Israel is on a slippery slope from democracy to autocracy - opinion

The government is leading smaller attacks on Israelis' freedom that aren't related to judicial reform.

 United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf and Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar Ben-Gvir with MKs from the likely coalition, November 21, 2022. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf and Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar Ben-Gvir with MKs from the likely coalition, November 21, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The shift from democracy to autocracy is not an overnight thing. It’s not as if we wake up one morning and realize, “Wow, now I live in an autocratic state!” Rather, it is a slow slide down a slippery slope of minor attacks on our freedom that we accommodate, especially if it does not affect us dramatically at the moment.

Jews who lived in Germany during the early days of the rise of national socialism, for example, have related that they simply did not believe things could get as bad as they eventually did, and so they accommodated the minor changes in life, never thinking that they were on a train ride to disaster, and the loss of all of their freedom. 

After all, they reasoned, what does it really matter that we are not allowed to sit on “green benches” just because we are Jewish? No worries, we will simply sit on black benches; no big deal. Yet it turned out to be a very big deal indeed.

In Israel, where the main topic of political discourse tends to be around judicial reform, there are other smaller attacks on our freedom that are playing out just under the surface and often move forward with relatively little mass concern.

Knesset committee considers disbanding authority for women

Case I: The Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation is considering a bill that would disband the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women (AASW). 

 MK PNINA Tamano-Shata (right), chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, leads a committee meeting, earlier this month. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MK PNINA Tamano-Shata (right), chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, leads a committee meeting, earlier this month. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It is being privately sponsored by coalition party member Otzma Yehudit, and would dismantle the AASW, an independent professional body established in 1998 to protect women’s rights. In its stead, it would create a new political body that would be subservient to a designated government minister. 

This would, in effect, take an independent advocacy group and make it into a government agency, giving the governing coalition control over the authority’s budget, its activities, whom it employs, and more.

According to the bill, the new authority would differ from the old one in significant ways:

Its head would need no professional or academic qualifications other than being a government appointee; the number of members would be reduced by half; instead of an independent body writing reports examining how government legislation will affect women, reports will now be written by the government itself. The new bill has removed all references to combating gender discrimination and does not set it as one of the Authority’s goals.

While the previous Authority could only pass regulations in consultation with the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of Women and Gender Equality, the new Authority would be allowed to pass regulations with no parliamentary review at all.

It is important to note that the minister who would be heading this new Authority, May Golan, herself voted against a bill that would have guaranteed women’s representation in Knesset parties. 

As another independent body shuts down with its power consolidated within the government, Israel slides closer to an authoritarian regime.

Gov't is backing a bill to transfer power for bar to gov't

CASE II: A ministerial panel is backing a bill that would siphon off power from the Israel Bar Association (IBA) and transfer it to a new, government-headed authority. Just days after the country’s lawyers elected Amit Becher – who has been bitterly critical of the coalition’s judicial overhaul push – as head of the bar association, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to give government support to a bill that will strip away the bar’s licensing authority and its representation on the committee that selects judges.

Contained in the bill is legislation shifting the Bar Association’s powers to grant licenses, administer the bar exam, and sanction lawyers for misconduct to a yet-to-be-created “lawyers council,” which would be chaired by a district court judge, to be appointed by the justice minister who, of course, is appointed by the prime minister.

The bill also includes a clause that would strip the IBA of its seats on the Judicial Selection Committee – the body that appoints judges, and is at the heart of the government’s plans to remake the judiciary, although that may not be a bad thing. In a true democracy, the value of a bar association is in its vetting of the qualifications of potential justices, not in selecting them.

Yet again, another independent agency could end up under government (read: political) control to the detriment of democracy and freedom.

These are two specific cases, but there are others as well. Each one is its own “green bench.” 

How can this be stopped?

HOW TO stop this? Demonstrations are, of course, a valuable tool that sends a message to the coalition that the people are not happy, and those should continue. But the real way to sidetrack unwanted government incursions into our daily lives is to convince enough members of the coalition to “stay home” when the third and final reading of a bill detrimental to our freedom is brought to the floor of the Knesset, if not before. 

The coalition’s majority margin is just four people, so the loss of four votes basically dooms any legislation. In addition to the demonstrations, our efforts now have to be directed at those members of the coalition who “know better” and must realize that some things ought not to be legislated in their present form. 

It is time to target the coalition members with a conscience and a love for Israel that is greater than their desire for personal power: Nir Barkat, Danny Danon, Avi Dichter, Yuli Edelstein, and Yoav Gallant to be specific. All efforts must now be made to convince them to vote their consciences, even if it means political suicide. 

To paraphrase Pirkei Avot 2:5: “In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.” We should expect no less. After all, the future of Israel and our freedom depends on the responsible actions of such leaders.

The writer has lived in Jerusalem for almost 40 years, is CEO of Atid EDI Ltd., an international business development consultancy, board member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce, chair of the American State Offices Association in Israel, former board chair of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and past national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel.