I recently returned from a two-day visit to Israel where I met with leaders from across the political spectrum, as well as legal scholars, civil society leaders and others to discuss the current situation in Israel surrounding the judicial overhaul legislation. I met with those who support the reforms, those opposing them, as well as those who seek a compromise.
As the leader of an American Jewish organization, my job is not to tell Israelis what plan to adopt or argue about the merits of different reforms. I went to share how this crisis internal to Israel – the only Jewish state – is affecting the millions of Jews in the Diaspora.
During my meetings, I shared the perspective that ADL and many in the US Jewish community who are deeply connected to the Jewish state, are alarmed at the growing fractures in Israeli society, the increasingly incendiary rhetoric and the atmosphere of divisiveness. I urged everyone who I met – from the right to the center to the left – to safeguard Israel’s social fabric, to uphold the Jewish state’s democratic values, and to ensure the protections for minorities as enshrined in Israel’s founding Declaration of Independence.
And I conveyed that many of us in the Diaspora, who are on the front lines of combatting delegitimization of Israel and anti-Zionism, fear that the lack of confidence in Israel’s robust democratic structures will have severe repercussions for Israel’s standing and the ability to challenge Israel’s detractors.
Indeed, every day that passes without a compromise is a good day for Israel’s haters. And let’s be clear – the hate is raw and real and unlike that directed at any other country on the planet. One only has to follow certain influencers on social media, monitor the regular proceedings of the UN Human Rights Council’s session, or visit some of the world’s most prestigious university campuses to witness ugly antisemitic celebrations of “Israeli Apartheid Week.”
While no one should let their enemies dictate what they do, this is the reality of the situation. As Israel is more divided and as extremism is allowed to fester, it emboldens Israel’s – and the Jewish people’s – enemies.
So, what should come next?
Slow down, build consensus, ensure there is confidence in democratic structures and processes. As a wise person reminded me on this trip, fiats can be rammed through, but only compromises last – compromises that might make neither side happy in the moment but that often can endure in the long run because everyone has committed the time to be invested in their success.
To this end, I applaud and appreciate President Herzog’s efforts to find a compromise. Whether or not one agrees with all the points, the very idea of suggesting a framework can open the door for dialogue. To those who disagreed with its points, I would implore them to take the pen themselves and work toward compromise. This moment offers both sides a chance to take a breath, walk back from the brink, and start to meet in the middle.
Also, I would remind Israel’s congenital critics who see the protests as a sign of weakness, nothing could be farther from the truth. In dictatorships like Russia or China, no one dares protest because they know they will be imprisoned simply for expressing their views. In Iran, the brave men and women who call out the hypocrisy of the Islamic regime face the prospect of arrest, torture, and death. In Israel, crowds pour forth every night in a vibrant demonstration of democracy at work, then go back to work the next day. It is refreshing and remarkable.
A word of caution to those in the US who so often try to squeeze world events into a binary frame that feels familiar. I don’t believe this situation can be reduced to a one-dimensional issue of Left vs. Right. Democracy is not owned by one side of the political map.
Indeed, I spoke to many Israelis on this visit, individuals with deeply progressive values, who acknowledged that some reform to ensure a more representative court and a fairer democracy would be welcome. At the same time, all throughout this crisis, prominent voices from the right or center-right such as Natan Sharansky, Miriam Adelson, Daniel Gordis, and Oded Revivi have appealed to the Israeli government to slow down the process, build consensus, and be judicious with any step forward.
In the end, this may feel irregular, but Israel has never been a regular country just as the Jews have never been a regular people. We endured nearly 2,000 years of exile and persecution. We have been delegitimized over epochs for our religious practices, for our so-called race, and now for our nation-state.
It is a straightforward statement of fact that the Jewish state of Israel, the national embodiment of our people, has endured 75 years of war. It has weathered kinetic and asymmetric conflict, terror targeting its civilians, lawfare targeting its institutions, prejudice printed in papers, bigotry broadcast from newsrooms and antisemitism enabled by algorithms. There simply is no country in history that has been attacked as ruthlessly and as relentlessly as Israel.
Despite this ongoing campaign and regardless of all the differences among Israeli Jews and their fellow citizens of other ethnicities and faiths, Israeli society always has been amazingly cohesive. In less than four score years, it has evolved into an economic dynamo, a technology superpower, and a cultural powerhouse. It ranks among the happiest countries on the planet – well ahead of the United States and nearly all of the countries in Western Europe who rarely miss an opportunity to lecture it. By every measure, Israel is nothing less than a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-denominational, and multi-racial miracle.
For these reasons, Israel must dig deep to end this impasse and rekindle the kind of resolve that always has shaped the country. This is not a time to fall prey to the demons of divisiveness and polarization that have devoured so many other democracies. I hope Israeli leaders on all sides can rise above short-term political interests and focus on the long-term needs of the country.
In this moment, Israeli leaders must uphold their historic responsibilities to the citizens of Israel, to the Jewish Diaspora, and to our shared forbearers by ensuring Israel retain its identity as a Jewish and democratic state that remains the envy of the world. Compromise, painful as it may be for all sides, is the only path that ensures this outcome.