According to numerous mainstream media outlets around the world, Israelis are now intent on protesting what they see as the new Israeli government’s plan to abandon democracy via reforms to the judicial system. The protesters believe they are about to be run by a gang of criminals who want to transform the Jewish state into a global bandit, a disgrace before the world.
I am not exaggerating. If anything, I am understating the fact. But it’s easy to see where most of this hysteria comes from: The Israeli media, with its endless lamentations and expressions of despair at the soon-to-come Armageddon of democracy. Indeed, former Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court Aharon Barak has denounced the government’s reform plans as “poison,” and there is poison involved, but it is coming from Barak’s side, not the government.
Ironically, the very fact of the protests disproves the claims that critics of the current government are making, because the protests are themselves a display of democracy at work. A government that was actually headed towards autocracy would never allow street demonstrations, constant criticism in the public square, polemics from prominent intellectuals and scathing attacks from the opposition to continue for weeks on end. Indeed, an authoritarian government would not allow an opposition to exist at all. No protester, journalist, intellectual or opposition politician has been prevented from unleashing their daily diatribe against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.
This not to deny that a genuine grassroots protest movement has emerged in recent weeks, and that this is legitimate in a democratic state. But the movement’s attacks on the proposed judicial reforms are superficial, disconnected from the actual content of the reforms and rely on slogans that have been endlessly repeated to the point of cliché.
In fact, the reforms are not some attempted putsch, but the product of a long public discussion and the obvious necessity for serious change that will make the judiciary more responsive and responsible to the public. They are a necessity if Israel’s democracy is to be maintained.
Ironically, it was Aharon Barak himself who imposed his own “judicial reforms” in the 1990s, greatly expanding the power of the Supreme Court to the point of unaccountability. It is not surprising that he denounces the present reforms, because it is his own creation that is being questioned, and this no doubt greatly pains him. Curtailing the immense power he arrogated to the Court means that the Court will no longer be able to impose Barak’s own political ideology. It will have to answer to the other branches of the government and its institutions, not to mention Israeli public opinion. The Court will no longer be able to simply quash any law it pleases because it deems it “unreasonable.” This hardly an authoritarian coup d’etat.
But today’s hysterical rhetoric is not new. It is the same campaign of hatred that has been directed against Netanyahu and his allies for years. It has simply grown louder in recent weeks. This has resulted in the forced removal of Aryeh Deri from the Finance Ministry, following a Supreme Court ruling related to an alleged promise Deri made to refrain from politics after his conviction for tax evasion. Deri strenuously denies making any such promise. Perhaps this will be swan song for the Court’s all but unlimited power.
It is true that Israel has a large minority that opposes Netanyahu. They have a perfect right, of course, to take to the streets and demonstrate. But they should also be a responsible opposition. Their overwrought defamation of the new government only gives fuel to Israel’s enemies, who are no doubt very pleased when opponents compare the new government to the Nazis and other satanic figures from history. The Iranians, the Palestinians and others will seize upon such rhetoric and proclaim, “If Israelis themselves are saying it, it must be true.” This cannot but encourage the growth of antisemitism around the world.
The truth is that the judicial reforms are not the reason for the opposition’s hysteria. Instead, it is horrified by the prospect of losing power and the bureaucratic and cultural hegemony it has enjoyed from the time Israel was founded. The left-wing ruling class has been caught in a tug-of-war with the right for decades, beginning with Menachem Begin’s election victory in 1977. They fear that the conservative part of the country, having won a free and fair election, now has the chance to have its say and enact the policies it has long advocated.
However, we should remember that Netanyahu already has a long track record of protecting Israeli freedom and diversity. He has molded Israel into a secular Jewish democracy that respects the rights of all ethnic, religious, sexual and political identity groups. He certainly does not want to destroy that legacy.
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is the author of Jewish Lives Matter.