Update: Israeli Democracy Under Threat

By | Feb 11, 2023
Israel, Latest

It’s becoming increasingly hard to keep my balance in the face of the absolutist and authoritarian blitz-attack against the foundations of Israeli democracy.

The main attack, as I described in “High Court in the Hot Seat,” has been against the legal system in order to change the balance of power between Israeli politicians and the courts. The law could irrevocably damage Israeli democracy, and its opponents are very aware that in Hungary, the first step on the country’s journey to illiberalism entailed control over the appointments of judges.

But the blitz seems to be hitting all directions at once: the Public Broadcasting Authority, free media and cultural expression, our educational system, the national budget, national institutions such as the Israel Defense Forces and  even the Western Wall—nothing is safe or sacred anymore.

During the Trump administration, mental health experts and publicists described the development of the “Trump Anxiety Disorder.” I feel like I am suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder—and we aren’t anywhere near post-what this government is planning.

This blitz is deliberate; there is a method to the ostensible madness.

As part of the coalition agreements, ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious MK’s have promised to propose legislation to allow private businesses to deny their product or service selectively to some customers as long as it “is not unique, and a similar substitute can be obtained at a similar price in geographic proximity” and to allow medical personnel to withhold treatment, including fertility treatments for unmarried women and LGBTQ couples, if it goes against their religious convictions.

Ultra-Orthodox parties are demanding cancellation of a clause in the Law of Return that allows the grandchildren of Jews to make aliyah. The change would make millions ineligible for aliyah (some retroactively).

The government has declared that it will tax foreign government donations to civil society groups such as the New Israel Fund, the Israel Women’s Network, Association of Civil Rights and others, which could cause foreign governments to stop funding these institutions so that none of their money will go to the government. The law could also harm academic institutions and hospitals—but probably not affect right-wing organizations, which receive most of their income from individuals or private foundations.

As I reported last month, the Israeli Supreme Court banned ultra-Orthodox Shas party leader Arye Deri from serving as a government minister due to a previous criminal conviction. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs Shas to maintain his coalition, and so the government is now fast-tracking new legislation to deprive the court of any authority to intervene in ministerial appointments under any circumstances; that way, Netanyahu, who had to fire Deri or be held in contempt of court, can simply reappoint him to his previous positions as minister of the interior and minister of health.

Coalition lawmakers are reportedly putting together a proposal that would change the criteria for banning candidates from running for the Knesset, making it easier to push out Arab-led parties and MKs representing some 20 percent of Israel’s population and thus guarantee that Israel will not be able to create a center-left government.

Minister of Culture and Sports Miki Zohar has vowed to withhold state funding for art that “defames the State of Israel within the country and around the world” and or “promotes a narrative against Israel.” 

A sample just from the past week:

  • MK Simcha Rothman has submitted and intends to fast-track a bill that would severely limit Israeli workers’ right to strike—just as numerous Israeli institutions are calling for strikes against the government’s attempts to overhaul the legal system.
  • Deputy Education Minister Avi Maoz announced that he will propose legislation that will prohibit educational institutions from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation before ninth grade; in grades past that it will only be allowed if 75 percent of the parents of children sign, in writing, that they approve. The legislation, he says, is intended “to anchor the basic right of every parent to make decisions…regarding the education and treatment of their children. There are those who doubt the basic foundations of Creation and seek to encourage or make it easy to ostensibly change the biological identity of human beings.” 
  • The ultra-Orthodox parties are expediting a bill to impose sweeping new restrictions on freedom of worship at the Western Wall, banning visitors from wearing “immodest”  clothing; preventing egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer at the section of the holy site where it is now allowed; and criminalizing the activity of the Women of the Wall prayer rights group, including women’s reading from the Torah, blowing the shofar and wearing of phylacteries and prayer shawls. Violators could be slapped with a half-year prison term and a fine of up to 10,000 shekels ($2,867).
  • And through it all, the Knesset Constitution Committee debate over legal “reform”  has degenerated into an angry circus. Committee head Rothman claims that he is conducting hearings about the proposed bills. But it is impossible to hear anything in those meetings, as Rothman brutally interrupts anyone who expresses any criticism and forcibly removes any MKs whose opinions he doesn’t appreciate. Last week, he viciously berated the committee’s legal adviser for his legal opinion that Rothman’s proposals would deal a real blow to democracy.

Netanyahu, in an attempt to present himself as the responsible, sober adult in his power-drunk extremist coalition, has said that most of these initiatives (including the restrictions at the Western Wall and the changes to the Law of Return) will never happen. But Netanyahu, Rothman and their ilk bully anyone who opposes their plans for the judicial overhaul, claiming that their opponents are unwilling to accept the democratic choice of the majority that elected them. A survey by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) did find public support for some level of change in the judicial-political balance of power, but only 22 percent supported the entire reform package proposed by Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Rothman.

But even if they never make it through the legislative process, these proposals, presented aggressively and self-righteously, have made the divisions in Israeli society worse. According to the same study by the JPPI, 60 percent of Israelis believe to “a high to certain likelihood” that the fierce battle over radical legal reforms promoted by Netanyahu’s coalition will turn violent, and 35 percent—one in three—fear a civil war. Only 31 percent expressed the belief that the chances of violence breaking out over the issue are “low to nonexistent.” 

It’s hard to see clearly when sacred institutions are under attack and the threat of civil war suddenly seems plausible. But one thing is clear: This blitz is deliberate; there is a method to the ostensible madness.

While Netanyahu knows that these changes will also bring him a get out of jail free” card in his ongoing trials for breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud, all of these proposals, those that will come to fruition and those that will not, are part of a larger, well-thought-out plan to engineer public consciousness and to create regime change. Netanyahu, Levin and Rothman are cynically using the formal trappings of democratic institutions to hollow out democracy, turning Israel into an illiberal, majoritarian pseudo-democracy. In their ideal world, politicians should be above the law and the Jewish character of the State of Israel—as defined by its most extreme, self-appointed apostles—should rule over its democratic character.

Sadly, Israel’s formal political opposition is in tatters after the November 1 elections and is incapable of mounting any kind of defense against the onslaught. But civil society in Israel is strong. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens continue to demonstrate across the country. Almost daily, a new group joins the protests. Despite the malicious, deliberate, orchestrated chaos, civil society remains focused. We know that without its independent institutions, as imperfect as they are, Israel will no longer be a democratic or a Jewish state.

Opening Image:Knesset, Israel, Feburary 2010 (Creative Commons).

4 thoughts on “Update: Israeli Democracy Under Threat

  1. Charles Saydah says:

    Why is this at all surprising? The ultra-orthodox has been the tail wagging the dog for 40 years. The idea of Israel under threat has informed the nation’s politics from the get-go. Throw in a global nationalistic trend that sharply defines people into hostile camps, and you see what you get. Just look at the United States.

  2. Fred Grosso says:

    Is there a difference between the “Jewish character” and the “democratic character” of the Sate of Israel? if so, what is that difference?

  3. Eliezer Segal says:

    Arabs, will continue to terrorize Israelis and remind them of the threats from within & without.
    One thing is certain, Israeli society has tasted democracy for 75 years since its rebirth, it is highly unlikely that the coalition will fulfill its radical overhaul politico-judicial agenda without compromises.
    So hang tight while this mishigineh rollercoaster is going through its motion, giving many of us the creeps.

  4. Davida Brown says:

    Look up! The more chaotic things get, you can say “my redemption draws near!” The God who supernaturally brought the miracle of modern Israel back from oblivion has big plans that you know not of. Democracy was a good idea, but not the ultimate one. Watch & see…

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