columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Want to support Israeli democracy? Then respect democratic elections

The authors of a disingenuous appeal to Diaspora Jews to intervene in the Jewish state’s divisive culture war are oblivious to the damage they are doing.

Israelis walk past posters for the November elections in Jerusalem, with some stopping to take a photo, on Oct. 24, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israelis walk past posters for the November elections in Jerusalem, with some stopping to take a photo, on Oct. 24, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

There is nothing new about the notion of Israelis calling upon Americans to save their country from itself. That appeal was at the core of the rise of the left-wing J Street lobby. Its purpose has always been to act as a cheering squad for the efforts of the Obama and Biden administrations to pressure Israel to adopt policies towards the Palestinians and the peace process, as well as Iran, which the electorate of the Jewish state had clearly and repeatedly rejected. But as the political warfare inside Israel has escalated since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition won a clear majority in last November’s election to the Knesset, a new variation on that theme has arisen.

It comes in the form of a request from prominent Israelis with strong ties to American Jewry for their foreign friends to intervene in the debate about judicial reform that is convulsing the Jewish state to aid those protesting against the Netanyahu government. As outrageous as previous calls for Washington to fight and win battles for the Israeli left that they couldn’t win at home were, this one is actually even more unprincipled and dangerous.

That was the conceit of an op-ed published this week in The Times of Israel by Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi and Matti Friedman. It declares that non-Israeli Jews have a moral obligation to join in the delegitimization of the government that was chosen by the people of Israel in a free and fair election.

Following up on a previous, equally irresponsible and specious piece published by the trio in February, it takes the position that Diaspora Jewry must “take a stand” against what it describes as an illegitimate government in Jerusalem. They consider that to be “the greatest threat facing Israel,” implying that it should be treated as the moral equivalent of Palestinian terrorists and Iranian theocrats threatening the Jewish state with nuclear destruction.

It was bad enough for some Israelis to tell Americans that their government’s policies about peace, which were the product of a broad-based consensus, should be overturned in the name of a fantasy utterly disconnected from the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians. But the message currently being sent to Americans that Israeli democracy will be destroyed unless the protesters get their way is a falsehood. More than that, it seeks to drag Diaspora Jewry into a conflict that is only superficially about politics and judges. The truth is that it’s primarily cultural. It pits Israel’s Ashkenazi secular liberal elites against Mizrachi, nationalist and religious Jews who voted Netanyahu’s coalition into office last November.

A ‘resistance’ against the election winners

Reasonable people may differ about the wisdom of the judicial reform package that has supposedly engendered the street protests. But the premise of the Gordis/Klein/Friedman broadside is untrue. The protests are large and have resonated with many Israelis in such a way as to shake the government. However, they are neither apolitical nor draw on a broad cross-section of the Israeli population.

To the contrary, it is an anti-Bibi resistance created in the wake of Netanyahu’s election victory that only subsequently seized on judicial reform—which, contrary to their assertion, was a widely understood campaign plank of the victorious coalition—as their battle cry. Created as part of a long-range political strategy to topple the government articulated by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, its activities are funded by wealthy high-tech moguls, as well as the left-wing New Israel Fund and similar groups.

It is a counter-revolution of the country’s business, legal, security, academic and journalistic establishments against much of the country’s electorate. They claim that Netanyahu is throwing the country’s economy and defense into disarray. Yet the truth is that it is the protesters who have shown themselves willing to destabilize Israel’s finances as they seek to get their way. It is the protest movement that has used its supporters within the military reserves to pressure the government in a manner that even newspapers like Haaretz recognize is a thinly disguised military coup and thereby undermined Israel’s security.

The decision to cast their stand as one that is synonymous with democracy was a brilliant tactical stroke. But it is also utterly disingenuous since what they are seeking to preserve is a judiciary that has seized for itself plenary power to overrule the will of the democratically elected Knesset and government on the basis of nothing more than the judges’ arbitrary ideas about what is “reasonable” in a matter that is utterly disconnected from the law.

Judicial reform would actually make Israel more democratic, not less. If enacted, it would restore the balance that existed between the courts, the Knesset and the government prior to former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak’s revolutionary power grab that began in the 1980s and ’90s. That was a response to the rise of Israel’s right-wing and nationalist parties that began winning elections in 1977 and have, off and on, dominated the Knesset since then. Yet this political leadership has been effectively hampered, especially in recent years, by an imperial judiciary that respects no limits on their power and even asserts the right to effectively choose their own successors, thus ensuring perpetual left-wing majorities.

One may like the results of the current system and worry about whether future governments will exercise their power wisely. Still, the idea that restraining the power of the courts would turn Israel into an authoritarian and theocratic state—as Gordis, Halevi and Friedman assert—is nonsense on stilts. While the protesters talk about defending democracy, what they are communicating is something different from the actual meaning of the word. When they say they want to preserve democracy, what they are really telling us is that they wish to preserve their power.

To point this out is not to deny that many of the concerns that motivate the protests are genuine. The dilemma of Israel’s ever-growing population of haredim, who contribute to neither the country’s economy nor its defense, poses a question about the future to which no one has a good answer. It’s equally true that the political left is profoundly worried about the status quo with the Palestinians and what that will mean for the nation’s character in the long run, though they are as bereft of viable alternatives as ever.

Yet the class divide—as well as the one between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, secular and religious—is clearly on display. That the protesters are genuinely anguished about living in a country where the people that they view as “deplorables” will no longer acquiesce to the rule of their betters is as obvious as it is incompatible with any real notion of respect for democracy.

The consequences of American involvement

For prominent thinkers to demand that Americans dive into this mess in order to take sides against the “second Israel”—the demographic groups that now make up a majority of the Jewish population in Israel—is a horrific suggestion. You cannot declare war on Netanyahu and his coalition, and treat it as beyond the pale, without labeling their voters in the same way. Doing so would permanently embitter relations between American and Israeli Jews.

Just as dangerous is the idea that American Jews can join in a campaign to delegitimize a democratically elected Israeli government while still maintaining the ties between the two countries. Gordis, Halevi and Friedman are so immersed in hatred of Netanyahu and his allies that they are oblivious to the fact that once you convince Americans that Israel isn’t a democracy—irrespective of the fact that you are defining it in ways that would be unrecognizable to Americans who, whether Democrats or Republicans, would never tolerate the rule of a judiciary that assumes the sort of power that Israel’s Supreme Court has done—than you are effectively tanking the alliance between the two countries.

They may think that they can separate their effort to overturn the last election and disenfranchise half of the Israeli public from the anti-Zionist campaign to delegitimize the entire Jewish state. But they are kidding themselves on this point. Their anti-government propaganda and misleading talk about democracy remain fodder not so much for J Street left-wingers who have never been comfortable with the results of Israeli elections, but for the growing intersectional left-wing of the Democratic Party that falsely views the Jewish state as a function of “white” privilege. Should they succeed in dividing American Jews as well as Washington from the choice of Israel’s voters, then they are playing right into the hands of those who oppose Israel, no matter who is running it and how much power its courts may have.

Gordis, Halevi and Friedman should know better than to use the sort of language of delegitimization that is incompatible with actual principles of democracy. But along with a lot of other people in Israel and the United States, they have lost the ability to differentiate between their political opinions and the basic concepts of good and evil. By adopting apocalyptic rhetoric to characterize policy differences, they have not only lost any perspective about this debate but should also forfeit the respect of their readers, who had heretofore viewed them as sober and even insightful voices.

The people of Israel will not benefit from American participation in a culture war rooted in class, ideology and religion that the Jewish state must ultimately resolve on its own. Those Americans who want to show support for Israel’s democracy should demonstrate it by respecting the outcome of its elections and ignoring the siren calls to join in a fight that they should have the good sense to stay out of.

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

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