulousness of the American founders at the Constitutional Convention created one of humanity’s most pivotal documents. Fatefully reminiscent of the story of Passover, our hasteful homecoming with the looming War of Independence, left little time for debates and long-term planning. In other words, if the US design was a melting pot, Israel had to construct a smorgasbord.

As we celebrate our nation’s Diamond Jubilee, we experience immense pride with a measure of frustration. Indecision was maybe politically expedient, but it has bred an increasingly unsustainable status quo and an ideological and sectarian tug-and-pull.

Israel’s supporters should take inspiration and not fret. Hundreds of thousands of citizens fill the streets weekly to protest for and against the reform, demonstrating the country’s resilient democracy. Despite disruptions to public order, Israel Police have opted to show restraint. When the streets of Paris are in flames over a two-year increase in retirement age, it is notable.

Netanyahu’s decision to declare a provisional moratorium on the legislative process was timely and prudent due to increased domestic and regional violence and concerning strategic shifts in regional alliances that could benefit Iran and its proxies. By promptly refocusing his government’s full attention on the emerging security threats, the prime minister signals to those who misinterpret the acts of a democratic society as a chink in our determination or our willingness to initiate, respond, and disrupt acts of aggression against our citizens.

WE HAVE never been closer to facing Israel’s most fundamental challenge: guaranteeing our people’s unalienable right to a homeland and doing so under liberal-democratic principles. Although Israel has several constitutional Basic Laws, our Bill of Rights is yet to be completed.

Aharon Barak, the former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, asserted that in the absence of a Bill of Rights, it is the court’s responsibility to act as the nation’s moral compass. Insisting on a separation of powers is crucial to maintain checks and balances, and an unregulated power struggle between the branches can lead to inter-institutional discord and distrust.

President Isaac Herzog’s decision to step out of his ceremonial role to actively facilitate the coalition-opposition talks was controversial. However, it became the only viable track for such negotiation, with some believing it may be the college try we need. While the details of the talks are constantly changing, the core principles of our agenda remain unchanged.

The responsibilities of the government are set for a reason

These include the Knesset’s exclusive responsibility to legislate laws, the Supreme Court’s ability to abolish laws under certain conditions and the Knesset’s power to override the court’s decision by a special majority. Additionally, the selection committee for judges and justices should include more representatives from both the coalition and opposition, bolstering the Knesset’s influence and helping diversify the pool of women and men who receive the honor of serving as our nation’s high adjudicators.

Some commentators use the protests to predict Israel’s downfall by pointing out our societal contrasts. However, despite our diverse backgrounds, we are bound together as a strong and resilient society. If there is anything I learned from studying American civil rights history, it is segregation, not differences, that weakens society’s foundations.

As an Israeli who is politically conservative, gay, a single father and a grandson of Holocaust survivors and Jewish immigrants from Iran, I believe that segregation is not an option. I was born and raised in Safed, an ancient town near Israel’s northern border and have worked and lived in the Israeli urban hubs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I felt at home in all of them.

Our people have produced brilliant minds, such as Maimonides, Albert Einstein, and Jonas Salk, as well as leaders like Florence Kahn, Harvey Milk and Abraham Heschel. Reconciling tradition with modernity is our fate, bane and blessing, and the disagreements, demonstrations, and debate are part of our growing pains.

When Netanyahu reintroduces the reform or a version of it, I will support it in good faith while minding the words and the music.

The writer (@davidihermelin) is a former president of the Young Likud Congress and is now the president of the Israeli Center for Public Diplomacy.