As I write this, the echoes from nearby Habima Square in Tel Aviv are finally dying down as thousands of protesters begin to make their way home on a cold and rainy night.
The demonstrators ventured out in a downpour and its aftermath late Saturday night to express their opposition to the current government and especially its plan for judicial reform, which they believe threatens Israeli democracy and their most essential rights.
I did not attend the demonstration, as PLO flags have been flown at such protests in recent days, and while they do not represent the views of the overwhelming majority of demonstrators, I am not prepared to participate in anything with the small minority they do represent.
Nonetheless, I am in sympathy with the protests in a general sense, because I too am worried about Israeli democracy. I am worried because if history teaches anything, it is that democracy and republicanism are fragile things and can easily slip away. There is no guarantee that freedom can withstand its internal and external enemies.
Many in Israel today believe that their freedom is in mortal danger, certain that democracy is about to be destroyed by parliamentary means. This sentiment of terror has seized the public discourse, with warnings of civil war and riots in the streets, and accusations of treason leveled against the opposition.
There are a great many others, of course, who support the government and believe that concerns about Israel’s democracy are overblown. The opposition, they hold, has descended into the hysteria that often marks Israeli politics and the moribund Israeli left is simply howling with rage at its defeat and the triumph of its rivals.
I do not believe this is the case. Israeli democracy is unlikely to fall, at least not at the moment, but there are disturbing signs that it could be substantially undermined.
First, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a liberal democrat, some of his coalition partners are not. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, for example, have made it more or less clear that principles like Jewish nationalism, the annexation of Judea and Samaria, a potential Torah state, and a narrow halachic definition of Jewish identity are far more important and essential to them than liberal democracy.
As for the coalition’s haredi participants, they have little interest in democracy at all. Their priority, as it has always been, is to retain the resources—including my tax shekels—to fund the study of Torah and maintain large numbers of the willfully unemployed in something like a sustainable lifestyle.
These people now possess not inconsiderable power, and there is no reason not to be at least somewhat concerned about it.
The proposed judicial reforms, which would give the Knesset the power to override Supreme Court decisions in certain circumstances, are an excellent example. Many on the right hold that the court has long enjoyed disproportionate power and that a new balance must be struck in favor of the legislature. I am not a legal scholar, and they may very well be right, but a power grab by the judiciary is no excuse for a power grab by the legislature. While the court should not have the power to arbitrarily strike down any law it pleases, the Knesset should not have the power to arbitrarily strike down any court decision it pleases.
The reason for this was articulated by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut in a speech delivered on Thursday night.
“One of the most important functions of a court in a democratic country is to provide effective protection for human and civil rights in the country,” she said, adding that the court’s authority “is the guarantee that the rule of the majority does not turn into the tyranny of the majority.”
The principle that minorities have certain inalienable rights in a society that largely operates under majority rule is observed by every democracy in the world, and while the right-religious government won a majority in a free and fair election—and this must be respected—its victory does not grant it unlimited powers. To severely restrict the authority of the Supreme Court would not, as some claim, restore democracy, but weaken it.
There are already signs that the right-religious bloc’s overreach is tearing at the fabric of society. There was no serious violence at the Habima demonstration, but the protest movement will grow and perhaps become considerably more radical.
The right denounces this as seditious, but needless to say, the left has no patent on incitement, as proven by the right wing’s conduct preceding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Both ends of the Israeli political spectrum have at various times gone too far, and they may do so again.
In fact, if anything endangers Israeli democracy at the moment, it is that one side or the other will go too far, sparking violent internal division, civil unrest, disregard of democratic principles by both left and right, and ultimately a loss of faith in the capacities of republicanism to preserve social and national unity.
I very much hope that Israel’s ability to come together at the moment of truth—displayed over and over again in times of crisis—will ultimately win out. But republics, even a Hebrew republic, are not immortal. We should remember this. And we should also remember what the Hebrew republic means to all of us. Perhaps this will give us pause in our moments of deepest resentment and anger, and allow us to step back from the brink rather than hurl ourselves over the cliff.
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.
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