Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Kowtowing to ‘Authority’

Which of these two is worse? 1- Elected officials acceding to illegal commands of a legal authority; 2- Elected officials acceding to illegal commands of a non-legal authority. Welcome to the US and Israel!

There is not too much need to detail how the first option describes Congressional Republicans having at best winked at the Trump Administration’s wrongdoings. Not enabling all relevant witnesses to appear at the President’s impeachment trial was proof enough. The chest-thumping “regrets” of some of these Republican “Trump enablers” over the last few days are too little and far too late – and some haven’t even done that.

Israel’s case is more interesting, precisely it hasn’t (yet?) ended in a direct attack on the Knesset – but the day of constitutional reckoning might well arrive on March 23. I am referring to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s complete cave-in over the past few months to the “authority” of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical leadership regarding what is “permissible” to do during Israel’s several Corona lockdowns. The latest chapter is but the tip of the iceberg: after announcing that all schools would be closed, Bibi had to “respectfully ask” the leader (Rabbi Kanievsky) to order the Haredi schools to stay closed as well – as if the government’s mandatory policy was merely a “suggestion” for the ultra-Orthodox. This, despite the fact that at present a full 40% of all Israeli daily infections are occurring in that sector, although its population constitutes only 10-12% of Israel’s overall population. Not to mention that in previous lockdowns, the Haredi yeshivot stayed open when most of Israel’s schools were forced to close. For now, Rabbi Kanievsky has “ruled” that the yeshivot will stay closed for a few days (the government’s lockdown is for at least two weeks, with probable extensions).

“A picture is worth a thousand words”. Israel was shocked and appalled this past week by the photo of a policeman. No, he wasn’t beating up anyone; quite the opposite. Among the mandated Corona restrictions is an absolute ban on large indoor gatherings, especially (and explicitly) weddings. So, when the police were informed that a huge Haredi wedding was taking place and sent some cops to break up the wedding, what did the policemen do? The photo that went viral and appeared in almost all newspapers showed one policeman (with a kippah on) bowing down to the “Rebbe” to ask for a blessing! And it was reported that these cops also danced at the wedding!! Here is the problem in a nutshell: the duly constituted authority kowtowing to a non-legal “authority” – and I am referring to the Government, not the obsequious policeman.

The source of the Republicans’ acquiescence to Trump’s depredations and PM Netanyahu’s similar “obeisance” to Haredi “authority, are the same: bald political considerations. The Republicans are (at least until this past Wednesday, were) deadly afraid of the “base” that supports Trump über alles. The Likud are similarly fearful of their Haredi coalition partners, who also declaratively hew the line of their non-governmental, quasi-authoritative, Council of Elders. To stay in power, both have been willing to turn a blind eye to clear illegality for the sake of short-term gain. The cost? A serious weakening of democratic norms.

So back to the question I started with: which is worse? Until Wednesday’s mob crashing of Congress, I would answer the American case given the illegality of the President’s actions. However, today – after the rest of America has been made aware of the potential disaster of such concessions to unrestricted power (whether duly elected or otherwise) – the Israeli case is more troubling, precisely because it is given the imprimatur of the elected officials themselves within the government. When the prime minister abjectly ignores clear violations of government policy, and meanwhile turns to other sectors of Israeli society and enforces the “policy” with them, that’s when trust in democracy suffers severe (irreparable?) damage.

Joe Biden becomes president shortly, and hopefully the rule of law and democratic principles will be restored. It remains to be seen if Israel follows its close ally’s electoral return to sanity by choosing a government based on those same principles. In a truly functioning democracy, there can be only one authority: not the president or prime minister, and certainly not any non-government actor. It’s called quite simply: the rule of law.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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