Joshua Berman
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Healing means hearing the other side’s pain

Consider how fast the coalition revoked the 'reasonableness' clause and see a history of discrimination and humiliation writ large
Pro-government demonstrators hold a protest in support of the judicial overhaul, at Tel Aviv's Kaplan Street, on July 23, 2023. (Jack Guez/ AFP)
Pro-government demonstrators hold a protest in support of the judicial overhaul, at Tel Aviv's Kaplan Street, on July 23, 2023. (Jack Guez/ AFP)

There is nothing more dangerous than a humiliated man. — Nelson Mandela

Throughout this season of failed compromise talks over judicial reform mediators from President Herzog down have repeated the call to put aside emotion to reach a common ground. But while judicial reforms can be legislated, emotions cannot be. Without airing and addressing the deep-seated emotions that have poisoned our political environment, no compromise will be possible.

We know from our personal lives that, when there is a falling out, the best outcome arrives when both sides feel heard — that opens the avenue to compromise. And what is true in our personal lives is no less true in our collective lives as well.

I stridently oppose one-sided legislation on judicial reform and am outraged at what the ruling coalition has done. But I also knew that I had a blind spot: I couldn’t articulate for myself what supporters of the reform were experiencing, and so I reached out on Facebook for them to share with me what they have been feeling. The feedback was eye-opening.

A university colleague of mine who is religious and Sephardic shared a recent post expressing his feelings about the weekly demonstrations in opposition to the government. The post received over 400 likes:

I feel like George Floyd, with my neck pressed by the knee of a police officer for so long that I’m choking to death. Because this “protest” that has been raging here for weeks says to me one thing: “This country is ours, and you will forever remain second-class citizens. It’s ours because we’re the pilots, and you’re just the mechanics. We are the high-tech people, and you are just the cleaners and couriers. We are the professors, and you are supermarket clerks, laundry workers and taxi drivers. We are the military and economic and legal and academic elite, so our voice is worth more. Much more. And it doesn’t matter what the election results were because it is we who will decide what happens in the country, and it is we who will decide what you do and what you don’t. That’s what the Supreme Court is for, and why there are ministry legal advisers. And if you dare to say a word against it, we will press the knee on your neck even more.

This is an expression of humiliation. Yes, it is exaggerated and in no way justifies the damage that has been caused to the country. But opponents of reform must come to terms with the kernel of truth behind it: for decades, the system of choosing Supreme Court justices in the country perpetuated a systematic bias against religious and Sephardic Jews, whose numbers on the court were disproportionately lower than their representation in society. And that has left more than half the country humiliated and alienated specifically from the nation’s highest court — and suspicious of its decisions.

Of course, those of us who oppose reform have a long list of legitimate claims as well, and our own share of unheard pain. But it behooves us to take the first step of recognizing the pain of the other side and to loudly and publicly acknowledge the injustice done by biased selection of judges across decades. Doing so is virtuous, but even more so, it is expedient. By publicly acknowledging the injustice done, we will begin to sap the poison out of the current environment and take the first step toward building the trust that is necessary for compromise talks to begin.

But there is a long-term expediency in taking this bold step as well. Polls show that as many as 12 Knesset seats would be lost by the coalition were elections held today, and the opposition would be able to form a coalition even without the anti-Zionist Hadash-Ta’al faction. Those 12 seats — the center-right of the electoral spectrum — hold the balance for the future of the State of Israel. If they remain with the right, demographics determine that Israel will have a right-wing government for a long time to come. But if they are disenchanted with the course of the right, the polls show that they are already signaling a readiness to move to the center, which could allow a new centrist government to emerge. Taking the noble step of owning and accepting the injustices of court-selection in the past will go a long way toward ensuring that the center-right electorate sees the center as its political home and not the increasingly radicalized right.

President Isaac Herzog has thus far assumed the role as mediator-in-chief, yet with no success. He needs to take up a new role as healer-in-chief. Hailing from the center-left and with the gravitas of his position, he is perfectly poised to lead this effort. On occasion he has already mentioned the need for reform of the judicial selection committee so that it leads to more balanced representation of the diversity of our country. But he needs to do more to speak toward the historic pain of those on the right. And if they are wise, opposition leaders will join him in this magnanimous moment.

The moment would come none too soon. For the breakneck speed with which the coalition revoked the reasonable clause, its utter refusal to change one letter of the proposed bill, and the infamous selfie of its advocates gloating in victory all bear out Mandela’s truth — there is nothing more dangerous than a humiliated man.

About the Author
Joshua Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and is the author of Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid).
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