Alon Tal

Memo to friends round the world: Stand with Israel, not its extremist government

I recently returned to Israel from a six-month sabbatical to Stanford University. On many occasions I had conversations about the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms with friends who are among Israel’s staunchest, most devoted supporters.  They were concerned and perplexed about what to do. Now, more than ever, they deserve a clear answer.

For six months, extremists in the coalition zealously pursued an agenda of “Judicial Overhaul”, designed to eviscerate the Supreme Court and prevent it from being an independent balance against the unfettered power of Israel’s executive branch. This week, they started passing laws to that end, laws which substantially weaken Israel as a democratic country.  So, my  message is clear: “There are times in every family, when a loved-one goes off the rails; these are times when you have a responsibility to speak out and to criticize. That doesn’t mean you don’t continue to unconditionally support them. But you can’t remain silent.”

What does it mean to be a supporter of Israel living outside the country today? In 1967 that was not a complicated question.  Unfortunately, this week’s vote approving legislation to cancel the “Reasonable Standard”, judicial criterion means that old, traditional dynamics need to change.   The day the Netanyahu government enacted a law cancelling Israel’s Supreme Court’s authority to stop extremely unreasonable government appointments and administrative decisions should be a turning point for anyone who cares about Israel’s democracy.

Netanyahu and his partners rejected the calls for reaching a broad societal consensus about the form democracy should take — calls that that came from across society: top business leaders and labor unions; doctors and the Bar Association; pretty much all military experts; and according to polls; roughly two thirds of Israeli citizens.  The coalition hardly made a pretense of listening, rejected several proposed compromises and then unilaterally pursued its agenda of unlimited executive power.

That’s why the time has come for people who love Israel and who care about its future, to openly express their discomfort with a government that eschews judicial review. It is simply wrong to remain silent while Israel’s government destroys national unity by eliminating fundamental democratic protections that the Supreme Court has always provided, for all of its citizens.

It is time for the world Zionist community: whether it be Hadassah, the American Jewish Committee, JNF, B’nai Brith, AIPAC; federations — or simply synagogues  and communities around the world to take a stand. That means standing with the hundreds of thousands of citizens who took to the streets, begging this government to preserve what little separation of powers the country has. If the government believes think the judicial system needs reform, it should agree that decisions about constitutional matters only take place in a broad consensual process that ensures agreement across society.

As it became clear that the government was set on eviscerating its Supreme Court and giving the executive almost unrestricted powers, thousands of Israeli reservists: pilots, navy captains, commandoes, or just common infantry soldiers and intelligence analysts announced that they would no longer be able to serve as reservists. They could not continue to volunteer for an undemocratic government. You see, Israel has always had a “People’s Army”. It worked because the soldiers felt that they were fighting for a unique country; a “light unto the nations”; a paragon of democracy. But this week, the government took a quantum leap down the slippery slope towards totalitarianism.

Israel’s supporters around the world now must stand with the heads of all the security services,  and not with the Netanyahu government, most of whose ministers never really served in the Israeli army at all. It is time to disavow the extremist agenda that would stop the courts from intervening when the government appoints convicted felons to be ministers, or even just exhibits small-time corruption and cronyism.

It’s also important that Israel’s friends stand with the women of the country — who are justifiably frightened by the proposals of government ministers to limit women’s rights in secular family court, forcing them to receive child support via the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic court. The rabbinic court’s all male rabbis invariably side with husbands (Women are not even allowed to testify as witnesses in Israel’s rabbinic courts.)

Make no mistake: this is a government with a misogynist agenda — where two of the four parties calling the shots in the coalition do not even allow women to be Knesset candidates.

I am not suggesting that non-Israeli citizens identity with any given Israeli political party or even liberal American Zionist groups, whose core strategy involves publicly critiquing Israel.  But they should stand with a litany of venerated presidents: On the eve of the Knesset’s heart-breaking vote, Israel’s past president, lifelong-Likud affiliate Reuven Rivlin told the people of Israel that it was Israel’s darkest hour “We have 24-hours to save the country”.

For six-months now, his successor ,President Herzog begged the government to enter into a dialog that would lead to compromise… only to be unceremoniously ignored this week by the Knesset . Oh. Yes – and then there’s President Biden, a friend of Israel for 50-years, who also pointedly asked Netanyahu not to hurry and change the fundamental balance of powers without a broad societal consensus.  Prime Minister Netanyahu did not listen to him either.

Even Netanyahu’s defense minister, former general Yoav Gallant, was seen in the Knesset pleading with anyone in the Likud who would listen, to find some way of softening the Reasonableness Law and seek agreement.  But no one would.  Not only did Prime Minister Netanyahu not raise a finger —  he called Gallant to task for overreaching.  Then the military chief of staff, General Herzi HaLevy insisted on meeting the Prime Minister to describe the catastrophic security implications of having such a high percentage of elite officers walk away from volunteer reserve service. The prime minister refused to meet with him until after the vote was over.

So what is to be done? To begin with, supporters of Israel should tell all representatives of the Israel’s ruling government that until they agree to reach a consensus on constitutional matters and stop dismantling democracy, they are no longer welcome: Not at the GA, not at the AIPAC policy conference; not at JNF or Hadassah conventions; not at temples and synagogues around the world.  For those who support Israel financially, consider direct donations to organizations that are fighting to unify the country and preserve democracy. The Israel Democracy Institute is one such place; but the recent protests have spawned many excellent other ones.

If supporters of Israel around the world broke their silence, would it matter?  Probably not.  Apparently, Bibi believes that his coalition will fall apart if he puts the good of the country first and tries to forge a broad societal consensus. For now, he isn’t listening.  But after speaking out, at least Israel’s friends could look themselves in the mirror and know that they are on the right side of history.

Dante, the great medieval writer, is often quoted for having written that: “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality”.  Hillel the sage said it better 1200 years earlier: “If not now when?”

As we face Tisha B’Av tomorrow — the day when our people mourn the destruction of the Temple due to divisions and gratuitous hate between Jews —  I am dismayed to see history repeating itself.  In a passionate, multi-cultured society, finding common ground and doubling down on democratic norms is the only way forward for the Third Jewish Commonwealth.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.
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