“Paraoh’s courtiers said to him, “Until when shall this be a snare for us? Send out the people and they will serve Adonai, their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7) In yesterday’s Torah portion, Bo, we must ask the question why is it that Pharaoh refuses to give in, even after all around him begin to understand where things are leading.
Last week our Prime Minister didn’t just hear from “leftists” who oppose the Occupation – The current and past heads of Israel’s national bank and economic experts from around the world have warned that Israel is risking economic disaster if we destroy our legal system. There will be no checks and balances to rash economic meaures. Hitech executives voice similar warnings. Major investment firms have already pulled their funds. The previous week National security experts said with surprising honesty that Israel’s High Court provides Israel with a fig leaf dampening international criticism about the Occupation. They warned that undermining our legal system will therefore harm Israel’s security because of the serious implications for Israel’s standing in the world. Seventeen labor law experts have warned that the new governments basic guidelines will harm the rights of workers to unionize and to bargain collectively. Leading defender of Israel and legal expert Alan Dershowitz has been honest about how bad it looks when we begin to dismantle our democracy. I would again add that we are talking about democracy for Israeli Jews. There has never been democracy for the Palestinians who can’t vote for the Knesset that makes the rules governing their lives, or serve as judges on the courts they can appeal to. Neither does Israel honor the protections in international law for an occupied people precisely because they can’t vote. Israeli Arabs can vote, but we have no Bill of Rights preventing the majority from taking their lands. ….
So why the obstinacy then or now? In the Torah we know that God already told Moses before he returned to Egypt that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart and God would wreak punishment on the Egyptians (Exodus 3:20, 4:21). In the opening of Bo, God says that God does this so that the Jewish people will recount God’s power for all time (Exodus 10:1-2). I have written in the past about all the theological questions this raises. What about free will? Why did God need to prove God’s Power in this way? Perhaps as Ramban and Rambam both suggest, part of Pharaoh’s punishment for past crimes was to be able to see the train wreck about to happen and be powerless to stop it. But, were all the Egyptians who suffered responsible?
I hope that God is not hardening Netanyahu’s heart
Perhaps Yariv Levin, Netanyahu and all the rest are just brilliant tacticians. When Daniel Friedman served as Justice Minister from 2007-2009, he suggested judicial reform including the need for at least nine High Court justices to be on the bench in order to strike down a Knesset law. The Knesset would then need a minimum of 70 votes to override the High Court, as opposed to the Levin’s proposal requiring only a bare majority of 61 votes. At the time so many were up in arms that the proposal went nowhere. Today, were Levin to “relent” and agree to such a proposal, he would get the thankful support of many who previously opposed the very same idea. (Today Friedman accepts the idea of 61, but also says that there must be 5 more in favor than against.) The opposition might also come to agreement on the remaining Levin proposals. As long as it would appear that democracy for Jewish Israelis was to be preserved, all too many would go back to ignoring the grave violations of the human rights of non-Jews that have been taking place way before the current government. The Haredi parties might be granted band aid solutions for Israelis living in poverty. Something would be done to placate the LGBTQ community and calm down world Jewry concerned about discrimination against non-Orthodox religious Jews. The dispossession, displacement, and oppression of Palestinians and on both sides of the 1967 border would continue, as well as the threats to send asylum seekers to their deaths.
Maybe I am giving Yariv Levin and the coalition too much credit. We have seen in the past the tendency of Benyamin Netanyahu to furiously turn against anybody who he sees as opposing him, and decide that even previously trusted advisors are out to get him. In today’s Israeli reality, even people from the right of the political spectrum who question the government’s proposals to dismantle Israel’s democracy for Jews, are discounted by the ruling coalition and their supporters as “leftists.” Maybe Pharaoh similarly discounted his advisors.
Maybe, despite Netanyahu’s long track record of manipulating coalition partners, his current partners are up to his tricks. Less concerned about world Jewry or international pressure, they aren’t allowing any room for compromise.
Many argue that it is simply a matter of overriding (no pun intended) self interest. Netanyahu want to stay out of jail. The haredim want to stay out of the army. Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir want to further the settlement enterprise, make the Occupation permanent and expell asylum seekers, Avi Maoz wants to roll back LGBTQ rights and the rights of non-Orthodox religious Jews. Arieh Deri wants to be a minister, despite his convictions…. Independent courts and legal advisors are a threat to all of these goals.
One difference between our Torah portion and our current situation is that Pharaoh’s advisors came to him after seven plagues. Most of us are hurting after Friday’s terror attacks. However, despite the occasional awful acts of terrorism, the Iranian threat, the high cost of living, low salaries and other sources of tension, Israelis generally don’t feel plagued. Most rate life as fairly good, although opinion polls show a majority not optimistic about the future of Israeli democracy. Sadly, the reality may be that the government won’t relent until things really hurt. Ibn Ezra says that the meaning of the words of Pharaoh’s courtiers was precisely that the plagues hadn’t yet hurt enough to Pharaoh, or that he was simply unaware of what his country and subjects were going through: “The meaning of ha-terem teda (don’t you yet know) is: do you first want it to become clear to you that Egypt is destroyed.”
I hope that Netanayu, Levin and the rest of the coalition will wake up before bringing disaster on all of us. I hope that those who are only concerned about the current threat to democracy for themselves will become sensitized and committed to democracy for all. And, I have often written that Moses’ crisis and questioning of himself prompt the opening lines of Bo in which God explains to Moses that Pharaoh has not yet freed the Israelites because God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I dare say that even those of us who feel God in our lives do not experience God orally explaining to us why things are not working out the way we want them to. May we nevertheless find the inspiration, encouragement, and faith never to give in to despair as we fight for a world honoring God’s Image in all.