In discussions with friends and family who support the current Netanyahu government, I am told that the government was “voted in” by a majority and consequently has the right to introduce any laws they wish. This of cause includes a fundamental overhaul of the Supreme Court, its composition and responsibilities. Such beliefs are also expressed vigorously by many government Knesset members who perhaps ought to know better. What they do not account for is the equally important role that an opposition holds in a democracy.
Week after week for the last several months hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens have protested in the streets against the plans to curb the power of the Supreme Court. These have been some of the largest street protests in Israel’s 75 years history. A fundamental accusation against the protesters opposing the judicial overhaul is that they are neither patriotic nor loyal to Israel. In fact, the Prime Minister and other government ministers openly called the protesters not only unpatriotic but also traitors. The role of patriotism as loyalty to one’s country on the one hand and political loyalty to a sitting government on the other hand are by its very nature not one and the same.
Patriotism and loyalty generally speaking have positive implications. They are in fact about love for a country and serving it for the greater good. It has nothing to do with politics or party loyalty. Israel defines itself as parliamentary democracy where the majority forms the government, be it alone or in coalition with smaller parties. In this system minority parties serve as the opposition and have the duty to challenge changes government introduce. That is not unpatriotic.
The right to oppose governments is an inherent right in democracies. The democratic opposition can be understood as a system of check and balances. The British politician Harald Laski argued that — “a healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical”. This is what the demonstrations are about both within the Knesset and in the streets. They are not about passive or complacent acceptance of whatever the current government proposes in regards to the judicial overhaul. Not agreeing politically with a sitting government is not unpatriotic; it is an “active and critical” approach. In a similar vein, Bainbridge Colby an American lawyer and Woodrow Wilson’s last Secretary of State argued that “an intelligent and conscientious opposition is a part of loyalty to country”. Clearly, loyalty to country is not the same as loyalty to a political party or a political coalition. The hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets of larger and smaller cities in Israel express their right to oppose changes they in principle disagree with. Loyalty to government is about politics and political loyalty and not love of country.
Perhaps not surprisingly, what is being played out is a battle between two political philosophies; conservative and more liberal thought. Interestingly, psychological studies have indeed observed differences in the way conservative and liberal voters view the world. There seems to be a consensus in psychological research about the differences between the underlying beliefs and attitudes the two groups hold. Research shows that different underlying beliefs and attitudes guide much of our thinking and actions. Findings indicates that conservative voters wish for certainty, safety, and authority more than liberal voters. In contrast, liberal voters are more comfortable with originality, subtlety, and intricacy and thus able to better deal with uncertainty. A recent study in 2020 showed that psychological values and motivations such as empathic motivation of fairness and avoidance of harm appeal more to liberal voters. In contrast, ingroup loyalty and respect for authority appeal more to conservative voters.
Personality research has also shown that ‘open to experience’ is more prominent in liberal voters. Those scoring high in this dimension are independent-minded and willing to tolerate more ambiguity and more likely to challenge authority. John Jost, a professor of psychology, politics, and data science at New York University argues that such findings of different motives which underlie the support of either liberal or conservative principles can help to explain why one group is more interested in endorsing openness, justice, fairness and equality than those who promote respect of authority and loyalty to the ingroup. Taking this into account, perhaps it is not surprising that there is so much disagreement between the Netanyahu government and its opponents.
It is also not surprising there are problems in agreeing about the judicial overhaul. This is a difficult divide to bridge, when respect for authority, desire for certainty and loyalty to the government or ingroup loyalty clashes with desire for openness, justice and fairness.
Party loyalty is essential for political life. Nonetheless, in arguing for the right to oppose any sitting government, I will leave the last words to Mark Twain who suggested that, “patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”