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Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Corruption, Extreme Goals, and This Government: Inextricably Linked

(courtesy)
(courtesy)

Corruption: Improper and usually unlawful conduct intended to secure a benefit for oneself or another. Its forms include briberyextortion, and the misuse of inside information. It exists where there is community indifference or a lack of enforcement policies. — Encyclopedia Britannica

Gaslighting noun: the psychological manipulation of a person … that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator—Merriam Webster, Thesaurus

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language: [Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Early in the morning of February 21, 2023, Israel’s Knesset passed two pieces of legislation central to the governing coalition’s plan to overhaul Israel’s legal system, its political DNA. It was the first and most important of three required readings before bills become law. The second and third readings typically are routine and will be this time, too.

These two bills alone show the inextricable connection between corruption and extreme political goals, which is the toxic brew driving the rest of the coalition’s extensive and radical program.

One law changes the system by which judges are appointed, from the current mix on the nine-member Judicial Selection Committee, constituted of members of Knesset of the governing coalition and Opposition and representatives of Israel’s Bar Association and Judiciary, a balance that required consensus for appointments to proceed, to one in which the coalition has five members and controls the selection outcome. The required participation of a member of the Opposition under the new law is a cynical show to demonstrate “democracy” of the kind this government seeks to impose on the country, along with the muddled mindset necessary to impose it. The now-old system might well have needed change, no one claims it was perfect. But calling what the new law does “judicial reform” is a corruption of language and thought.

Justifiably, people have focused on the impact of this law on Israel’s Supreme Court. But this law affects all judicial appointments in Israel, from the most local court and up. Judicial appointments will be grossly political, dispensed by and serving the governing coalition. Judges will know to whom and to what they owe loyalty.

The second bill that passed its first reading strips the Supreme Court of the power to rule on Basic, or Constitutional, Laws. This was done in order to pave the way for Aryeh Deri, the head of the Shas party and a close collaborator and ally of Netanyahu, to serve as a minister. Deri has two criminal convictions for financial misdeeds committed while he served as a minister in previous Netanyahu governments, and current Israeli law prohibits someone with such a record from serving as a minister. Netanyahu nonetheless, appointed Deri not to one but two, high-profile and heavily budgeted ministries, interior and health, apparently, assessing Deri’s abilities as super-human, or perhaps, not taking seriously the need to administer those ministries competently; or perhaps in compassionate consideration of Deri’s need to have two ample government salaries, and his party, robust opportunities for jobs and other perks.

Since the Supreme Court, acting on petitions from various citizen groups – the only way it can act – ruled against Deri’s eligibility to serve, the solution was to pass a law stripping the Court of the right to rule on Basic Laws, which until now, have been about – basic civil and human rights; and then pass a “Basic Law” – its very meaning corrupted – that annuls disqualification for Ministerial appointment because of criminal conviction. Or, pass, as it is commonly called, “Deri law 2,” “Deri law 1” being another personal law on Deri’s behalf, which specified that a suspended sentence (which Deri got in a plea deal in his second conviction, in which he also told the court that he was leaving public life), would not disqualify someone from assuming a ministerial post.

The contempt of the ruling coalition, pre-eminently, that of the current Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, for law as anything other than a blunt instrument to achieve partisan goals, is evident in these manipulations alone. Unfortunately, they are but a small part of the laws and machinations marrying corruption to extreme politics that this government is implementing.

Theocracy has gotten less attention than other aspects of the overhaul of Israel’s character that is underway but is no less an essential part of it. The haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (an alliance of the non-Hasidic and Hasidic parties), have long had this agenda – a state ruled by their respective rabbinic leaders (in other countries, called ayatollahs) via these parties and their anointed heads, currently, Aryeh Deri, Yizchak Goldknopf, and Moshe Gafni. They proclaim this goal openly – as do the extreme-nationalist, avowedly homophobic and racist head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich, and the Kahanist head of the Jewish Power party, Itamar Ben Gvir. Theocracy – rule by religious law and authorities – and constitutional democracy are mutually exclusive. These parties have made clear that they want to end Israeli constitutional democracy and institute theocracy in its stead, and that they sense that now is their moment.

On February 16, 2023, Goldknopf, in his capacity as Minister of Housing, sent a letter to the head of the coalition, Likud MK, Ofir Katz, in which he addressed the rumored possibility of a delay in advancing a signature piece of the coalition’s legislative program, a law to allow Knesset override of a Supreme Court ruling with a bare majority of 61 votes (out of 120).

His letter reads:

“As is known, a vote for this proposal is a directive which we received from our rabbis, heads of The Council of Torah Sages…

“Advancement of the override law was a clear and unequivocal condition for our joining the coalition.

“There is no disputing the broad agreement of our member factions to support the override law and bring to permanent solution the many years-long battle [literally, brawl], between the Supreme Court… and the legislature.

“As the head of the Yahadut Hatorah [a faction in United Torah Judaism] and a messenger of our rabbis, the members of The Council of Sages [bold in the original], it is my intention to stand by this commitment and I therefore ask confirmation that the government intends to implement this commitment and bring this matter to a vote next Wednesday.

“Agreements must be upheld! [bold in the original]

[Signed],

“Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf.”

Goldknopf sent copies of this letter to Netanyahu, Deri, Gafni, Smotrich, Ben Gvir, and Avi Maoz, head of Noam, a theocratic party that ran on a platform of homophobia and denial of equal civil rights to anyone not straight, or male (women should just have babies). The message was clear: pass this law or we will bring down the government.

The coalition is advancing pieces of its program with lightning speed. As I type this, the override law is due for a vote today, Feb. 21, 2023, not even 48 hours after passage of the first of the overhaul’s actions. When it passes, and passage is assured, given the coalition’s four-vote majority in Knesset, the Supreme Court will cease functioning as one and any meaningful tripartite system of government, with checks and balances between the branches, all of whom, subject to constitutional law setting limits on what is legal, will cease. Without a Supreme Court able to strike down Knesset laws as illegal or unconstitutional, the haredi parties need no longer fear that the Court will seek to enforce Knesset legislation paying the slightest heed to the principle of equal burdens in military or alternative service, such enforcement long a bane of the haredi parties and surely what Goldknopf referred to in his comment about longstanding struggles with the Court.

Without a gutted Supreme Court, there is no way to guarantee key features of the haredi political agenda, which are civil inequality and a privileged status for haredim and their religious demands. These include an end to public space with free and equal access for all and discrimination against none, in particular, women. Instead, the haredi parties demand that sex-segregated events, funded by public, tax money, be held in such space, normalizing the anathematization of women in public space on the public dime. Similar demands are being made about natural sites, such as springs, with insistence on separate hours for access by men and women. They are also demanding increase in the number and size of such already segregated beaches, to reflect the growing haredi share of the population, all with bogus claims to principles, like fair representation and freedom of religious expression, which they violate fulsomely except when they can be manipulated and distorted to serve their interests.

It was only the courts, enforcing Israel’s current Basic Law on human rights, dignity, and liberty, that protected women from being hounded, physically attacked, and forced to sit in the back of buses, another haredi demand, ostensibly reflecting their right to religious freedom – the “need” of their men not to sit near or even see women; in fact, coercive actions to limit the freedom of others, women. Without the principle of civic equality enshrined in law and enforced by independently functioning courts, these and other theocratic goals loom closer to realization.

Currently on the table is a proposed law – shot down in the past by the Supreme Court on appeal from various citizen groups – to bar anyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, from bringing non-Passover foods to hospitals during the holiday. Those institutional kitchens are all kosher, under Chief Rabbinate supervision, but that is not enough. This time, to a demand that already sparse security personnel become kashrut police, searching visitors for food as if for weapons—or perhaps, create new jobs for rabbinic supervisors for this task, on the public tab?– is an added demand that food brought in by visitors bear the kashrut seal of the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut division, which employs vastly more supervisors than exist to supervise safety at Israel’s notoriously unsafe building sites. In other words, hospital visits would be used to force support for this cash cow of the Rabbinate. This proposal may not pass; one that proposed heavy fines and lengthy imprisonment for women violating haredi-defined norms for proper behavior by women at the Western Wall roused such an outcry that Aryeh Deri, who proposed it, backed down from it. But the trend is clear and this time, the haredi parties have unprecedented political clout, as Goldknopf’s letter makes clear.

As already seen, the corruption of language, that is, of thought, is fundamental to the other kinds of corruption being fomented. Netanyahu, Levin, and the others behind the overhaul insist that what they are doing is simply the people’s will, “democracy.” They allege an overwhelming election victory in November 2022, which is simply not true; taking account of all the votes cast, including for parties that did not pass the electoral threshold, shows a count evenly split between voters for the parties that backed Netanyahu and those opposed. Even without counting those lost votes, the outcome was very close. But, contrary to the lies repeated about this, the Likud – which, like most Israeli parties, did not even publish a platform of its positions – did not make the radical program it is now pushing even a side issue in its campaign, never mind a centerpiece on which voters were supposedly weighing in. The abandon with which this particular lie is propagated is astonishing.

But Netanyahu et. al. corrupt the meaning of “democracy” itself, at least as this is lived in any democracy worthy of the name, including until now, Israel. Of course, this cannot mean simply the will of the majority, unconstrained by laws establishing the supremacy of civil equality and basic human rights.

It is no accident that, shortly after winning their majority, MKs in several of the coalition parties proposed legislation to allow discrimination against by businesses and medical personnel on the grounds of religious freedom by those discriminating, against gays, was the subtext, but once a law, available to target anyone. When hundreds of thousands of demonstrators against this regime, myself included, take to the streets week after week calling for “democracy,” we do not, of course, mean mob rule and the right of a majority – or a minority, as the haredim still are in this country – to infringe the rights of others on any grounds.

Anyone can call what they are doing “democratic”; the term was part of the name of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, and also supposedly, defines North Korea. “Democratic” has to have coherent meaning, unless the very use of the term is to meant to obfuscate and confuse, to create a fog in which tyranny is enacted.

We hear much grievance about past policy decisions opposed by many – the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza and Israeli withdrawal from there; the Oslo accords – and a vengeance analogy to the measures being implemented now against huge popular opposition. But that analogy is totally inaccurate, and not just because of the difference in the dimension of the opposition in these respective cases. What is happening now is not this or that policy change but a fundamental altering of the very system of Israel’s governance, its political DNA. No coalition has the legitimacy to enact such change, unless, as so many have said, there has been a thorough process of deliberation with the Opposition and broad segments of society, and consensus.

This government was conceived in corruption. To our disgrace, the Attorney General and the supposedly Netanyahu-hating Supreme Court, did not disqualify Netanyahu, under indictment and on trial for three serious charges, from running again for the office of Prime Minister – something that is barred to regular Ministers (for the very limited moment, at least), and which standard, logic might dictate, should be applied to the Prime Minister, kal va’homer. He and his backers have decried as a violation of the people’s will any suggestion that he is unfit to head the government because in their view, that will is to exist independent of all standards of clean government. It is no wonder that Netanyahu and Deri, always close but now joined at the hip, as the extraordinary priority given to Deri laws 1 and 2 shows, are wedded to the end of Israel as a constitutional democracy.

Emboldened by the successful rush to passage of key pieces of the overhaul legislation, Netanyahu now openly challenges the limits placed on him in a conflict of interest agreement he signed as the condition of being allowed to run again for Prime Minister, by which he is to recuse himself from all decisions that could affect his own trials. The absurdity of this woeful agreement, the handiwork of former Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit, is now blasted in technicolor as Netanyahu appoints as Justice Minister a man long wedded to ending Israeli constitutional democracy, who is leading that charge on Netanyahu’s behalf, which he proclaims necessary because he, Yariv Levin, acting as judge and jury, deems Netanyahu’s indictments unfounded. Law number one in which charge, we recall, is the utter politicization of judicial appointments. Allied to that law is another, to force early retirement of sitting justices, so that the coalition can appoint ones better suited to its goals, not least, the exoneration of Netanyahu, and Deri.

In behavior that very shortly ago would have been unimaginable, Levin openly threatens to fire the current Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara, who has stood firm about Netanyahu’s conflict of interest agreement and made clear her view that the judicial transformation pushed by this government threatens Israeli democracy, unless she starts to toe the government’s line and behave as all members of the justice apparatus should– as functionaries of the regime.

It is surely true that Netanyahu seeks to abort his trials and avoid a possible jail sentence, whatever the damage to this country in the process. It is also true, as his own recent memoir shows, that Netanyahu sees himself as uniquely—literally, as in, the only one—able to lead Israel. His megalomania and corruption are woven of the same cloth, and to his messianic ends, no means are invalid.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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