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Challenges for Israeli democracy: Navigating reforms and embracing unity

It is crucial to promote an inclusive society that ensures all voices are heard.

Israeli Supreme Court building in Jerusalem. Credit: Israel Tourism via Wikimedia Commons.
Israeli Supreme Court building in Jerusalem. Credit: Israel Tourism via Wikimedia Commons.

“Our democracy is the blue and white Israeli flag waved and loved by all Israelis taking part in the debate; I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.” — Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Address to U.S. Congress, July 19, 2023

Israel is in the midst of internal turmoil that has divided the country and led to one of its deepest political crises in its 75 years of existence. Israel’s government passed its first judicial overhaul law, limiting its Supreme Court’s review of government decisions. Widespread protests have intensified over the past six months against the proposed laws and continue unabated.

Israel’s Knesset (parliament) passed the Reasonableness Bill. It prevents Israel’s Supreme Court from overturning a ruling government’s administrative decisions that the court considers biased against the public’s interest. The justice minister celebrated the law as “the first step in a historic process to correct the judicial system.” A member of the opposition stated that “our country is on fire. You’ve destroyed the country, you’ve destroyed society.”

A 2007 court decision shows how the reasonableness test works: The government only chose to fortify some classrooms against rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza. The High Court sided with the parents’ petition and ordered the Defense Ministry to protect all classrooms because of the severe threat to children. The court deemed the government’s actions “unreasonable to an extent justifying judicial intervention.”

Israel’s political crisis began when broad judicial reforms were proposed earlier this year by the newly elected religious-right government—considered to be the most right-wing in the country’s history—led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Opponents view some of the proposals as self-serving, as well as supporting extreme views of some of the government’s ministers. Supporters of the overhaul think the potential changes will shift power back from unelected judges and into the hands of the voters and their elected officials.

Supporters of the judicial reform view the Supreme Court as being comprised of judges who do not reflect Israel’s Jewish ethnic and religious diversity. They also see the court’s activist role as harming their political interests. Critics ranging from the left to even some voices on the right, as well as American Jewish groups and foreign leaders, view the overhaul as a threat to Israel’s democracy.

The court is historically seen as a protector of minority rights, including Arabs, liberal religious Jewish movements and LGBTQ+ Israelis. Opponents of judicial reform worry that legal protections could be in jeopardy because the court would not be able to overturn government decisions. On the other hand, a secular government could hurt Orthodox Jews; ultra-Orthodox Jews serve in the current government and believe that the court does not protect them. The new law could disenfranchise minority groups depending on who controls the government.

Demonstrators on both sides of the issue wrapped themselves in the Israeli flag while they marched, mostly peacefully, through city streets, demonstrating the strength of Israel’s democracy and the patriotism of both sides. Thousands attended protests for and against the reforms, with supporters and opponents waving Israeli flags.

Thousands of activists on both sides of the overhaul debate held a prayer for unity at Jerusalem’s Western Wall before marching together to the Israel Museum near the Knesset.

There also have been threats to strike by Israel’s doctors and lawyers. Thousands of military reservists vowed that they will not participate in volunteer reserve duty. More judicial bills are proceeding in the Knesset.

Some leading American Jewish organizations, while traditionally abstaining from engaging in Israeli politics, also voiced deep concerns, criticizing the lack of compromise between the Israeli government and the opposition parties. Other U.S. Jewish groups supported the government’s initiatives. The Anti-Defamation League and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were among several American Jewish organizations that released statements.

Israel does not have a formal written constitution. Instead, its system of governance is based on a combination of written laws, statutes and a series of Basic Laws that serve as the country’s constitutional framework. The Basic Laws were enacted by the Israeli Knesset, starting in 1950. They cover various aspects of Israel’s system of government, individual rights and the relationship between the branches of government. Together, these Basic Laws form the constitutional backbone of the country.

Diversity and dialogue

Israel is the national home of Jews but is a country with citizens from many ethnic and cultural groups who practice different religions. In his address to Congress, Israeli President Herzog described how “the Jewish people returned home and built a national home, which became a beautiful Israeli democracy, a mosaic of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians, secular, traditional and orthodox, of all denominations, and all possible views and lifestyles.” Sometimes there is tension among these groups.

Herzog recently launched a new dialogue project to use a national network of community centers to foster healthy discourse within and between different groups. He is building upon the call in Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence for “the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants” and to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Points to consider:

  1. Israelis strive for consensus and unity in an imperfect democracy.

Amid the protests Israel faces, it remains a democracy. However, the nation is facing stern tests, like any other democracy, over proposed judicial reform bills demanding careful consideration. The first bill passed presents an opportunity for continued dialogue and potential consensus. While imperfect, Israel’s democracy grapples with the need for transparent decision-making and unifying its diverse population. Patriotic protests underscore citizens’ concerns, demanding accountability and a clear path forward. It is crucial to promote an inclusive society that ensures all voices are heard, reflecting the nation’s commitment to upholding democratic values.

  1. Internal policy debates shouldn’t erode support for Zionism and Israel.

Zionism and the support of the Jewish right to self-determination in the land of Israel should not be dependent on which parties control Israel’s government. This is comparable to how American patriotism should not be dependent on who occupies the White House. Israelis routinely criticize their own government, just as Americans do. It is acceptable to be critical of any Israeli government while continuing to support the right of Jews to have a nation in their ancestral homeland. Supporters of Israel must reach across differences that have the power to either divide us—or keep us united.

  1. Israel continues to be a vibrant, diverse country.

Israel is a tapestry of different religions, ethnicities and points of view. From bustling urban centers to ancient biblical landscapes, the nation offers a captivating blend of the modern and the historic. This inclusivity is at the heart of Israel’s strength, enabling the coexistence of different traditions, beliefs and perspectives. As citizens with diverse backgrounds contribute to the fabric of society, Israel’s collective identity grows stronger, celebrating the uniqueness of each culture. Israel continues to flourish—embracing its diversity as a source of strength and resilience, driving progress and prosperity for its people and contributing to global advancements in various fields.

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