ISRAELIS ARE NOT fighting over politics, let alone a mere judicial reform. They are fighting over the future. The future of their country, the kind of society their children will inhabit, and the identity of the state that will protect them. This formulation, too, is now as trite as the truism parroted by the Western media that Israel is in the process of a fundamental transmogrification, changing from a progressive, secular state and society into something much more religious, from a pluralist highway to a bigoted alley. And one man is at the heart of it all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will just not back down in the interest of the greater good. As with all truisms, there is more than an element of truth in all of the above.
The irony of course is that Netanyahu, partly raised and largely educated in the US, appears to be in the wrong camp. Having returned to office last December, he embarked on his quest for a humbler judiciary with a vengeance, turning it into a gladiatorial contest of sorts. When the streets erupted, and they kept erupting, everybody assumed they knew the answer, or answers, only too well. Yes, he was selfish enough to throw Israel into one of its worst domestic crises to preserve himself in perpetuity. That answer doesn’t wash because it’s too easy. Here’s an anecdote from the life of the Netanyahus in Pennsylvania: he and his brother Yonatan, the hero who died at Entebbe, were never comfortable with the Reform synagogue they went to. Even then, Bibi was looking beyond what he had.
Netanyahu’s government got the judicial reform bill passed in the Knesset only on the point of “reasonableness”, the legal standard the court could use to overrule executive decisions, in a vote boycotted by the opposition. The Supreme Court will begin its review of the law in September when it hears the petitions filed against it. If it kills a law meant to reduce its own power, the court will trigger a clash with the executive and a consequent constitutional crisis. If the government rejects the court’s decision, it will again trigger a constitutional crisis because other institutions, ranging from the military to the civil service, must then decide whether to obey the judiciary or the executive. If reservists, who serve across Israel’s military and intelligence network, keep their word and stop reporting for work in the event of the law not being struck down, Israel will be gripped by— no exaggeration—an unprecedented security crisis.
Hillel’s most famous and misused lines “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” acquire fresh poignancy today. Tisha B’av 2023, the annual day of fast that laments many disasters in Jewish history, most importantly the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70CE, hadn’t ended at the time of writing. Jewish history is said to have stopped with the destruction of the Second Temple, turning itself instead into memory—a moment eternalised. Israel’s founders thought history would resume with the rebirth of the Jewish home. But the state they founded, liberal and secular, its essence European, is not what the voters of Netanyahu’s far-right partners in government want anymore. The descendents of the founders are the ones out in the street, desperate to preserve the first version of Israel which they fear is slipping out of their hands. Israel 2.0, that’s being born, is for the newer arrivals and their children, the religiously observant, many of them settlers, for whom history cannot resume in Israel 1.0. And if not now, when? Does Netanyahu, who was unhappy with the Reform synagogue in his youth, see more than a vote-bank in them?
Netanyahu’s defence of the judicial reforms, as he originally sought, was that some of those were already in place and people were not reading the fine print. The self-appointing Israeli judiciary is more powerful than the executive and legislature and hinders government work. He wasn’t quite off the mark there. Thus, the reforms would safeguard and not weaken democracy. But if Israel plunges into a constitutional crisis come September or later, if its security is jeopardised, whom will Israel 2.0 blame? We know whom Israel 1.0 will blame.
Bibi has not polarised Israel. The march of history has taken the country there as it seeks to redefine itself. He has placed himself at the head of this march, with motives both sacred and profane. If the court decides to let the law stand, thereby curbing its own powers, the march will pick up speed. That’s what the protesters fear. This was never about one law or one man.