Friends of Israel, please be afraid. Be very afraid. We are not kidding around when we say Israel’s democracy can be blown to smithereens in one fell swoop.
Monday, February 13, 2023, already dubbed “Black Monday” by opponents of the current government, may also turn out to be a great day in the history of Israeli civil society. During the day the Knesset’s constitutional committee confirmed the first in a series of proposed anti-democratic laws, while an estimated 360,000 men and women protested outside. It was the largest political demonstration in Israeli history, and the huge figure—doubted by some at first—was double and triple checked by members of one of the key participants, Israel’s high-tech community. So yes: More than a third of a million people out of Israel’s nine-plus million population came up to Jerusalem in the middle of a weekday to voice their anguish; many more Israelis went on strike. An enormous crowd of demonstrators sang the national anthem, Hatikvah, in Jerusalem’s central train station, with hope, anger and determination.
Proper disclosure: I am a historian of political thought, my husband is a law professor, our son a leader of the nationwide students’ protest movement, and almost all of our friends and colleagues are actively involved in this civic strife. We are all wielding our professional reputation and human dignity to tell the Israelis and the world a simple truth: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s team, including Minister of Justice Yariv Levin and Chair of the Knesset Constitution and Law Committee Simcha Rothman, is currently staging a coup d’état.
The two-month-old government, a coalition of extreme nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, is our country’s first fully right-wing government. It may also be its last democratic government. Its members have decided to change not only laws and policies but also the very essence of Israel. It will no longer be a liberal democracy, or even a flawed democracy. Instead, Netanyahu’s new allies are deftly creating a nationalist-religious authoritarian regime.
Netanyahu was once a vocal supporter of Israel’s Supreme Court, proud of the international reputation of our independent judiciary, until he was indicted for bribery and breach of trust. For the last two years he has been guided by the populist intellectuals of a libertarian think tank, the Kohelet Forum, funded in significant measure—according to reporting by Haaretz—by American conservative donors Jeffrey Yass and Arthur Dantchik. This body is working in harmony with Netanyahu’s fake-news-spreading partisan journalists (dubbed “the shofars”) and his aggressive, sometimes violent Likud MPs and activists, who denounce supporters of democracy and civil rights as “anti-Jewish” traitors.
Kohelet’s carefully scripted so-called reforms are directly inspired by Viktor Orbán’s hostile takeover of Hungarian democracy. As Professor Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University has explained, the gist of the Orbán process is the creation of a “Frankenstate,” gluing together organs from different countries and constitutions to erect a monstrosity, where the judiciary is subject to multiple limitations. The Netanyahu government’s shopping list of proposed “reforms” includes a new committee to appoint all judges with a decisive majority for the ruling coalition; allowing the Knesset to strike down any kind of judicial review; and curbing the Supreme Court’s ability to use “lack of reasonableness” standard in restricting not only laws but also governmental decisions.
At the time of writing it seems probable that within days our balanced method of electing judges may be changed, and a majority of committee members representing the ruling coalition may receive a free pass to appoint all future judges—and to sack judges suspected of independence. There is also talk of replacing the president of the Supreme Court with a political appointee. A government-appointed incomer would replace any judge who decides to quit in protest.
When President Isaac Herzog stepped in to offer a compromise, jurists were saddened to see that his plan retains near-total veto powers of the executive over the judiciary, as well as other problematic components of Netanyahu’s plans. In addition, Minister Levin rejected the president’s condition that the new legislation process be frozen while negotiations take place. The legislation process continues as I write this. The only pretense of consulting the opposition and the public were the so-called discussions in the Knesset’s constitutional committee, led by Rothman, which were little more than an embarrassing shouting competition, with the chair ousting liberal opposition members from the chamber and brusquely silencing senior invitees and legal advisers. Never has a Knesset committee debate been more dismal and scandalous.
A network of pseudo-journalists and chaos agents in the social network are making sure that Netanyahu’s supporters are fed lies branding the Supreme Court an enemy of the people. “Zion will be redeemed by Justice,” a phrase from Isaiah, is the official and Orwellian name of this rogue project. The Jewish legacy itself is being exploited and undermined by a caste of crooks.
Of course, a humbled and subservient Supreme Court is only a means to an end. The first and obvious end is eliminating Netanyahu’s own trial. After the “reforms” are legislated, in a matter of weeks, a simple-majority law can freeze or even abolish Netanyahu’s trial. Levin himself admitted that, as far as he is concerned, the initiative was inspired by his boss’s indictment.
Next come human rights and education. Several key government ministers have already declared their intent to curb individual freedoms, especially the rights of Arabs, women and LGBTQ persons. One of them went as far as telling doctors they need not treat Arab patients; another called for ethnic separation in maternity wards. Things do not stop there. Workers will not be allowed to strike freely, and tenure will be abolished. The Public Broadcasting Cooperation and freedom of the press are under threat. The values of equality and respect for minorities will be banned from school curricula in favor of supremacist, nationalist-halachic “Judaism.” By the time this second-stage legislation is brought forward, the Supreme Court will have lost its present capability to review such bills and strike them down.
As we have witnessed in six weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations, for Netanyahu’s “shofars,” every opponent, indeed every civic liberal in Israel, is a traitor. Unpatriotic. Unfaithful to the Jewish state, which in these partisans’ hallucinatory minds is a xenophobic Sparta. “Go to Berlin,” they jeer at us on the social networks and in the Knesset. “You do not belong here anymore,” they tell thousands of demonstrators who have honestly worked and fought for this country throughout their lives. And our newly minted “propaganda minister” Galit Distel Atbayan is telling the world that our civil protest is “funded by Germany and Iran,” an invented axis of evil in her ignorant, demented imagination.
Without a written constitution or any other gatekeeper save the Supreme Court and the government’s legal advisers (a public post that Levin plans to change into a “trust-based,” privatized job), Israel’s separation of powers is doomed. The current government imposes total obedience on its 64-strong majority of Knesset members, thereby literally subordinating the legislators to the executive branch. In the absence of judicial independence, we are left with a one-branch regime, the authoritarian rule of the coalition, where prominent members wish to see Israeli Arabs lose their citizenship, Palestinians killed at soldiers’ whims, women back in the home and LGBTQ people disappear from the public sphere.
Friends of Israel, please tune in and support us. We are a strong, proud and powerful civil society, unlike Hungary, Poland and Turkey. But our rivals are both corrupt and extremist, and their methods are reminiscent of Orwell’s Newspeak, a cover-up for totalitarian takeover. Here is a tremendous clash of cultures, of contradicting Judaisms, finally out in the open. Please tune in, and pray with us that a nonviolent resolution can still be found.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli essayist, professor emerita of history at the University of Haifa and regular contributor to Moment.
Opening image: Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons