Pre-eminent theologian Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik viewed Israel’s founding as imbued with religious meaning. Acknowledging the brilliant diplomacy of Zionist leaders that gathered the votes to confirm the UN Partition Resolution, the Rav, as he was called, also saw the events as providential, explaining the sanctity of the moment by taking words from the Song of Songs suggesting the presence of God as knocking to show that returning Jews to their homeland offered a profound encounter with the divine. Not ruling out the constructive role for politics, the Rav bestows on it a holiness because of what was achieved for the Jewish people.
There are many reasons to ask if this argument bears on the deeds of the current government comprising representatives of religious parties whose Biblical references make so many conspicuous cameos.
Are Israelis better off today than they were before the November 1 election returned Benjamin Netanyahu to the Prime Minister’s Office and the inauguration of a government proud of its far-right reputation and its proclaimed commitment to Jewish traditions? At some point, the governing coalition is going to need some data or evidence to substantiate their election campaign claims. Let us count off what is possible from the record thus far.
Last year 15 rockets were fired from Gaza; last week, there were over one hundred. Deadly car-ramming assaults occur with disturbing regularity as do more vicious attacks against Jews wherever they can be found. Israel’s streets are not even safe for its Arab citizens for whom the murder rate has accelerated trends from the past year. The Israeli military continues to find, arrest, and kill terrorists wherever they live or hide, but it also faces an increasingly set of complicated lethal threats on all its borders. That Prime Minister Netanyahu was forced to roll back what appeared to be his decision to fire the Minister of Defense because the latter publicly called for halting the judicial reform legislative package acknowledged not simply the urgency of the security situation but more importantly his own colossal misjudgment.
Nor can Israelis take comfort in the stable economy inherited from the last government. Prices of staples are rising in a country already overburdened by an extremely excessive cost of living. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has rejected the report of Budget Department economists forecasting damage because of the proposed judicial reforms.: inflation and a weaker shekel are no longer theoretical dangers. Another classified statement written by diplomats sounding an alarm about the impact of the reforms on global ties has surfaced and been similarly tossed aside by the Foreign Minister.
That the record of a government sharing the same space on the ideological map does not live up to expectations is not only frustrating; it is also revealing. The political parties in this coalition hold such radically different priorities that they needed some policy or issue around which to camouflage the underlying power plays that give this government its wattage. This is what drew the coalition to the gravitational force of judicial reform.
Wrapping the disparate aims of the coalition parties around the plan for judicial overhaul thus seemed, initially, a tactical masterstroke. For the Likud, it aroused backing for the prospect of weakening what some see as the last bastion of an elite that came from Europe and discriminated and disrespected those making their way to the land of Israel from the Middle East. Not recognizing the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, the Ultra-Orthodox simply wanted to guarantee that it would have no jurisdiction to override the authority of its Rabbis Backing the reforms would thus presumably deliver military exemptions to the Ultra-Orthodox along with larger stipends for their institutions. For Shas, Supreme Court decisions get in the way of the leaders chosen by its voters denying Aryeh Deri, for example, one or more of his guaranteed ministerial positions. Coalition agreements pledged to translate Otzma Yehudit’s rhetoric into harsher conditions in prisons and even to promote the possibility of capital punishment for terrorism. Finance and security for civil administration across the West Bank was handed to Religious Zionism allowing its leader, Bezalel Smotrich, to begin recognizing illegal settlements set up by young men and women in the past several decades and to channel funds for constructing their infrastructures.
What cannot be sorted out by calculation and forthright discussion about how and where to draw an eastern border or where and how to draw the boundary between religious and civil domains has been auctioned off via coalition agreements to various ministers. The proponents of judicial reform argue they are making Israel more democratic by weakening the power of the Supreme Court to block or interfere with policies advanced by leaders put into office who can be retained or fired as the people see fit because the legitimacy of democratic power comes from the ability of the people to take it away.
But governance through the coalition agreements bent on narrowing the scope of judicial authority exacerbates the very problem the reforms claim to solve. The reform package makes policies subject to the authority of bureaucracies run by particular political parties. One obvious peril relates to the settlements. Administrative decisions may produce policies never debated and approved by the Knesset. They may virtually foreclose options for resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Other dangers loom if Rabbinic jurisdiction expands at the expense of civil court authorities. In the several months since the government introduced its judicial overhaul plans, the issue of how and where to draw the line between religious and secular authority and jurisdiction has grown only more urgent.
Netanyahu is a gifted and wily politician, whom significant numbers of Israelis considered in the last election, what the fragmented besieged country needed. He was someone who had the skills to manage the country’s complex security problems while serving as a responsible steward of the economy. Right now, Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest threat to his power is the very coalition he put together after the November 2022 election. That is the reason the judicial overhaul hit so many with jolts of dread and dismay. Until Benjamin Netanyahu the fringe was still the fringe—too extreme, too steeped in an ideology and movement to coalesce into anything that would get its hands on actual power.
In the current moment when so many Israelis are reckoning with their country’s identity in the context of a coalition whose members believe God and the Jewish future are intertwined, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s meditation on the divine and the political order offers important guidance. Bestowing sanctity on political thinking without calling for it to be replaced with Rabbinic reasoning transcends the historiography of the Rav’s own era and illuminates why the decisions taken by politicians are remembered and for good reason. It is not that every battlefield order is correct or that there are not damaging consequences from one or another policy. It is because political and military actions can be examined, evaluated, debated, and recalibrated, if necessary, by the very people held accountable for having forged them. Those who find policy guidance in the complexities of Jewish law or ground their political priorities in Biblical texts are not likely to alter their views by calculating costs and benefits. The stability and vigor of the Jewish state is still the best way to listen for and even hear the sounds of that holy ‘knock.’