In the days since the Knesset passed the first part of the judicial reform package put forward by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the bitterness of the debate over this issue has raised fears that Israel is on the verge of a societal crisis if not a civil war. In response to this dangerous situation, both supporters and critics of the measure have issued calls for unity.
Those who love Israel can only hope that such appeals will be heeded. For all of its military prowess and wealth, Israel is still a small country beset by foes, and its security is not something to take for granted. Perhaps Israel’s greatest strengths are to be found in the genius of its people and a communal spirit that gives its society enormous resilience in the face of great challenges.
The divisions that the debate about judicial reform has exposed are putting an enormous strain on that resilience. But the worst thing is that the spirit driving the mass protests seems not so much driven by convictions about constitutional principles or objections to the details of proposed changes to the system as by the anger of some groups of citizens against other Israelis.
The discord is partly based on the idea by some Jews that other Jews are not as good as they are; it is front and center in this political conflict. This is nothing new and is rooted in Jewish, Zionist and Israeli history – but that does not make it any easier to take. Among the worst elements of the commentary in the American media has been a willingness on the part of those who claim to care deeply about Israel to pour fuel upon the flames of this particularly unpleasant variety of communal strife.
Looking down on the non-elites
There is no better example of this willingness than a column by Bret Stephens published this week in The New York Times. The piece didn’t argue that judicial reform was wrong. Far from agreeing with the claims that the government’s proposals were aimed at destroying democracy, Stephens conceded that it was “all too democratic” and that the country’s “unusually powerful judiciary” needed to be “reined in.” His objection was, rather, that the effort was being pursued by the wrong sort of people and for bad motives. And Stephens considered the willingness of that wrong sort to attempt to govern Israel even after they won an election to be worse than the actions of antisemitic BDS supporters.
Stephens, an American who was editor of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004 before returning to the United States, where he has served as a columnist at The Wall Street Journal and then the Times, wrote that the opponents of judicial reform were:
“Its most productive and civically engaged citizens. With those citizens—the tech entrepreneurs, the air force reservists, the world-famous novelists and doctors—Israel stands in a league with Switzerland and Singapore: a boutique nation, small and imperfect but widely associated with excellence in dozens of fields. Without those citizens, Israel is in the club with Hungary and Serbia: a little country, insular and pettily corrupt and good mainly at nursing its grievances.
That’s why the particulars of the legislation matter less than the way it was carried out and the motives of those who championed it. For the most part, they represent Israel’s least productive and engaged citizens—ultra-Orthodox Jews who want military exemptions and welfare, settlers who want to be a law unto themselves, ideologues in think tanks—abusing their temporary majority to secure exemptions, entitlements, immunities and other privileges that mock the idea of equality under law.”
Stripped of the crude and somewhat misleading generalizations Stephens has employed to heap bouquets of praise on the protesters and to treat supporters of reform with sneering contempt, this passage can be boiled down to one disgusting thought: the “good” Jews deserve to run Israel, regardless of whether they are outvoted by the “bad” Jews. The reforms can’t be allowed because a mechanism—in this case, a judiciary that has arrogated to itself the power to rule as the sovereigns of the nation—must be kept in place to ensure that the “bad” Jews are kept in their place.
This is the sort of sentiment that ought to be condemned by every rational Jew and sympathizer with Israel, regardless of what you think of Netanyahu or judicial reform.
If unity and efforts at compromise, which have been repeatedly refused by the opposition to Netanyahu, appear to be impossible at this moment, it is because of attitudes like the one Stephens exhibits. That’s bad enough when voiced on the streets of Tel Aviv by people caught up in the emotion of the moment and egged on by crowds of sympathizers. When that attitude comes from someone writing from a distance and published in the pages of a newspaper whose institutional hostility to Israel and Zionism has been a source of pain for Jews for generations, it is nothing less than a disgrace.
The tribal nature of Israeli politics is a fact of life. The demonstrators are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, secular and liberal in their politics. And what they fear is the idea that a change to restore some balance between the courts and the Knesset will empower the largely Mizrachi, religious and nationalist Jews who vote for the parties that make up Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
The country’s liberal elites worry that people for whom they have little respect are increasingly in charge of the country. The sense that Israel’s shifting demography could be its political destiny was reinforced by the results of last November’s elections when a quarter of the vote went to religious parties; combined with those who voted for Likud, it led to a 64-seat majority in the Knesset for a nationalist and religious coalition with no left-leaning “centrists” to balance them.
Stephens is echoing those fears in terms that are meant to persuade supporters of Israel that if the nationalist and religious majority has its way, the Jewish state will not be the sort of country they want to be associated with.
American Jews have long been cheerleaders for the vision of Ashkenazi liberal Israel—the Israel of Leon Uris’ Exodus, whose hero was played in the movie version by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed screen idol Paul Newman (whose father was Jewish). They cheer the Israel of “startup nation” tech geniuses who, similarly, are disproportionately Ashkenazi, secular and liberal. Mizrachi Jews who don’t look like the fictional Ari Ben Canaan and are likely to be religious and conservative/nationalist in their politics ,or the black-clothed haredim, are not so attractive to them.
A history of communal prejudice
These sorts of attitudes are also part of Israel’s history.
In the 1930s, the immigration certificates to Palestine that turned out to be an escape path for doomed European Jews were controlled by the Labor Zionist movement. Preference was given to those who shared the movement’s beliefs and were interested in farming. City-dwellers and religious Jews, unless part of groups planning on joining settlements, were often put to the back of the line.
The same attitudes characterized the way the newborn State of Israel, whose government was run by Labor Zionists, received the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were thrown out or forced to flee their homes in the Arab and Muslim world after May 1948. The absorption of this Mizrachi population is one of Israel’s great success stories but also a source of lingering resentment. The immigrants were treated with disdain rooted in prejudice. They were sent to live in “development towns” on the fledgling nation’s perimeter, where they lived in tents and poverty.
Those divisions have lessened as the Mizrachim, who now constitute half of Israel’s Jewish population, rose in prominence in Israeli society and intermarriage with fellow Ashkenazi Jews became more commonplace. Still, the sectarian nature of the political divide within Israel persists. The old Ashkenazi elites still tend to vote for parties on the left, and the Mizrachim, for whom Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a champion, primarily for the right.
Since 1977, when Labor was dethroned for the first time, those Jews whom Stephens and others regard with such contempt have been winning most of the elections. And it was only in the years after this political upheaval that leftist jurists—led by former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak—decided to embark upon their own revolution in which they claimed that the courts had the power to overrule any government action for virtually any reason. In this way, the left has retained outsized power and the representatives of nationalist and religious voters have been kept in check no matter how many elections they win.
Leave aside the fact that, contrary to Stephens’ assertions, religious Zionists of the sort who support Netanyahu and the reforms are now the most avid volunteers for service in elite units of the Israel Defense Forces once dominated by the Ashkenazi elites. That he thinks there’s something wrong with conservative think tanks in Israel that promote the same ideas he sometimes champions in his columns shows how his writing, which used to be so intellectually rigorous, has declined in quality due to his political, cultural and religious biases.
Still, even if you sympathize with secular Ashkenazi liberals and regard Jews who think, dress or pray differently as slightly alien, the kind of Jew vs. Jew-hatred that Stephens had no compunction about venting in the pages of the Times ought to repel you.
Those who believe in Jewish unity are compelled to accept and even love all fellow Jews, no matter their background. Given the depths of the differences that divide us, this can be difficult. Nevertheless, to declare that a Mizrachi, nationalist and religious Israel is no longer worthy of support from or the love of Diaspora Jews is not so much wrongheaded as it is redolent of a spirit of prejudice that has done so much harm to Israel and the Jews. The contempt for other Jews that Stephens is unashamed to exhibit should stand as a warning to all sides in this conflict of the dangers of overheated rhetoric and a willingness to view opponents as somehow a lesser form of human being or Jew than oneself.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.