‘In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man’
During the last two months, Israel has been roiled by unprecedented social stress caused by government initiatives sponsored either by the Likud or by the Religious Zionist Party and the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have been given outsized power and commitments. The chief cause of this stress has been the relentless push by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Simcha Rothman for the Knesset to radically diminish the powers and role of Israel’s Supreme Court. Their combined plan would give the government control of the Judicial Selection Committee, sharply limit the Court’s range of powers, and establish a 61-vote override option. This combination is widely seen as greatly weakening the checks and balances of Israel’s governmental structure, endangering minority rights in the face of a zealous majority. The numerous controversial bills introduced so far and some of the words and actions of Itamar Ben-Gvir, Betzalel Smotrich, and other Religious Zionist and Ultra-Orthodox MKs, including attacks on the Attorney General and the independence of the Bank of Israel, mark the current coalition as precisely such a zealous majority.
Many Israeli legal experts, economists, and business leaders have warned of the harmful impacts of the proposed judicial changes and have strongly urged that changes in the role of the Supreme Court only be adopted on the basis of a wide consensus. Levin, Rothman and their supporters have been unmoved by these criticisms, and seem to believe that the warnings are either greatly exaggerated or politically motivated by the “left.” The legislative steamroller simply moves on, also ignoring the increasingly urgent pleas of President Isaac Herzog.
But serious warnings have also come from three of the most experienced and respected economists outside of Israel: Ben Bernanke, Jacob Frenkel, and Lawrence Summers. Bernanke is a former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve and has been awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. Frenkel is a former Governor of the Bank of Israel and has served in senior positions with AIG, Merrill Lynch International and JPMorgan Chase International. Summers served as Chief Economist for the World Bank and is a former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. All three have worked at the highest levels of governmental responsibility for economic affairs and they are intimately aware of the forces that affect a country’s economic well-being. All three have criticized the Levin-Rothman plans and warned that Israel could suffer major losses as a result. It would be a stunning failure of responsibility to dismiss their criticisms.
Yet, the legislative push continues, despite the assessments by Bernanke, Frenkel and Summers, as if to say that they don’t know what they are talking about.
In this situation, it is the clear responsibility of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give appropriate weight to these assessments. Even if he deeply believes in the Levin-Rothman reforms, he is responsible for the “big picture.” In this case, he ought to be acting decisively to prevent the foretold damage to Israel’s economy. However, he has not acted. There are various hypotheses as to why this is the case. Such speculation is beside the point; the point is that Netanyahu has not acted.
Under these dire circumstances, relief must come from other quarters. One of the most famous statements in Pirke Avot is attributed to the sage, Hillel: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” (Chapter 2, verse 6.) It is essential that proper weight be given to the strong criticism coming from Bernanke, Frenkel, and Summers, among many others, as well as to the extent of the protests and the threats to Israel’s resilience. If five or more members of the Likud were to announce that they would oppose passage of the Levin-Rothman plan, that would stop the legislation and allow for a process that might yield the broad consensus that so many correctly wish for.
The time for action is short. Given Netanyahu’s inaction, it is up to the required number of clear-sighted and courageous Likud MKs to seize the initiative and act in accordance with Hillel’s wise maxim.