The noise from Israel since the coalition announced its judicial overhaul in January has been so loud, so piercing, one question has gotten lost in the sea of protests: Given that the goal of the overhaul is to correct the power imbalance between the government and the judiciary, what happens if this ends up creating a version of Israel that deforms the character of the state?
For example, what happens if a coalition passes a law that everything in Israel can open on Shabbat? This would violate the essence of the country as a Jewish state. If the judiciary can’t stop such legislative abuse, who will?
Proponents of the reforms like to reply, “That’s what elections are for.” But it’s not that simple. Unraveling the national sanctity of Shabbat for a few years until new elections are called would trigger divisive riots that would make today’s protests look like a picnic.
A democracy empowers a governing coalition to legislate its policies, but not to redistribute the balance of power among different branches of the government. So, a coalition with a one-seat majority that gives itself the power to redistribute power is clearly asking for trouble. For starters, it’ll be accused of transferring too much power to itself to ensure that its policies, including allowing everything to open on Shabbat, go through with minimal pushback.
The brouhaha, then, is about a partisan power grab designed to transform Israel with virtually no court oversight. This is why passions have been running so high — there’s a real fear of legislative abuse. It’s also why Israel must come back from the brink before things get out of control.
It turns out that the worst possible government to oversee a reform of the judiciary is a government dominated by extremists, especially when they have leverage over the coalition. As scholar Ran Baratz said recently on a Tikvah podcast, “The kind of parliamentary democracy that we have is very susceptible to exploit … by leaders who know how to incite people but are not very good at manufacturing solutions and social compromises.”
In a few short months, these leaders have gladly showed us their hand. Whether through racism, homophobia, maximalist positions on the West Bank, further subsidizing of the haredi sector, blanket exemption of yeshiva students from the army, usurping authority from the security establishment, diminishing Arab rights, undermining Israel’s international standing, risking Israel’s economy and security, distracting the country from existential threats like a nuclear Iran or thumbing their noses at an indispensable US ally, they’ve given us a valuable glimpse of an extremist government with no brakes.
What’s most troubling, in fact, is not whether any of their radical policies have yet been implemented, or even the extremist version of Israel embodied by these policies, but the concurrent effort to neuter court oversight. What the extremists are effectively telling us is, we want to go nuts, and we don’t want anyone getting in the way.
Indeed, as Baratz noted, Israel’s parliamentary democracy is susceptible to such exploitation. Maybe that’s why hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Israelis have been “getting in the way” for 34 straight weeks.
Until Israel drafts a long overdue constitution, it must aim for broad coalitions which temper extremist impulses. Had this government been led by a traditional Likud coalition with centrist parties, Israel would never be experiencing this turmoil. Rather than announce a radical judicial overhaul, a more balanced coalition would have formed a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission to craft reforms in the spirit of compromise. This delicate task is not a job for extremist ideologues.
Pundits who argue that the protests are about Ashkenazi vs. Mizrachi, the elites vs. the working class, the religious vs. the secular, etc., are pouring oil on the fire and irresponsibly furthering a societal breakdown. Yes, there are deep schisms in the Jewish state that have come to the surface in 2023. But if there’s ever any hope of addressing them, the first step is to tackle the poison of extremism.
The No. 1 threat to Israel’s civil society is extremism, full stop. Extremism comes in all classes, denominations, parties and ethnicities, and that includes any extremists in the protest movement. Extremism doesn’t discriminate.
Let’s remember that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was always a cautious, secular leader who shunned extremism and put a premium on stability. His weakness is that he puts a higher premium on power.
To regain his throne after the last election, at a time when he was compromised by a criminal trial, he was forced to promise the moon to extremist parties who have now come to collect. He’s so attached to his throne that he’s been watching his nation bleed for eight long months while stunningly allowing the wounds to go deeper and deeper. Risking his personal position, even for the sake of bringing his country together, is evidently out of the question.
he tragedy is that a reasonable reform of the judiciary that would correct the current imbalance while preventing legislative abuse is eminently doable. But it can’t be championed by hard-charging extremists, from the left or right, for the simple reason that extremists put their ideology above all else, including the unity of the country.
The only extremists Israel needs at the moment are extremists in favor of national healing. That healing won’t happen until a brave coalition of Israel-first Knesset members push for a pause in the overhaul and move heaven and earth to form a broader coalition, with or without Netanyahu.
The quicker Israel gets this new coalition, the quicker the country will come back from the brink, the quicker the healing and renewal can begin. It’ll be a true miracle if it begins to happen during the Days of Awe.
All Israel lovers should pray for that miracle.