We have entered a new phase of the battle for Israel’s soul
With the passage of Minister Yariv Levin’s bills to make the courts subservient to the parliamentary majority, we have entered a new stage of conflict between those who seek to remake Israel in their theological image, and those who seek to help Israel live up to the Jewish and democratic values of the Zionist movement.
Given the likelihood of an upcoming constitutional crisis sparked by court review of these bills (the parliament’s legal advisors have openly declared that the laws trample individual rights currently guaranteed by the State), the protest movement needs to shift from short-term focus on the pending laws and look to the long-game: putting a stop to the removal of civil barriers to ultra-religious rule. This process of rewriting the rules is, at its most basic, a continuation of the low-grade civil war of attrition between the theocratic base and the Zionist movement decades in the making.
Until now, the Zionist movement believed it could maintain a free state while tolerating and subsidizing a theocratic minority. Until now, we were confident they would come to accept that the primacy of civil law is in everyone’s benefit.
The words and actions of the theocratic parties – United Torah Judaism, Shas, Religious Zionism – have proven this confidence misguided. Their clearly articulated goal is to remake Israel so that their small group of unelected (religious) judges will determine the policies the civil system will need to follow. This is why this civil war is so deeply ironic: each side wants to maintain the sanctity of the law that reflects their values.
The theocratic block, led by Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Committee Chair Simha Rothman, want their unelected rabbinic judges to have the power over the national and the local civil judges, while the Zionist block wants civil law to be the ultimate law of the land under which the religious courts may function.
For this reason, it is wrong for us to focus on Yariv Levin’s Koheletism; he and Benjamin Netanyahu are the theocracy’s silver platter. The engine driving the coalition’s “can’t stop won’t stop” legislation train is the theocrats’ urgency to counter four specific Supreme Court rulings: its ruling on ultra-Orthodox conscription, its ruling on Passover restrictions, its ruling on open access to the holy site of the Western Wall, and its ruling to bar corrupt politicians from power.
Once we recognize the theocratic drive as the coalition’s true motivating factor, it requires us to stop thinking of the judicial overhaul as a drive towards dictatorship, and instead recognize that we are in the midst of a civil war of attrition that can only be ended through better balanced institutions.
That is because, democratically-speaking, the theocratic leaders of this block were not wrong: they are, after all, exercising their democratic right to characterize the state in which they live. The current effort is in many ways an about-face for the theocrats’ 25 year campaign to gain community autonomy. Once the ultra-Orthodox recognized the State would not leave them alone and absolve them from an equality of responsibility for civil duties, they decided to become full contenders in the democratic process. Unfortunately, our institutions were not built to withstand the clash this has created.
The only way out of this is, therefore, to build new institutions. To recognize that neither side intends to back down, and that whatever shaky compromise we may come to will require institutions capable of surviving the on-going onslaught sure to intensify as demographics shift. As long as we stay committed to the idea of a single law of the land, we will deepen the civil conflict between the Zionist and theocratic movements. As long as either movement seeks to force the other to live by its rules, we will not know internal peace.
Thankfully, this crisis is happening now, while the Zionist majority still has the opportunity to evolve the political structure of the State of Israel toward one that is capable of ensuring minority rights through establishing regional autonomy. There should be a world where ultra-Orthodox today don’t feel they’re being forced to stay in hospital rooms where leavened bread is served, just as the progressive and cultural Jews shouldn’t be forced to be married, divorced, or buried by a stream of our tradition that is increasingly insular, patriarchal, and homophobic. Non-Jews, too, deserve the right to live under laws which reflect their values and protect them from religious coercion. If we are to realize the form of freedom that we have sought for millennia, our current political structures need to move beyond the idea of tolerance under one law toward the idea of cultural autonomy in a federal state .
If we want Israel to remain livable for the non-theocrats, the protest movement needs to build a viable, electable coalition with a clear mandate to restructure the political institutions of the State of Israel. We need to create a reality in which progressive and cultural Israelis are not told how they should live by the unelected rabbis of Jerusalem, and the ultra-Orthodox community is likewise not forced into situations which it cannot countenance. Once we establish this new federal, decentralized framework, we can then have the hard conversations that the current political reality has obscured: how do we build on what we have in common, instead of focusing our energies on what tears us apart.
If we do not make these changes now, we can be sure that changes will be made to us within 10 years. Whatever harm to Israel’s economy that occurs during this time of turbulence and strife is only a brief preview of the ongoing degradation that will occur when Israel becomes a single country ruled by an increasingly theocratic elite. The time is now to envision, plan, and build the Zionist state of tomorrow. Everyone in whose heart the Zionist vision still stirs – both inside the State of Israel and amongst the Jewish communities across the world – must lend their hands to this national project of rebuilding our state today.