If you’ve been watching the news from Israel, you are aware of great danger facing the country. Not the enemy from without, but the enemy from within – severe discord among fellow Jews. It is threatening to tear apart the country as never before. I don’t know what Heavenly message was communicated when three sets of brothers perished one after the other, but it seems plain to me that we are being told something about not valuing our brotherhood enough. At the time of Esther’s Purim message – “Gather all the Jews together” – the opposite seems to be happening. We need to reflect deeply on this before it is too late.
According to many reports, nothing less than a civil war is about to happen in Israel as protests and demonstrations grow by the day. The purported cause is the allegedly radical judicial reforms that the current “dictatorial” government is committing to passing. According to the protesters, the reforms will destroy the fundamental democratic processes and allow the government to pass unjust, theocratic, discriminatory laws without a check on its power. The inciteful rhetoric is at frightful levels; former prime ministers have called for civil war and for the army and police to stop obeying the “Putsch” dictatorship government. Increasingly, they refer to the judicial reform effort as a power coup designed to destroy democracy, which must be stopped at all costs.
If you believe that, then the lies and slander that the Left is using to hoodwink the Israeli public and the whole Western world have successfully fooled you, as well.
The truth is that the judicial reforms are not at all radical. Even if, arguendo, some of its particular points are too strong, the truth is that the government has repeatedly said they are willing to discuss compromise. However, in fact, it is all a smokescreen; the real issue is something else entirely.
The issue exercising the Left is simple and stark: the growing realization that they have lost their grip on power. They are angry and frustrated that “their State is being taken from them.”
Since before the State’s founding, the non-religious, secular Labor Zionists ruled the country with total control over all branches of government, media, academia, and culture, and treated the right-wing and religious population as unenlightened primitives. In 1977, Menachem Begin successfully tapped into the frustration of the former underclasses and created a revolution. Conservative, capitalist, secular forces joined with Sefardim and the religious right to put the Left socialists and hardline secularists out of power for the first time in Israel’s history. For most of the next 45 years, Likud has been in power, with few exceptions. The majority of Jews in Israel have moved steadily to the right, particularly as they have seen the folly of the Oslo Accords and the excesses of the Left.
Supreme Court End-Run
In order to retain its hold on power, the Israeli Left followed the example of its counterparts in the United States, using the courts to achieve what they could not at the ballot box. Upon assuming his position, Chief Justice Aharon Barak instigated new policies through which the Israeli Supreme Court became the most powerful Supreme Court in the entire world. Sitting as the High Court of Justice, it can control anything and everything in Israeli society, not bound by whether or not it has standing, as according to the Barak doctrine, “everything is justiciable.” Not only does the Supreme Court not have to rule based on precedent, but if it finds any law or decision by the government or the Army “unreasonable” in its superior opinion, it has arrogated itself the power to invalidate it.
Furthermore, by controlling five out of the nine votes needed to elect new Justices, they rigged the system so that they control who gets elected to the Court, and thus ensure that those with their bias will control it in the future. This terribly biased, politicized overbearing Court has been a blot on fairness in Israel. Over the years, many commentators understood that the Supreme Court had gone too far and needed to be reined in. That is what the judicial reforms are about; they seek to bring the Supreme Court back to the way it operated before Aharon Barak started his dictatorial power grab. This is something that a majority of Israelis would agree with – if it were presented to them fairly.
Why, then, are there hundreds of thousands demonstrating weekly? Why are so many prominent professionals moved to threaten strikes and anarchy? Is it because they have suddenly grown so concerned about the workings of the Supreme Court and legal processes?
Judicial reform, in fact, is not the real issue. What is really going on is that the Left sees the results of the last election; they are out of power and likely to stay that way. They see the ones they consider “the extreme right” in control and intent on enacting various policies antithetical to the Left. They are angry that Netanyahu is – despite their best efforts to delegitimize him – once again the Prime Minister. They are irate that Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are senior ministers.
Most of all, they are incensed, frustrated, angry, and frightful regarding the growth of the religious parties. Between them, UTJ, Shas, and the Religious Zionist parties control 32 out of 120 seats. As a result, it is now impossible for the Left to form a government without either joining with the Arab parties or forming a national unity government with the Likud.
They, therefore, gnash their teeth as they decry “the end of democracy,” “the rise of fanaticism,” and so on. They spread lies that the government is trying to institute Halachah as the law of the land. They fabricate slander that the current government is anti-women, will persecute LGBTQs, and so forth. What really upsets them, however, is that they recognize that the rule by the secular Left, who controlled Israel, is effectively over.
An Understandable Frustration
This feeling of desperation is very understandable and justified from their perspective. It is the secularists who mainly built the country’s infrastructure, fought its wars, established the government, sacrificed enormously, and did many heroic things that created the modern State of Israel. It is obvious that they are angry and frustrated in being pushed to the side in terms of holding the reins of power.
Moreover, from what they see in the anti-religious secular media, the religious are primitive Neanderthals who do not participate in the country’s defense nor pay taxes, expecting to be protected and supported by the secular naïve freiers (an Israeli term meaning suckers). This is unfortunately magnified when “religious” idiots riot and demonstrate while calling soldiers and police “Nazis.” The secularists are seething that – in their eyes – these people are taking the country away from them.
However, they fail to understand that this didn’t happen in a vacuum. While they did many great things to promote the building and protection of the State, they also neglected many crucial issues that have now come home to roost. Despite all of their noise, the secularists are becoming a minority due to the growing acceptance of traditional values, the high birth rate among the religious, and, unfortunately, the high rate of emigration by secular Israelis.
This is no accident. Young Jews brought up on the values of the secularists made one of three choices. Some sensed that there ought to be much more to a Jewish state than to be a vapid cheap imitation of western values. They thus decided to increase their connection with Judaism, become more connected with the traditional communities, and now vote for religious parties.
Others who made the same observation but decided that if Western values are most important, why pursue them in Israel? One can make more money, live in a nicer home, and not be bothered with annoying things like army service, high taxes, and the irritating Orthodox. They moved to America, and many other places.
This leaves the third group of secular Israelis: those committed to staying in Israel but who are not interested in becoming more traditional. It is that group – that used to be the great majority in Israel – that has seen its numbers dwindle. The once all-powerful Labor party barely exists, and the Meretz party did not make the electoral threshold. As a result, the only way they could put together a government last time was by lying to their voters, electing a prime minister who controlled only six seats, incorporating Arabs into the government, and insisting that it was legitimate under the rules of “democracy.”
These are the people leading all the protests and spreading the lie that judicial reform is the issue. Their slogans claim that they are standing up for democracy, which is the biggest lie in itself. Democracy is government by the will of the majority; the Jewish majority has voted for the Right/Religious. Belief in democracy should be to accept that election’s result and understand that their political opponents are legitimately in power. But they refuse to accept that. Instead, they have convinced themselves that by calling for civil disobedience and for anarchy in the streets, they are standing up for democracy. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.
Our Responsibility As Orthodox Jews
Where will Israel go from here? That is anyone’s guess. The forces of the Left will not stand down and will be satisfied with nothing less than destroying the country unless they get their way. But that, of course, is something that the majority cannot let happen.
In my perfect world, the Right must be communicating its understanding of the frustration and the anger of the Left and seek ways to compromise on those issues on which they can afford to compromise. The religious parties, in particular, must be zealous in promoting their issues with great care and understanding for the hurt feelings and disappointment of those who used to be in power. They must be greatly concerned that what is done is with love, compassion, and flexibility, while not compromising on fundamental values.
While there is little that individuals can do about that, every Orthodox Jew, both in Israel and the Diaspora, needs to be very aware that – more than ever – non-Orthodox Jews feel under attack and alienated and disparaged, for this is what their leaders are telling them. The truth does not matter much here, but perceptions matter a great deal. They are looking to confirm their prejudice that Orthodox Jews are corrupt, mean-spirited, bullying, and power-hungry – and seek to delegitimize the non-Orthodox as second-class Jews. Therefore, all of us must be extra vigilant in being stellar examples of the beauty, light, and kindness that the Torah teaches us – and not, G-d forbid, the opposite.
History seems to be progressing ever more powerfully toward some great vortex in which the Jewish People, the Land of Israel, and religious Jews are under attack. Many sources say that these conditions are a harbinger of the coming of the Mashiach, as we all fervently hope. In the meantime, we must heighten our resolve – and up our game – to be worthy of the arrival of the Mashiach and not, G-d forbid, misuse this tremendous opportunity.
Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer served as Rav in several congregations in the US, including a decade of service at the Young Israel of Forest Hills. He now lives in Lavon, Israel, where he works to bring love and appreciation between religious and secular Jews.