“Our system of government is a broken toaster that burns people. The only solution is to throw it away and get a new one.”
We were sitting in my Tel Aviv living room eating brunch this past weekend when my guest, a new acquaintance half my age, offered that view of Israel.
When I asked him what kind of government would be better, he told me one in which more than 4 million Arabs living on Israeli-controlled land had the right to vote. He considered the idea of a two-state solution moribund.
“Give all of the Arabs the vote,” he added, “and we will have a real democracy.”
If only it were that simple. In America, I pointed out, people of color have had the right to vote since 1870, and many of them would argue that the country’s system nevertheless burns a lot of their people. He conceded the point, and we went on talking, neither of us coming up with what I considered a solution for what ails America, my former home, and Israel, my new one. None of my other guests had anything better to offer.
No matter what happens in Israel between now and the end of 2023, my vote for word of the year is already cast: “Democracy!”
The exclamation point at the end of the word is not celebratory. Rather, I include it as a sign of sadness and anger mixed with defiance, as many people around the country have expressed the word.
This past week, when I traveled to Jerusalem, I heard the word sung and shouted during a demonstration in front of Israel’s parliament. Inside the Knesset, elected officials were preparing to vote on judicial reform legislation that would strip the country’s supreme court of its independent voice.
Later that night, the first vote in favor of judicial reform passed 63 to 47, with some Knesset members boycotting the vote. (There are 120 members in Israel’s parliament.)
The amazing thing about the concept of democracy is how malleable it is. Russia, according to its 1993 constitution, declares itself a democracy with a republican form of government that is divided among three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – the same as the United States. Hitler came to power in a democracy with a liberal constitution.
Israeli lawmakers who favor judicial reform contend that their package of bills will make Israel’s democracy stronger by granting the government in control the power to select judges, while denying the High Court the ability to review the country’s Basic Laws. (Israel has no formal constitution.)
In 2019, after I moved to Tel Aviv, I found life noisy and, at times, chaotic, but nowhere near as depressing as conditions in the United States. America’s response to the Covid epidemic, when face masks were turned into political footballs, and the storming of the US Capitol after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, struck me as alarming signs of a democracy in trouble.
Now, with Benjamin Netanyahu back in power and leading a coalition of conservatives who want to “reform” Israel’s judicial system, I am sad to say that things look better back in my old home. By reforming the High Court in his own image, and leaving free speech unprotected, my new country’s prime minister appears to be following in the footsteps of our neighbors, countries where autocratic kings, strongmen and ayatollahs reign and “liberal” is a dirty word.
Meanwhile, why doesn’t Israel have a constitution? What do those who oppose the current government’s judicial reforms propose as a compromise to strengthen Israel’s democracy?
Can a country that calls itself a Jewish state really be a democracy? Among the tens of thousands in attendance at the Knesset demonstration this week I saw no one wearing a hijab or a kaffiyeh. Perhaps I did not look hard enough.
Is our start-up nation stuck in neutral, or going in reverse? If Israel’s system of government is a broken toaster, can we fix it? Or will Netanyahu’s stronger version of democracy relegate the country to the dustbin of history?