Donna Robinson Divine

Calling Diaspora Jews: שְׁמַע קוֹלֵֽנוּ

Never before have Israelis been so divided. Saturday night protests have become rituals canonized into the sacred task of saving Israel’s ‘democracy’ and rescuing the country from a crib-death at the hands of the current coalition.

That Israel’s judicial reform proposals—a topic barely mentioned in the November election campaigns–have been put forward as the government’s major legislative initiative opens up a portal into thinking not so much about the divisions between government and opposition but rather about the serious fragmentation within this proudly proclaimed right-wing coalition and about their disparate agendas.   If you think the word ‘fragmentation’ is an exaggeration, you might check out the range of rivalries and fractures among the ultra-orthodox political parties gearing up for October’s local elections. The coalition ruptures are even more extensive and apparent when the Likud is added to this mix.

Judicial reform  architects are clever enough to have designed a set of proposals that would have gained traction across the Knesset political spectrum, but they put forward a program bound to set off deeply felt hostility, precisely because it was purposely retrofitted away from a parliamentary consensus. Its purpose is to sustain coalition unity, the required prerequisite to passing laws that would never win popular support on their own.

There is no need to imagine the possibility of widespread agreement on judicial reforms as a herculean task. Such changes have already been undertaken successfully with the combined aim of curbing the power of the legal establishment and of diversifying it—with regard to gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and practice, and no less important, with regard to judicial philosophy.  Gideon Saar directed one effort when he was still active in the Likud as part of an earlier Netanyahu government. The second—more extensive—came from the work of Ayelet Shaked, as Justice Minister from 2015-2019. The judicial changes they introduced never disrupted ties with Supreme Court Justices; they never set off alarm bells nor did they elicit appeals by Israelis-on the left or on the right—for the intervention of Diaspora Jewry.  In the past eight months, statements coming from the Prime Minister, himself, have lent credence to the uncertainty about how this confrontation can end or be ended, because the clash itself is defined by both sides as a struggle over ‘democracy’ suggesting a gravitational pull against a broad-based agreement.

The crowds filling Kaplan Square in Tel Aviv and public spaces in cities across the country are not deeply engaged in arguments about legal principles but rather about changes that essentially pull the rug out from under Israel’s foundational principles and the grounds for the legitimacy of a Jewish state.  Breach of contract—a slow methodical undoing of everything Israelis ever thought was true and took for granted propels them forward and into the streets. Are there grounds for the sense of crisis? I believe there are. The judicial overhaul is not, as the government claims, a stalking horse for invigorating democracy; it is, rather, a trojan horse that will eviscerate it. Let me offer an abbreviated list of the sources for this anxiety.

Religious Zionism views its legislative dominance and management of critical ministries as the keys to expanding Jewish settlements across what it calls Judea and Samaria without due regard for international agreements signed by Israeli governments in the past or for the legal protections bestowed on private property today. This political party has explicitly abandoned the long-standing commitment of the Jewish state, however implicitly acknowledged, to sharing the land.

Scrambling well-established professional norms of conduct for police and army is Otzma Yehudit’s priority.  A political party comfortable with the vibes and vapors of a polemic hostile to Palestinians, its leader often lashes out in purposefully ambiguous language against Arabs and/or Muslims possessing Israeli citizenship.  The constant bellowing out of threatening rhetoric undermines Religious Zionist politics whose settlement enterprise requires a measure of stability that Otzma Yehudit views with disdain. To Otzma Yehudit—as well as to some Knesset Members in the Likud–any agreements brokered by security services with Palestinians means these institutions are in league with the enemy. Since Itamar Ben-Gvir became the Minister of National Security, the West Bank landscape is pockmarked with more terrorism against Jews and with more acts of vandalism, if not outright terrorism, committed by Jews.

The judicial overhaul is also necessarily entangled with an onslaught of  proposals and administrative regulations aimed at redeploying funds to impose religious imperatives over land, public space, and lifestyles, actions menacing the interests of women and intensifying the public outrage.

United Torah Judaism has been emboldened to escalate its customary call for army exemptions into a demand to elevate Yeshiva learning as the equivalent of military service—thus offering its students access to special post-army benefits-while ensuring their permanence through passage as a Basic Law.  That kind of legal change not only leaves the purported non-Zionist status of the ultra-orthodox in limbo– their only legitimate authority is Rabbinic– but it also raises questions about what this government means by the sources of authority for the democracy it claims its judicial reforms will advance.

Ironically, it was the Jewish state that, in no small measure, accorded the ultra-orthodox the resources in space and funds necessary for rebuilding families and institutions after the devastation meted out to them by the Nazis. Ultra-Orthodox demographic growth, in other words, the bedrock of its success, undergirds its current threats to hallow out Israel’s core military institution—the people’s army.  Even the mighty Jewish state cannot be sustained against this lethal an attack.

What is at stake is no less than the fundamental principles of a Zionism that sought to liberate Jews as much from the rule of Rabbis as from oppression. Moving to their ancient homeland might, Zionism hoped, lift Jews up to the possibility of a new kind of solidarity and moral development, but at the very least, it was intended to offer new forms of power so Jews could shape their own destiny.  Zionism’s redemptive enterprise was to be authorized by the work of one’s hands and by the civic framework ordinary men and women would create. The society forged by the Zionist project was believed to be infused with the energy not only to build a national home but also to generate a new Jewish identity that could interact with a diverse world without losing its distinctiveness.

For the Likud, the November election is the only one that counts. In another subsequent election held by the Bar Association, the candidate opposed to the judicial reforms trounced his rival who supported them convincing the Justice Minister [Likud] to dismiss the outcome of the vote and refuse to call into session the Judicial Appointments Committee on which the newly elected Bar Association representative would sit. The logical endpoint of this line of thinking is that the only true currency of politics is gaining control over ministries in order to channel resources in accordance with partisan interests or personal aims—and with almost no oversight except a judiciary under assault. Such an approach cannot provide the foundation for a coherent program for the present or a clear vision for the future, but it could possibly and ominously be a preview of a brave new world.

Here in the United States, some of the very media outlets that make it their mission to foster close relations with Israel have urged Diaspora Jews not to intervene in what is defined as an internal policy dispute to be decided by the country’s citizens.[1]  Instead, in their podcasts and op-eds, blame for attacks on Israel’s proposed judicial reforms has found its way to the progressive left[2] and/or is attributed to presumed haters of religious Jews[3] and/or imputed to activists out to demolish the country’s sovereignty[4].  One has to squint hard to discern the outline of credible evidence holding up any of these charges, but the weakness of these briefs has not prevented editorials or Twitter threads from pouring forth with dogmas contradicted as much by history as by current events. But what happens within and to the Jewish state affects Jewish lives as well as Jewish life across the globe and is rightfully a cause not only for concern but also for action.

Politicians from parties riddled with racism, misogyny, and homophobia have not only been named to ministerial positions but their offices have also been charged with introducing Jewish values into schools and into extra-curricular activities.  The government’s religious ministers want to implant and by extension, allow only a homogenized Judaism within the country’s border rather than recognize what has become its diverse manifestations in Israel and across the globe. To conjure up a government or any power center that can propound a single conception of Judaism is to be locked into the world before smart phones and social media.  What cannot be said in school will certainly be heard on TikTok. To be sure, not every minister shares a distaste for religious tolerance and pluralism, but those who do have authority and resources stamped with approval by this government.  A coalition that has wrestled together a few religious liberals with notorious and well-known religious reactionaries, the latter presiding over programs with a fetish for uniformity, is an alliance unlikely to be viewed as a lodestar for Jews across the globe.

There is a debate about whether Zionism, as Israel’s foundational principle, has had its day.  But the 7 million Israelis marching in 4,400 locations over these past months tell a different story. Starting their assemblies with Hatikvah, sometimes carrying the country’s Proclamation of Independence, the people in the streets may recognize that the country has not yet fulfilled its idealistic goals, but they know that the only way forward is with Zionism as the organizing basis for their state and for its policies. And on that issue, there is no reason for Diaspora Jews to remain silent.

[1] See Jonathan Tobin, “Want to support Israeli Democracy? Then Respect Democratic Elections,” Jewish News Syndicate, August 21, 2023.

[2] See Ruth Wisse, “God Save This Honorable Court, But Not That One,” Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2023.

[3] Liel Leibovitz, “A Color Revolution in Israel,” Compact Magazine, March 27, 2023, or “Admit It: You Hate Religious Jews,” Tablet, August 22, 2023.

[4] Gideon Levy, Netanyahu’s Judicial Coup Is the BDS Movement’s Dream,” Haaretz, February 23, 2023.

About the Author
Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government emerita at Smith College, where she taught a variety of courses on Middle East politics. Able to draw on material in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, her books include Women Living Change: Cross-Cultural Perspectives; Politics and Society in Ottoman Palestine: The Arab Struggle for Survival and Power, Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine, and Word Crimes: Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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