I am writing this on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It’s a day of fasting and prayer in remembrance of the destruction of the Holy Temple and the expulsions of Jews from our holiest place, Jerusalem, by the Romans. One can’t ignore the fact that the many sects in Jerusalem at that time (70 CE) were at each others throats, close to, if not actually having, civil war among them. Some see a similarity between that period and today. In fact, the mass media is playing this up!
It’s ironic that just a few days ago the first of what may be a series of laws was passed in the Israeli Knesset. There was no consensus on the “Reasonability” law, which was passed by a strictly party vote. The coalition had softened their changes to the existing law in response to much criticism from the opposition. The prior version of the law allowed the justices to decide what they think is reasonable based strictly on their own inclinations. Because Israel has no written constitution, the Basic Laws (see Note below) serve as an insufficient substitute for a constitution. The opposition parties showed their disdain for the legislation by refusing to vote, resulting in its 64-0 passage.
Michal and I are amazed at the furor of the opponents to the expected laws, including doctors, lawyers, scientists, high tech workers, young people, retirees, and more. In our opinion, they have been whipped up into a frenzy by the leaders of opposition parties and particularly the corrupt mass media, which can’t stop fanning the flames of what they deem a potential civil war. None of our friends, of differing political persuasions, are consumed by this subject. In fact, it’s hardly ever brought up. As a commentator on the news, I’m the most interested. Why corrupt mass media? Because they present opinions as facts and minimize comments which don’t accord with their agenda.
In today’s Times of Israel of July 26, Michael Oren, born in NJ, an IDF veteran, history professor, former Israeli Ambassador to the US, and author, wrote of a polarity in his personal life which I feel is pertinent to the many days of demonstrations Israelis have endured this year. Oren’s social (rowing club) friends are professionals, largely Ashkenazi, and politically left-leaning. His synagogue friends are mostly Mizrachi (descendants of Jews from Arab countries), national religious, conservative, and to a significant degree, working class.
Oren wrote: The coalition [present government], I concluded, had the right idea but the wrong implementation and the wrong sponsors. At the same time, I was discomfited by the refusal of many in the opposition to consider any reform and, under any circumstances, to recognize the government’s legitimacy. (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-tale-of-two-israels-2/)
These two groups are mirrored in Israeli society today. The first group represents many of the center, center left, and left wing parties, who deem themselves to be superior and the mainstay of the country. They are represented by the left parties that ran Israeli governments from 1948 until 1977. From then on, the second group, composed of center right, right, and religious parties controlled most Israeli governments.
There have been massive demonstrations for months, mostly by ardent supporters of the opposition, against changes to the Supreme Court. These demonstrations will continue. While many of the demonstrators know little about the issues at stake (not uncommon in demonstrations everywhere) many Israelis from both sides have expressed the need for some change. Even politicians such as Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, who head the largest parties of the opposition, are on the record supporting alterations to the running of the Supreme Court. But neither side is really ready to climb down from their demands.
So what’s legal today? Answer: What the Supreme Court justices say is legal, according to the Basic Laws they enact. Of crucial importance is that the justices have a veto over admittance of new justices to the court. (It will probably be the next target on the government agenda.) This method has guaranteed that the justices have been able to keep those with different viewpoints off the court. “A friend brings a friend…” could be their motto. It’s important to know that the court is almost exclusively drawn from the group that Ambassador Oren calls his “social” or “rowing club” friends. This near-uniformity of the justices is a symbol of the angst fueling the demonstrations pervading Israel at this time. The irony is that “Democracy” is the cry of both sides battling each other. Is the involvement of the legislators in the choice of justices – it’s limited now – not exactly what democracy calls for?
The US has a tripartite government with three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial; and there is a Constitution which can be amended. The Supreme Court justices are nominated by the President and must be approved by a majority vote of the senators. Israel is very different, with no constitution and no executive branch. The nation’s prime minister becomes the leader of the coalition government (no party has ever won a majority) while the president has only an honorary post without political power. Therefore, the Supreme Court is the chief decider whether laws passed by the government are “constitutional,” that is, not abridging any Basic Law. The justices of the Supreme Court are selected by a committee of nine, only two of whom are elected members of the Knesset. There are three sitting justices on the committee. Importantly, any three members of the committee may veto a candidate, so the Court has the ability to blackball candidates.
Why did negotiations over the recent vote fail to be fruitful? I put it down to zealotry. The observance of Tisha b’Av began tonight, July 26. The destruction of the Temple is said to have occurred because of baseless hatred between various factions of the Jewish people. The Jewish sect of Zealots went so far as to destroy food stocks of their opponents (Jewish, not Roman), making the Roman conquest all but inevitable.
I believe that a similar zealotry, hopefully not fatal, is at play right now in Israel. On both sides there are those who want what they want NOW! A much smoother transition period could have been planned to effectuate changes in Court procedures, alterations which most Israelis, politicians and regular citizens favored. Instead, we have this terrible clash in which horrendous charges against ones opponents have been levied and self-fulfilling prophecies were disseminated. These prophecies are significant in prompting a fall in the economy, an exit of high tech companies, a fall in Israel’s once-stellar credit rating, a huge drop in volunteer reserve duties by IDF veterans, a show of weakness to our many enemies in the region, and more. There are very few articles that are pro-change or objective in the mass media reportage. I believe the politicians’ invectives highlighted in the corrupt media are a major factor in this damage to our country.
What’s the solution here? I don’t know. If our citizens recall, and reject, the factionalism and hatred which led to the sacking of Jerusalem and the exile of Jerusalem’s Jews, we might get back on the right track. But if we Israelis let the politicians continue to attack each other without fearing the consequences, Israel could be in for a very bad period. But as always, I remain optimistic and hope for a sensible compromise.
Note: President of the Supreme Court, Justice Aharon Barak, was the main force behind alterations (some radical) to the Court, which occurred in the 1990s. (They are still being added to.) Not much notice was taken of the momentous changes at the time. Over the years several significant problems have arisen because of the changes and these are recognized by Israel’s citizens who pay attention to the Court’s proceedings.
These changes were able to be implemented by Justice Barak because of the lack of a constitution in Israel, which was supposed to be written and adopted in 1948, several months after Israel’s independence had been declared. Justice Barak explicitly declared that the passage of these Basic Laws had initiated a “constitutional revolution” in Israel. Until today, no attempt to write a constitution has been successful.
For a list of the Basic Laws and further explanation, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_Laws_of_Israel