Israel Update – Week of September 3, 2023
Out with the Old Year: This Friday night, Jews around the world will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah, in which we welcome in the new year. The upcoming year will be 5784 (Jews count the years since creation. How I, a rocket scientist, can align a 5784-year-old world with copious scientific evidence that the world is nearly 5 billion years old is a topic for another time), meaning that this week is the last week in 5783.
And what a week this will be. On July 23, the Knesset passed a bill reducing the power of the High Court’s capability to invoke the “Reasonableness Standard.” The “Reasonableness Standard” is used by the court to strike down government administrative decisions that they deem blatantly beyond the scope of what a reasonable and responsible authority would decide. The bill was the first step in the Likkud Party’s judicial reform that would reduce the power of the High Court and change the way that its members are elected. Judicial reform sparked a protest movement, predominantly made up of Israel’s elite, a movement that has not lost an ounce of steam since it held its first protest in downtown Tel Aviv in January. Judicial reform has divided the country in two – the “them” and the “us.” Those who support the reform feel that the High Court possesses too much power and the court’s ability to disqualify government legislation is silencing their vote. Those who oppose the reform are certain that the Likkud and its partners are pushing the country into a dictatorship.
The passage of the legislation on July 23rd was only the first step in its becoming law. On September 12th, the High Court will rule on whether or not the government has the right to strike down the Reasonability Standard. In order to understand what is happening, some background is necessary. Israel does not have a constitution. When the country was created in 1948, the founding fathers felt that putting together a constitution would be too large of a task for a nascent country made up of a patchwork of minorities. Since then, the country has only become more “patchwork-like” as wave after wave of immigrants have moved to Israel from places including Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, France, Ethiopia, Russia and North America, making a constitution an even more thorny issue. Seventy-five years later and our government is still kicking that can down the road.
What Israel does have is a set of “Basic Laws.” Currently, thirteen Basic Laws exist, including:
“Basic Law: Knesset” that determines the structure and function of the Knesset,
“Basic Law: The Military” that deals with mandatory service and enlistment, as well as with instructions and orders in the army, and
“Basic Law: Judiciary” that establishes the authority of the courts in criminal and disciplinary proceedings, as well as the independence of the judiciary and the openness of judicial proceedings.
Eventually, the goal is to cobble these Basic Laws together into a constitution. The repudiation of the Reasonableness Standard is being forwarded as an amendment to “Basic Law: Judiciary.”
On September 12th, the High Court will be ruling on the ability of the government to amend a basic law. The High Court is meeting as a result of a petition arguing that amending the Basic Law could potentially undermine the independence of senior law enforcement agencies, since without the Reasonableness Standard it will be difficult to challenge arbitrary dismissals of officials. All of the fifteen justices in the High Court will be reviewing the petition. This is a rarity – mostly small subsets of judges review cases. But this case is special in that the court has so far balked at revoking amendments to the country’s Basic Laws. Nevertheless, the Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara has refused to represent the government in the case, and in her submission to the court on Sunday she called on the justices to strike down the law, claiming it undermined Israel’s democratic character. The government will, instead, be represented in court by Ilan Bombach, one of the most esteemed litigation attorneys in Israel. It seems counterintuitive that the High Court is ruling on a case that could reduce their own power and that the government’s designated lawyer – the Attorney General – is not even supporting the government. These, the Likkud asserts, are two examples that clearly show why Israel’s judicial system must be modified.
Meanwhile, both supporters and detractors of the reform are flexing their muscles. Ten thousand supporters of the reform protested in Jerusalem on Thursday night across the street from the Knesset while on Saturday night, the weekly protest in Tel Aviv continued for a ninth consecutive month. After the demonstration was over, some protestors went down to the busy Ayalon Freeway and blocked traffic, as they do nearly every week. A car swerved through the crowd, slightly injuring one person. It could have been much worse. While the driver maintains that he did not drive into the crowd maliciously, the jury is still out as to what really happened.
The demonstration in Jerusalem was significantly smaller than a similar demonstration held only one month ago, also in Jerusalem, in which more than two hundred thousand people – twenty times as many people – came from across the country to show their support. Could it be that support for the government is waning?
I think something else entirely is happening. There is a strong belief that the country is on the verge of being torn apart. Judicial reform is only a placeholder. Multiple issues are driving wedges into the country, from judicial reform to the transition of power from the old guard, consisting of a secular Ashkenazic elite, to the new “second Israel,” people who are more traditional and are of Sephardic descent, to the role of the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) and their obligation to serve in the Army or in some other form of National Service. Each of these issues in and of itself is explosive. When they are bundled together, a solution seems nearly intractable. It is clear to many that continuing down the “Us” and “Them” path will well and truly tear the country apart. What is needed now is compromise, and the only way to reach a compromise is for both sides to come out of their shells and admit that the person who stands opposite them is not a blathering idiot but, rather a sentient human being with equal rights.
Over the weekend, Ariel Schnabel wrote an article in “Makor Rishon” (Hebrew) titled “Let This Be a Year of Compromise.” The first letters of the words in the title serve a clever acronym for the word “5784.” Schnabel arrived at the same conclusion I arrived at above: Enough division. Now is the time for unification. Schnabel gives ten ways in which Likkud supporters can help achieve this goal:
Go to the demonstrations in Tel Aviv – not to demonstrate but to meet the people.
Block loudmouths on social media. Do not give them your attention.
Demand that the conversation be toned down.
Go food shopping in Bnei Brak – an Ultraorthodox town – to see how the other half lives.
Speak to Israeli Arabs – get to know one or two of them.
Speak with your children and explain to them what is going on.
Do not consume polarizing content.
Don’t reply to content you disagree with. Let it go. A friend of mine told me many years ago that there is no requirement to respond to each and every email. There is definitely no requirement to respond to them immediately. Think and then react. Or just press the Delete button.
Spend more time crisscrossing the country and meeting different people.
Regularly compliment the other side. Find a law that you agree with that was passed with the support of a Member of Knesset from “the other side” and write him a thank-you note.
Now, more than ever, is the time for Israelis to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
May the year 5784 be a sweet year, a year of compromise, a year of unity, a year in which Israelis meet the challenges that face each and every one of us as One.
Wishing you a quiet week,