Demonizing Kohelet won’t silence calls for judicial reform

A think tank is being attacked by Netanyahu opponents who are solely focused on political power while they ignore the ideas that have put the issue on the national agenda.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Kohelet Policy Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on Jan. 8, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Kohelet Policy Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on Jan. 8, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the midst of a national convulsion in which opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are willing to stop at nothing in their campaign to prevent the government from enacting judicial reform, the assault on the offices of the Kohelet Policy Forum last week barely rated a mention in the news. Indeed, compared to blocking highways, refusing military duty and efforts by some in the worlds of high-tech and finance to try to hold the Jewish state’s economy hostage to their opposition to the proposed legislation, putting barbed wire in front of the door to a think tank in order to prevent scholars from getting to their desks doesn’t amount to much.

Yet the attempt on the part of some supporters of the opposition to storm Kohelet’s Jerusalem headquarters, as well as a similar demonstration in New York City outside the offices of the Tikvah Fund—a philanthropic and educational organization that funds efforts to promote Jewish ideas in both Israel and the United States via groups like Kohelet—are nonetheless important to understanding the nature of the controversy. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anything else that better summarizes the debate that seems to be tearing the country apart.

On the one hand are proponents of legislation who are arguing about ideas concerning the rule of law and the way an out-of-control Supreme Court has seized power and exercised it in an arbitrary fashion. Kohelet has been the driving force behind the effort to promote reform of an unaccountable judiciary that has arrogated to itself authority that goes far beyond what’s held by any other legal system in a Western democracy.

On the other is a political movement that is driven not by a belief that former Chief Justice Aharon Barak’s judicial revolution that Kohelet decries was right. Rather, it has taken to the streets driven by a belief that the current prime minister and government that won a majority in the Knesset in an election held four months ago is illegitimate and shouldn’t be allowed to exercise power.

This juxtaposition in which one side is arguing about ideas while the other is focused on the question of who holds power is what has made the debate about the reform proposals so frustrating.

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The power of ideas

That is also why the effort to discredit Kohelet depicting it as a sinister force created by wealthy Diaspora conservatives who seek to destroy Israeli democracy is so appalling. The think tank has been the subject of a biased series of stories in left-wing outlets like Haaretz and The Intercept, as well as the formerly centrist Times of Israel, in which its efforts have been demonized as part of a far-right scheme to transform Israel into a conservative dictatorship.

This speaks volumes about the hypocrisy of those who claim to be defending democracy by opposing judicial reform. Such stories are replete with language about Kohelet “running the Knesset” or having “tentacles” that spread across the political system that smacks of conspiracy theories, not reasoned arguments.

In a sense, it’s understandable that reform opponents resort to these sorts of smears. If they were to only address the group’s various forums, its research papers and publications, they would have to contend with a formidable array of intellectual concepts and proposals about promoting free markets, the rule of law, individual liberty and the right of the Jewish people to national sovereignty over its homeland. It’s a lot easier to simply put the whole enterprise down as an assault on Israeli democracy than to understand that Kohelet’s influence is a product of the power of its ideas.

For many years, the Israeli left has operated a large number of non-governmental organizations aimed at undermining efforts to resist Palestinian terrorism and to oppose the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria which are almost completely dependent on foreign funding. In that case, much of the money comes from European governments or people like billionaire hedge-fund operator George Soros, who are patently hostile to Israel and Zionism. Israelis who approve of those groups’ politics have defended foreign or Diaspora involvement as high-minded philanthropy. But now, some of the same voices on the left like J Street attack Kohelet as a dark force funded by right-wing moneybags whose sin is support for Zionism.

The Israeli left has long championed the idea that Diaspora Jewry should use its wealth and political influence to undermine right-wing Israeli governments. Indeed, opposition leader Yair Lapid and others who support his effort to topple the prime minister have appealed to American Jewry not only to join their movement, but to help persuade the Biden administration to use all the leverage at its disposal to thwart judicial reform and thereby unseat Netanyahu. So their efforts to attack Kohelet as lacking in legitimacy or seeking to impose foreign concepts aimed at destroying democracy are not only wrongheaded but deeply hypocritical.

The wrong people are winning elections

It’s true that Kohelet’s ideas are dangerous to the political, cultural, economic and legal establishment in Israel. Israel’s elites have clung to much of their power, even as their philosophy about running the country that stems from its Socialist past and the “land for peace” delusion about ending the conflict with the Palestinians have been thoroughly discredited.

The left’s support for the juristocracy Barak created is firmly rooted in their belief that “enlightened” liberals should have an effective veto power over the verdict of the voters. Their fear of “dictatorship by the majority” is not so much a matter of protecting minorities as it is in contempt for the electorate. As anyone viewing the rhetoric of the demonstrators on social media and in the press can see, it’s a matter of a belief that the wrong people are determining the outcomes of elections and electing governments that ought not to be allowed to serve.

The repeated talk about the protesters being “taxpayers” who serve in the military betrays that they seem to think those who put the current right-wing/religious party coalition into power are somehow freeloaders who neither pay taxes nor do their mandatory service. While that might apply to a minority of those who vote for the religious parties, the notion that those who vote for the right are less economically productive than those who back the left seems to speak to a belief that only the propertied classes, which in Israel have always tended to the vote for the left, are legitimate rulers of the country.

That makes the assertions of the anti-Netanyahu resistance that they are the true defenders of democracy against would-be autocrats a bizarre form of projection. Indeed, the only answer to the compelling arguments that Kohelet has made about how the Supreme Court, the attorney general and various ministerial legal advisors have acquired the power to override the will of the elected Knesset can be boiled down to one unsupported assertion. This is the belief that if the members of the Supreme Court can no longer effectively name their own successors or strike down any government measure or even a basic or constitutional law on the basis of what the judges think is “reasonable” then Netanyahu and his religious and right-wing partners will impose a dictatorship on Israel.

As Kohelet’s chairman Moshe Koppel noted in an article in The Free Press, were the court dominated by the right and the Knesset the left, the protesters would be defending the elected government and blasting the judiciary as an anti-democratic force.

The assumption that the court is the defender of the rights of minorities against the untrammeled power of the majority and therefore must have the power to act without any checks from the legislative branch is a myth. It was exposed as a lie by the judiciary’s unwillingness to act in that manner when it was right-wing protesters who were blocking highways in 1995 as Oslo was being implemented or in 2005 before withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The court only intervenes to hamstring right-wing governments.

The debate isn’t about democracy or checks and balances, but about who is running the country. Netanyahu’s long tenure in office has rendered him toxic to many Israelis, and arguments about his fitness for office have long since supplanted the traditional right-left debate about the Palestinians that once dominated Israeli politics. Unease about him and his coalition partners are far more important in driving the protests than any principled support for a court with unlimited power.

Yet that isn’t the narrative about the controversy that is being reported in the mainstream corporate press in the United States or in liberal Jewish outlets that mindlessly repeat the mantra about defending democracy without seriously addressing the arguments that were developed by Kohelet.

Israel’s voters—and the Knesset they elect—must have the final say about judicial reform or any other issue facing the Jewish state. Those who have a problem with Kohelet’s work should debate the ideas it promotes. As Koppel has argued, the fact that anti-reform forces have sought to demonize and silence it while demonstrators have targeted the group’s offices illustrates how lacking in substance their supposed concerns about the suppression of dissent or individual rights truly are.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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