Where is the line between democracy and non-democracy? As various compromises on the judicial reform are “leaked” and subsequent denials issued, that line – never too distinct in this country – is becoming increasingly blurred. Those of us who yell slogans about democracy as we block roads, show up to wave flags near a minister’s home or refuse to show up for an air force training day: How will we decide a compromise is “good enough?” Will we settle for something that gives us slow erosion to our system over jack-hammer-style demolition? Will we agree to one or two fewer rights in exchange for a Saturday night at home watching Netflix?
There are two aspects to the so-called judicial reform, and both need close examination. The first is the efficiency of a system that serves and affects all citizens of the state. Is the legal system overworked; is there corruption in some places; have I, myself, been critical of a system that tends to hand out too-lenient sentences to abusers and ignore the rights of women and families looking to them for justice and protection? Yes to all of the above.
Will we agree to one or two fewer rights in exchange for a Saturday night at home watching Netflix?
The first question we need to ask ourselves, then, is how will this reform serve minorities, women and children? How will it serve the family of a young, minority immigrant man, killed in a fight in public sight of dozens of witnesses? Will it give the courts more directive to try his killers, or will the reformed system make it easier for a judge to release the suspected killer due to “lack of evidence” (as happened this week)?
Should we accept a compromise leaving in place sections that make it even more difficult for the average citizen to obtain justice?
The second aspect, the more publicly-debated one, involves the balance of power between the judicial and parliamentary branches of government. Here, again, I am wary of compromise, if only because the Supreme Court has mostly tended to act in an adult manner, while our ruling coalition has come to resemble kindergarten children smearing stuff on the walls. We have seen, in the nation’s schools, the chaos that has ensued when we took away teachers’ rights to enforce rules in the classroom. Our entire country is sliding in the direction of the unruliest classrooms: Those who insult the teachers to their faces and throw chairs will get to run the student councils and tell the principals what to do. I would argue that we’re already well into the reign of bullies and class clowns. They mean to ensure the plea to stop what they’re doing and pay attention will never be raised above a whisper.
The citizens’ protests, week after week, have been nothing short of amazing. They give us all hope that democracy – at least some version of it – will prevail. There is one “majority” in the Knesset, a different majority out in the streets. Street protesters, reservists: We have real power, and we are using it well in the service of the common good. But we can also be window-dressing. The obviously staged “danger” to Sarah Netanyahu in her hairdresser’s salon is a glaring example. The protests have given politicians an excuse to ramp up their already expensive secret service protection. Worse, even as Bibi yells “anarchists!” in Hebrew, in English he’s smugly pointing out that the very fact that people are allowed to demonstrate is a sign the country is still a democracy.
We have real power, but we can also be window-dressing
And while the judicial reform that is still making its way, unaltered, through the Knesset enactment process is the biggest, most clear and present danger to our democracy, there are others in the pipeline that will threaten our basic rights. Do we just resign ourselves to a weekly protest and pick a topic? Pogroms in Arab towns, revoking LGBTQ rights, giving free money to the ultra-orthodox at the expense of those who do reserve duty, giving the party in charge of settlements undue power over building and planning in the entire county?
Another kind of reform
I would like, as a citizen aligned with the protestors, to suggest another kind of reform – one that will transform the will of the people in the street into real power. We are told we exercise our power as citizens when we vote, but in today’s coalition politics that is clearly not the case. We need to restore our political power, and that means rebuilding center-to-left wing parties and making them relevant to the concerns of young people, retirees, residents of Sderot, Kiryat Shmona and Ramla, as well as those of Tel Aviv and Herzliya. We need Arab and real shared Arab-Jewish parties that will get disaffected voters to the polls.
Put another way: Will we be ready if the coalition falls tomorrow and new elections are declared? Today’s political leaders – of last year’s failed coalition – appear to be trailing behind the will of the people, wavering on their stands and willing to compromise without consulting us. Anarchy – that is, spontaneous mass action with no real leadership – is good for now; good for demonstrations and protests. But if we are to hold on to any progress, to translate it into political power, we need real leadership, and we need it now.
Will we be ready if the coalition falls tomorrow and new elections are declared?
The second aspect of that reform would involve creating more opportunities for non-aligned citizens to participate from within – in appointing judges, sitting on local and municipal committees, having a say in building and planning, deciding what happens in schools and more. If a judge is known to be lenient on sex offenders, for example, a panel including a majority of local or regional citizens should be able to veto advancing him to a higher court.
A third aspect would be to give more power to citizen watchdogs like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Although ACRI does not have the power to veto laws, it does have power to apply to the Supreme Court, asking it to strike down illegal laws or defend human rights. We need to increase and sharpen that power. And we need to bolster their power to alert us to proposed laws that will take away our rights. Organizations like ACRI and Adalah (Legal Center for Arab Rights) don’t just alert us, they alert foreign governments and investors. That outside pressure is uncomfortable but necessary in the conditions we are experiencing today. The threat of slipping in our credit rating is just as frightening to certain well-fed segments of the coalition as is the scenario of mobs of anarchists led by “outside agitators (it was only a matter of time before Bibi used the term)” breaking into the Knesset.
How will we know, once the final version of the judicial reform is enacted, whether we still have a democracy? We won’t. Some red lines will undoubtedly have been crossed. What we need to ask ourselves: Who gets to define Israeli democracy, and who is responsible for ensuring its continued existence?