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Opinion

Democracy vs. democracy

Democracy is not always the best or safest way to resolve disputes in which both parties have it on their side.

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.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

Amidst the turmoil in the streets, the media and the Knesset over the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms, both sides have wrapped themselves in the mantle of democracy.

Proponents of the reforms claim that Israel lives under a “judicial tyranny” in which the Supreme Court exercises undue power, to the point that it invalidates the will of the voters and endangers the security of the state. They argue further that the current government won a majority in a free and fair election, and is therefore entitled to do what its voters elected it to do and govern more or less as it pleases. The judicial reforms are not a threat to democracy, they are democracy.

Opponents of the reforms are even more emphatic about acting in the name of democracy. The reforms, they say, will castrate the Supreme Court, leaving the Knesset majority free to run roughshod over minority rights, which are essential to the existence of democracy itself. The right denounces a judicial tyranny, but the left warns of a legislative dictatorship.

In order to stop the reforms, the opposition is making use of two fundamental democratic rights: Free speech and free assembly. They denounce the government and its plans in vitriolic terms and take to the streets in their hundreds of thousands. The right has recently attempted to use the same tactic, albeit with limited success.

In many ways, this mutual invocation of democracy is what makes the conflict so intractable. It is not a case of democracy vs. authoritarianism or theocracy, though that is how the opposing sides see it. It is a case of democracy vs. democracy.

If the right were attempting to install a dictator or an Iranian-style rabbinical totalitarianism, the battle lines would be clear. The same would be true if the left were seeking to overthrow the government despite its electoral victory and impose a leftist regime.

Both sides believe that this is precisely what the other side is attempting to do. Moreover, at the margins, this is indeed the case. There are those on the right who see judicial reform as the first step towards a Torah state. There are those on the left who are determined to keep going until the government falls, encouraged by recent polls that show the coalition hemorrhaging support.

As one moves towards the center, however, it becomes clear that this is not where the majority stands. Proponents of the reforms believe that their right to govern has long been thwarted by unelected elites, while many on the left fear that Israeli democracy has inadvertently voted itself out of existence. What neither of them wants, however, is to tear Israeli society apart.

But the extremists are driving events, and this only strengthens the worst instincts on both sides. The right sees such things as reserve soldiers refusing to serve and is convinced that the left is casting all remaining political norms to the winds. The left sees the pro-reform demonstrations populated almost entirely by what they view as religious and nationalist zealots, and feel that their worst nightmare is manifesting itself on the streets of Jerusalem.

What we are seeing, then, is not a battle between good and evil but a profoundly divided democracy whose citizens are unable to agree on anything but the most fundamental principles, and sometimes not even that. Through the democratic system, both sides wield considerable political power, and they have reached a threatening stalemate.

This problem, in other words, is not just a battle over democracy. It is a battle caused by democracy. Both sides have democratic legitimacy on their side. The right did win a Knesset majority and the left has every right to take to the streets. Neither side can wholly delegitimize the other, making consensus effectively impossible. The pathologies of democracy are as nothing compared to the pathologies of tyranny, but they do exist, and we are currently trapped by them.

Ironically, the best hope for resolving this conflict between democracy and democracy is through less democratic means: The staid presence of President Isaac Herzog, who is chosen by the Knesset, not by popular vote, may induce the leaders of the opposing factions to reach some kind of compromise. It will be unsatisfying to both sides, but it may finally quell the storm raging in the streets.

If so, it will teach us the lesson that while democracy is indeed the best among many bad systems of government, like any human creation it has flaws. It is not always the best or safest way to resolve disputes in which both parties have it, in some form, on their side.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

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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