Hope, existence, living, and judicial reforms
On January 4th 2023, only a few short days after Bibi Netanyahu was sworn in (again) as Prime Minister of Israel, our second child, Roee Erez, was born. Around the same time, both my family and the country embarked on a tumultuous journey full of unexpected twists and turns and with the potential for devastating long-term consequences. Israel was thrown into the chaos of sweeping judicial overhaul legislation that if adopted in full threatens to undermine Israel’s democratic existence, its security and its economy, and our beautiful Roee was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
Of course, these two cases could not be more different, but in times of crisis one is driven to to think about those existential questions that really matter. In this moment I could not help but feel deeply, truly grateful for the support that we receive for Roee through the state’s institutions. Yes the bureaucracy is rough, often nightmarish, but we receive everything from stipends to preferred parking and developmental support, something which would be unthinkable where I grew up. The counterfactual scenario where we were living in the United States might have included a house, but it would also put us essentially on our own to take care of Roee, at the mercy of a weak and disparate “support system”. Beyond the tangible support, having the Jewish state provide for this special neshama instills is heartwarming and strengthens my sense that the Jewish people take care of our own. It’s a good feeling.
This warmth is thrown into stark contrast by the sinking feeling of a gaping rift opening in Israeli society. Such dark currents did not appear out of nowhere, but they reached a crescendo with the latest judicial proposals which in turn led to unprecedented protests and counterprotests that are tearing at the fabric of civil society. Even ostensibly apolitical, highly regarded institutions like the military have not emerged unscathed.
This broader crisis is at fundamental odds with my personal one. It pits a deep appreciation for the support system bestowed on our son with the kind of state I want him to grow up in. More importantly, if such trends were to continue could we ever reach a point of no return?
I have thought about these issues before. When Jews are murdered in Israel, I am reminded of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s statement thanking Allah for gathering all the Jews in one place so they don’t need to be chased down “to the ends of the world”, and I wonder if we are not fulfilling his wishes. I think about the religious bereaved mother I met who said she would give back the Western Wall in a flash if it would mean getting her son back. More mundanely, I think about my bills, my mortgage, childcare expenses, and my paycheck and I think about the daily struggle just to eke out a respectable living. And I think about the worsening moral conundrum vis-a-vis the Palestinians, and the future of Israel’s democratic character.
These challenges are nothing new, nor are the divisions within Israeli society. Over time, one can think of ways to calm the nagging doubts and fears, to keep living and scraping by. However, the latest developments really feel like the straw that is breaking the Israeli camel’s back. It’s almost surreal that such a technocratic issue like the judicial system would be the catalyst. Yet here we are, and for good reason. Taken together, the overhaul package represents a major threat to Israel’s independent judiciary and therefore jeopardizes its ability to protect civil liberties and maintain its democratic standing. The approach so far has been as radical as it has been divisive, and has already caused severe, perhaps irreparable, harm to Israel’s social cohesion; with the potential for more when the Knesset reconvenes in April.
In this case my existential question is as follows – at what point do we go so far down the rabbit that we can’t dig ourselves out anymore? And then what? With the very practical challenges facing my family, do I compromise on core values or look elsewhere to build a life?
This question might be interpreted as hysteria, and sometimes it feels to me even a bit exaggerated. Just as there are doomsday scenarios, there also remains the possibility of a good compromise, which will leave the country better off even if everyone is a bit unhappy. Yet the fact that the question even arises is itself deeply unsettling. Israel already faces so many threats that it is a real pity to add another one so unnecessarily, and further risk the implosion of Israeli resilience. The good news is there is more common ground than our divisions let on. Even many of the current protestors and former senior judges agree that there is room for reform in the judicial system. The devil is in the details, and in navigating the societal grievances that have been projected onto the supreme court. But a happy medium can be found, with a little good will.
As the Knesset takes a break from the insanity of the last few months, we also enter a period that is designed to spark introspection at a both personal and communal level. From Passover, the festival of freedom that in many ways begins our journey as a nation and as a religion, to Yom Hashoah, memorial day (Yom Hazikaron) and Yom Haatzmaut which drive home the rebirth of the modern Jewish people and state, and the terrible cost which was paid to achieve it. This should be a time to revisit existential questions, to consider what truly matters, and what does not, what’s worth fighting over and what isn’t. Maybe then we can come together with cooler heads and a little bit of common sense. That is my hope. In fact it’s my only hope that Roee will grow up to live in a country that he can be proud of – both because it loves him but also because it reflects the values we want to instill in him. Without that hope much darker existential questions arise.