The passage of the law ending judicial use of the criterion of reasonableness to review (or check) the actions of the highest echelons of government signals that the assault on Israel’s democracy is well underway.
More ominously, the vote showed that the ruling coalition has the votes, and the will to go all the way, to eliminate the Supreme Court’s role as protector of minority rights and bulwark against government excess, as well as to end the independence of the judiciary overall.
We need a long-term strategy to restore democracy, even if it is rolled back in the near term.
The top priority is to stop the panic that the liberal and/or secular camp has entered permanent minority status, and that the coming demographic tsunami of haredi and settler large families will seal the end of democratic Israel.
That 28% of Israelis are considering emigration represents an abject surrender before the fight is even begun. Everyone who loves Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must say: ein li eretz aheret, “I have no other country” – and stay and fight – no matter how many years it takes, to restore full democracy.
It would be self-destructive to let a defeat (however real) lead to giving up on the Zionist enterprise. In the past 100 years, there were many serious setbacks for the Yishuv. Israel would not exist had the builders of the state not made up their mind that ein breira, there was “no alternative” to restoring the homeland.
This generation – living in a far more developed and comfortable Israel – owes it to the past and future generations to stand fast. The leaders of the demonstrations and the leaders of the opposition should take the lead and speak out against flight or surrender, i.e. giving up on Israeli society.
Israelis should not give up on democracy
They should express confidence that the majority of Israelis will strongly choose democracy and restore sane religion and moderation as soon as they can. The majority wants national unity based on pluralism – and live and let live – for every kind of Jew and every minority. The leaders should say unequivocally that they are committed to the struggle for a truly Jewish and democratic state, as long as it takes and whatever it takes, no matter what electoral or legislative setbacks occur along the way.
Secondly, we must reduce the centrality of demonstrations in upholding democracy. It will probably take several years – until the next scheduled election – to reverse the antidemocratic momentum.
The demonstrations have been powerful, focused, and on-message. However, weekly demonstrations of such power are not sustainable for what may take years. It would be wise to cut back to a schedule that could keep the level of turnout high enough to make demonstrations an effective tool.
The rest of the energy spent on demonstrations should be diverted to generate an unprecedented national conversation/dialogue between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim, religious and secular, central cities, and the periphery.
A fraction of the Right has been turned off by the extremist attempt to exploit a potential legitimate judicial reform to eliminate the judiciary’s role as a check on government excess and corruption. However, the polls also show that there are still Mizrachim and periphery inhabitants whose resentment at past or present abuse and neglect by elites leads them to support the government’s overreach. Their anger sustains the coalition’s pitting of Israelis against each other, and the threat of polarization turning into actual civil war.
President Isaac Herzog has already initiated a project to bring Israelis together through dialogue. The umbrella organizations running the demonstrations must turn toward generating a universal national coming together. This will require a reorganization of their structures and a reorientation of planning. A national conversation will lead to greater mutual understanding, and stimulate the search for compromise and consensus. Reducing the elements of resentment and neglect will enable all groups in Israeli society to see their great stake in preserving democracy. Linking the different sectors of Israel through personal conversations and relationships with each other will enable a national unity that will persist even with strong differences in specific policies or laws.
Thirdly, it is time to engage the Arab Israeli minority which has been notably missing in the national demonstrations. This outreach should be led by the opposition leadership and Mansour Abbas and the Ra’am party. They must point out that Arab Israelis have a strong self-interest in upholding democracy. The leaders of the anti-democratic coup are studded with anti-Arab racists, believers in Jewish supremacy, and politicians who want to minimize investment in the Arab sector. If they win, the Arab Israelis will be permanently disadvantaged.
The appeal should be straightforward and acknowledge the major political turn the Arab Israelis must make going forward. We are asking the Arab parties to give up their anti-Zionist policy – which makes them unfit to serve in ruling coalitions. They should commit to following Ra’am’s model of going all in to accept Israel as a Jewish state, with the expectation of reciprocity in that the Jewish parties pledge to work toward full equality and opportunities for the Arab sector.
Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid must personally pledge that they will include Arab parties that accept the Jewish state in their future coalitions and promise to generate government policies that bring the Arab sector into parity and equality with the Jewish sectors.
The time to make this shift is now, before the next elections. Otherwise, the opposition will not be able to gain a majority without the haredi parties. Needing the haredim to make the majority means that all kinds of policies that weaken democracy or undercut it will have to be incorporated into future governments. This would leave democracy vulnerable to future turns of the electoral wheels.
The opposition should signal now that it is not out for total victory over the coalition. It should pledge to work out a judicial reform agreement no matter what the court rules. This will be done by recognizing that the coalition won the majority of seats in the last election and politically has the right to carry out reform but not to destroy judicial independence.
I will only add that two other issues must be dealt with to uphold Israeli democracy. One is how to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The other is a rethinking and significant revision of the relationship between religion and state in Israel. That will require changing the religious balance of power in the Jewish state and the strengthening of a more progressive Orthodoxy. I leave those two pressing issues for another day.
The writer is an oleh from the US. He was a leader in modern Orthodoxy in the US and active in expanding pluralism and Jewish education for the entire Jewish community.