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Selfishness and Israel’s crisis

Both sides of the controversy over judicial reform are pushing Israelis to the extremes.

Anti-judicial reform protesters interrupt Knesset member Simcha Rothman during a panel on the Law of Return, Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Anti-judicial reform protesters interrupt Knesset member Simcha Rothman during a panel on the Law of Return, Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Irwin J. Mansdorf
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs specializing in political psychology and a member of the emergency division of IDF Homefront Command.

Does it all come down to selfishness?

Regarding the domestic crisis in Israel over judicial reform, the answer may be “yes.”

Like so many aspects of politics, much of the controversy has to do with the psychology of the process and what the proposals represent. If we look beyond logic and focus on the emotions that have been stirred, we will see that those emotions point largely to self-interest.

First, let’s start with how the reforms are described. Some speak of “judicial reform,” others of a “judicial revolution” and still others of no less than a “coup d’etat.” One can safely assess the degree of support or opposition to the reforms by the language used.  

While many members of the Knesset opposition use the term “revolution,” they themselves are often on record calling for similar reforms in the past. But when the opposition is outflanked by protest leaders who describe the reforms as a “coup,” willingness to compromise is seen as capitulation to a dictatorship.

Some in the ruling coalition are no different. The most strident supporters of reform hold the key to the coalition’s survival. Thus, they can suppress the coalition members who favor compromise.

While most members of Knesset agree on many aspects of the need for reform, the extremes on both sides are holding them hostage.

This raises the question of why the reforms are so passionately supported and opposed.

This question is testing Israel’s sensitive sociocultural fabric. The “reforms,” “revolution” or “coup” are the result of years of what many Israelis see as judicial overreach and elitism. The Supreme Court, comprised mostly of white Ashkenazi Jews, does not reflect the ideological and cultural diversity of Israeli society.

Many members of more traditional or Sephardic communities feel the reforms are long overdue. They want ideological balance among the justices, rulings grounded in actual law and more consideration given to decisions of the elected government.

But this means that a check on the government’s ability to enact its agenda will be lost. Since the present government is conservative and many members are religious, opponents fear that their personal freedom and way of life are threatened. The problem is not the changes to the judiciary, but the realization that a government that represents values different from and sometimes hostile to their own could change the way they live.

This fear is translated into language about the loss of “democracy” and feeds the passions of the protest movement. The protesters do not think a coalition of parties they have long opposed and a prime minister they detest will protect their right to live life as they see fit.

However, rather than forge a broad consensus behind reform, the government took an aggressive approach. Since they have a Knesset majority, they can follow their constituencies’ wishes while ignoring minority opinions. This disregard for the quite sizable minority of Israelis who oppose reform has polarized society and made it considerably more difficult to reach a viable compromise on the issue.

All this could have been avoided had ideology and not selfishness guided the political process. The results of the last five elections showed a solid majority for a center-right government. However, because of the lack of trust, not without reason, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, centrist parties that might have agreed to more palatable judicial reforms did not join the coalition.

As a result, Netanyahu and his Likud Party were pushed into the arms of the more right-wing elements of Israeli politics and away from the center.

Those who now bemoan the “end of democracy” in Israel could have and could still put an end to the controversy by joining Netanyahu’s coalition. Netanyahu himself appears to support more moderate reforms, and with help from the center he could avoid relying on the more uncompromising members of his coalition to retain power.

So, on one side, we have the selfish desire to remain in power. On the other, the selfish refusal to work with a despised political rival. Thus, because a reasonable, responsible and moderate center has failed to coalesce—though it certainly could do so—Israelis have had to pick sides. In the absence of a moderate choice, people have been forced to the extremes. It is either “for” or “against” and nothing in the middle.

The need for consensus is great, but the responsible adults in the room must be willing to tone down harmful extremist rhetoric and engage in a real discussion. Unfortunately, as long as the vanity, political rivalry and selfish interests of both sides prevail, the middle road that most Israelis certainly prefer remains out of reach.

The far-right has always been unrelenting and uncompromising. Now the “democratic left,” using rhetoric that has shut down both sides’ ability to work with the center, has joined them. Time will tell if those who have climbed high up the tree will be able to climb down.

Let’s hope that reason will ultimately prevail over selfishness.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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