Professors for a Strong Israel issued an open letter on March 29 denouncing the protests against the government’s judicial reform program. It said democracy wasn’t saved when the legislative process was suspended, as the opponents of reform claimed. Instead, “democracy was trampled.”
“It’s in parliament where the wheeling and dealing is supposed to take place leading to compromise,” Professors for a Strong Israel Chairman Amihood Amir told JNS. “It hurts democracy when you take to the streets, burn tires, strike and bring the parliamentary process to a stop.
“Riots in the streets are how the Bolsheviks rose to power. It’s how Egypt’s Islamic government came about. It was eventually overthrown by the military, but certainly there was nothing democratic about it. Nothing good for democracy ever came from riots,” he continued.
In his letter, Amir wrote that the country has seen “vandalism,” “disruption of daily life,” “a military revolt” with pilots and reservists refusing to serve, and “a civilian revolt—when public sector employees, airport workers, bank tellers, and university faculty are forcibly forbidden to fulfill their jobs.”
The latter, referring to a general strike called by the Histadrut labor federation on March 27, which pulled in numerous other groups and institutions, including Israel’s major universities, hit Amir particularly close to home.
Amir told JNS that at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, where he teaches in the Department of Computer Science, it was the university president, Arie Zaban, who called the strike. “It was unilaterally decided by the university president, who does not have the legal right anywhere in the bylaws of the university to initiate a political strike. It was clearly an illegal strike.”
No pretense of legality
Amir said he has written to the university’s board and to the board’s chairman, Michael Jesselson, but received no response. “Zaban is going to get away with it, along with many other people, because at this point the country is not operating by any pretense of legality.”
Amir said that Professors of a Strong Israel has considered various legal avenues.
So far, Amir has been able to moderate a university Senate statement, which originally declared the faculty “happy” that the government legislation had been stopped. “That is when I and four people got up,” Amir said. “There were some recent polls taken showing 75% of religious voters were unhappy that the legislation effort stopped. I told the Senate that by declaring its happiness, it was forcing 75% of the religious faculty of the university to say that they’re happy about something which they’re not.”
The Senate toned down the resolution’s wording to proclaim that Bar-Ilan University was happy that the sides were sitting down to talk. “Even to that, 30% of the Senate said no, as [approval of the legislative freeze] is still implied,” he said.
Amir said hard feelings have been engendered by the strike, writing in his letter: “When one side prohibits the other from working for a political reason that the coerced party does not identify with, it invariably mars the work relationship. In some cases, employees who support the reform were forced by their employer to express satisfaction that their ideology had been trampled.… The feelings of frustration then evolve into feelings of hate. This rift will not be easily mended.”
All of Israel’s major universities went on strike that day. The Committee of University Presidents was the entity that decided on the strike. Bar-Ilan University’s Zaban is chairman of the committee.
One exception to the strike was Ariel University in Samaria. Its president intended to go along with the committee’s decision, but “the Senate overturned it and stopped the strike. Ariel is the most conservative university,” Amir said.
He noted that there are many in academia who are in favor of judicial reform. Three weeks ago, his group gathered 200 signatures for a petition describing judicial reform as a positive development that will restore balance to the three branches of government, which had been upset in the 1990s by then-Supreme Court President Aharon Barak’s “Constitutional Revolution.”
“We are afraid”
Many others are afraid to speak out. Amir wrote, “Employees, students and faculty members feel threatened and are afraid of voicing their opinions, and there is an overall feeling akin to that in the old USSR.”
Amir described going to visit Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to lend his support to a protest against the rector’s decision to put university resources towards demonstrating against judicial reform. “I went down to Beersheva because I didn’t believe any faculty from Ben-Gurion University would show up. I was wrong. One brave soul did.
“A number of faculty members actually wrote to me on WhatsApp begging me not to let their names out but saying, ‘We are with you, but we are afraid.’ ”
Amir said they either worried they wouldn’t get tenure, or that they wouldn’t get grants as their left-wing peers sit on the funding committees. “Even a professor emeritus, who still did research, told me that.”
Amir, who has been a member of Professors for a Strong Israel for 15 years and was elected its chairman one month ago, said in his letter that the anti-reform “revolution” isn’t justified. “Philosophers of modern democracy” have identified only a few cases where revolution is “the only available option”—those involve life, liberty or property, he said.
“Life, meaning that a majority has no right to massacre a minority. Liberty, whereby a majority cannot inter a minority in prisons and camps, and property: the majority cannot confiscate the property of the minority,” he said.
“The situation today is nowhere near that. There is no threat to the life or property of any minority. Nor is anyone under threat of incarceration. The only existing threat is in the minds of some people who frightened themselves with the thoughts that, perhaps, the end of democracy is around the corner.
“The problem with acting upon self-induced fears is that they are not quantifiable,” Amir said, noting that unchecked behavior based on unquantifiable fears leads to more of the same.
“Tomorrow, some soldiers from low-income families may feel that the minimum wage is too low and may thus lead to a dictatorship. Since this is a special situation, they will now start a military coup. Next week, some small businessmen will conclude that 17% VAT [value-added tax] lowers consumption and may lead them to bankruptcy and to lose their homes. Thus, they begin a civil revolt. This unchecked and unquantified behavior leads to anarchy, erosion of democracy and the destruction of the state.”
Amir concluded his letter with a plea to the protesters:
“I entreat the revolutionaries to come to their senses. It is indeed a joy to burn tires, and it is exhilarating to feel that one is a revolutionary, but for the sake of democracy, for the sake of the nation and for the sake of our country, please desist. Return to the path of parliamentary democracy, for this is the only viable way for a shared existence in a society like ours.”