Avi Shamir

Democracy on Trial

If there is one point all Israelis can agree on in these polarized times it’s that the controversial judicial reform is one hell of a game changer.

The massive protests against the proposed reform, which I participate in, cite clauses that would empower government to both appoint judges and override Supreme Court vetoes of legislation that violate basic human rights. Such moves, the protestors warn, would strip the courts of their independence, irreparably damage our system of checks and balances, leave minorities unprotected and ultimately result in the fall of democracy.

Serious concerns merit serious discussion. But those who are outraged by all the noise the protestors are making are not interested in a meaningful dialog about judicial reform. They allege that the protest movement, with all its “hysteria” over a threat to democracy, is supported by American Jews who vote Democrat and non-profit organizations in the US and EU who are aligned with the world’s biggest anti-Semites. That’s not an argument, it’s an accusation that brands many conscientious, good Israeli citizens as traitors, simply because they are exercising their right to demonstrate. As if democracy ends on Election Day and those who are now in power can pass any laws they want, unchecked by the courts.

While lacking sophistication, our critics’ usual means of disputation are multi-dimensional. Their 3-D approach stands for: Deflect, Deny, and Delegitimize. The last paragraph contains all three tactics. Any attempt at dialog is deflected to separate issues, the protest movement is delegitimized and the overriding tone is a loud denial that our democracy is in big trouble.

Here are some other populist arguments that turn constructive debate into a lost art:

“Those leftists are all a bunch of sore losers.”

This is basic Deflect mode, the opening shot that changes the subject, the “strawman” tactic that sniffs out an opponent’s weakness, real or just made up, and turns it into the main topic of conversation, all for the sake of avoiding the issue.

So, for argument’s sake: Our protest is by no means exclusively left. It has drawn venerated right-wingers such as former Defense Minister and IDF Chief of Staff Bogie Ayalon, who spoke last Saturday night at a spirited demonstration in Netanya. The speakers who followed him were not ashamed to say that they were brought up on the liberal Beitar values championed by Jabotinsky and Begin, drawing respectful applause. The Netanya crowd welcomed a notable presence of men with knitted kipot, whose politics don’t blind them to the warning signs of a judicial coup. All this in a city known as a haven for the right.

What’s more, the former Change Government was “left” only on the strength of its minority membership. All those who voted for the Change coalition, right, left, Jew or Arab, knows that we lost the election fair and square and have no one to blame but our own leaders. We are long past pointing fingers at Yair Lapid and Merav Micaheli for letting their inflated egos get in the way of their better judgment. Unlike those sore losers following recent elections in Israel and the United States, Lapid handled a smooth transition of power without shredding his office files, and Change voters didn’t storm the Knesset or go on a killing spree.

Another common argument is: “The reform won’t destroy democracy, it will strengthen democracy.”

The first part of that sentence is classic Deny mode, with a tone of snappy dismissal suited for these conversation-stopper times. The second part of the sentence switches to the familiar Delegitimize tactic. Our detractors have long claimed that the courts, like the media, like academia, are “controlled” by the so-called “deep state” – the unelected left and privileged white Ashkenazim. Hence, the way to make democracy “stronger” is to clip the wings of the Supreme Court and pass draconian laws, such as the Likud’s recent bid to close down the Kan Public Broadcasters Division.

Delegitimazation goes to extremes. In its rough and ready form, a car filled with hotheads drives by a demonstration teeming with concerned citizens holding blue and white flags as the haters stick their heads out the car’s windows to spew their venom: “Leftist scum, whores, traitors – Ben-Gvir is going to get you!”

There is nothing less reassuring than hearing a loud and clear threat from foul-mouthed goons invoking the name of the Minister of National Security. How appalling, a real live nightmare on prime-time TV news, the very same agitator who started his career by stealing the emblem of Rabin’s car with the threat “we’ll get to Rabin too” just a few weeks before he was shot in the back, now sending out his hellhounds to hunt down “traitors” at mass demonstrations.

Along with the constant ultra-nationalist incitement and the violent explosion it foreshadows, we have every reason to suspect and beware the designs of religious fanatics who are the most “privileged” members of the new elected government. Their visions of a post-democracy dystopia rife with increased Shabbat restrictions, separate beaches for men and women and shameful racist and homophobic legislation, unchecked by the courts, add more fuel to the protest.

Of course, all the “credit” for bringing ex-cons and extremists into a “strong right” coalition goes to the three times indicted Prime Minister who will do anything to get out of his legal mess, at the expense of the nation. The same Bibi who shut down the courts in the dead of night during the first corona lockdown to buy time and delay his trial, now intends to strip the courts of its power to veto the very legislation he is so desperate to push forward with flagrant conflict of interest, which would appoint “sympathetic” judges and/or pass a law that would prohibit prosecuting a PM while in office. Or maybe just pass a law that would drop his case altogether.

That’s how dictatorships are born. It starts with corruption and digresses in stages until unscrupulous politicians rise above the law.

All this can be stopped if more thoughtful citizens who care about the common good set aside their partisan differences and join our protest. We are not traitors. We are patriotic Israelis.

So, to our right-wing friends, especially those who call themselves “moderates:” Before this ill-conceived judicial reform goes any further, now is the time to prove your moderation. Take a cue from real moderates, like former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, a devotee of Begin who says that the reform will destroy our legal system. Stop supporting this extremist, divisive government’s attempt to undermine out court system. Stop this insanity before we lose everything. Show that our Declaration of Independence still means something. Give your conspiracy theories a time-out, turn off your fake news and silence your allegations that we are in cahoots with anti-Semites. The Jew haters of the world would be delighted if our Supreme Court turns toothless and Israel goes the way of Hungary, or Turkey. The catastrophic events that sent those countries backsliding into autocratic rule happened in our lifetime, and can happen here too. And in spite of all the deflections, denials, and delegitimization you hear in the background, don’t doubt our sincerity, and our resolve to win the struggle for a democratic Israel.

About the Author
Avi Shamir is a freelance writer, editor, translator and the author of "Saving the Game," a novel about baseball. A Brooklyn College graduate with a BA in English, Avi has contributed to the Jerusalem Post, The Nation, Israel Scene, In English and The World Zionist Press Service.
Related Topics
Related Posts