Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Unintended Consequences: “Oppenheimer” and Judicial Reform

Life in general is unpredictable. Political life even more so. We try to get things done, but even when we succeed (or fail), the ensuing result is not what we would have expected. One would be hard pressed to think of two topics as different from each other than the Oppenheimer atomic bomb saga (now in the movies) and Israel’s current “Judicial Reform” controversy. Yet each has much the same lesson to be learned.

As is well known, Oppenheimer led the “Manhattan Project,” America’s massive and hurried attempt to build the Bomb before the Nazis managed to do so (it turned out that the latter were nowhere near success). However, when Oppenheimer saw the unbelievable destructive power of the atomic bomb he became a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of nuclear disarmament, to the great dismay (and suspicion) of the U.S. Government.

To be sure, he wasn’t the only one who feared a nuclear arms race that did indeed take place – with the Soviets. The result, however, was precisely the opposite of what he worried about – and it is here that we see a major unintended consequence: since 1945 there has not been a war between any two nuclear powers i.e., de facto disarmament! Indeed, since then the number of war fatalities per capita in the entire world has plummeted to historical lows!

Why? Because precisely the thing that shocked Oppenheimer and others – the humongous destructive capacity of the Bomb – is what has stopped all nuclear powers from even countenancing an attack on another nuclear power, due to the legitimate fear that nuclear retaliation from the other side would constitute national suicide for the initial attacker as well. (Parenthetically, this policy of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – is what makes some pundits argue that Iran’s getting the Bomb would hardly constitute the beginning of the end of Israel; the “problem” here is that it isn’t clear that the messianic Iranian mullahs are altogether rational.)

Next up: Israel’s Judicial Reform. Here both sides are being surprised by unintended consequences. Certainly, Yariv Levin did not imagine that his Judicial Reform policy would lead to the largest protest movement in Israel’s history – not to mention a significant drop in polling for the Likud and satellite coalition partners. That’s one unintended consequence.

The second one relates to Israel’s broad mainstream. You can “play with fire” several times on a camping trip and nothing happens. Then one day you do exactly what you always did (not put out all the embers) – and the next thing you know, the entire forest is aflame. “Middle Israel” has been suffering in relative silence for many years on a whole host of issues related to increasing religious incursions into the public space, right-wing attacks on the media and the courts, corruption at the highest levels of government, and so on. For them, it turns out, the Judicial Reform program was one “ember” too many.

Here the unintended consequence is the awakening of the hibernating bear – or if you prefer a different metaphor: the straw that broke the camel’s back. Consequently, not only is the Judicial Reform program in serious trouble (PM Netanyahu has already announced that his government will try for one more reform, changing the Judicial Appointments Committee makeup, and then stop), but other “projects” are now questionable as well e.g., draft legislation that would effectively enable all haredi youth to not serve in the army. With hundreds of volunteer reservists stopping their voluntarism (at least until the Judicial Reform package ends up in the dustbin of history), and far more reserve officers threatening the same (not to mention hundreds of doctors who are threatening to relocate overseas) – it is hard to see how the government could pass such legislation that would in effect be spitting in their faces.

This, especially when several ministers had the gall to call the volunteer reservists “sarvanim” (“refuseniks”), a pejorative that connotes illegality. In short, the unintended consequence here is Israeli society bringing to the fore all the counter-anger and frustrations that have been festering for decades among Israel’s “Silent Majority” – as a mirror image of the anger and frustrations of Israel’s (mostly) lower-class, populist citizenry who still feel slighted after all these decades and feel that Israel’s judiciary is partly at fault for their “lowly” state.

To end on a possible optimistic note: the present political “chaos” might well be the needed trigger to establishing some sort of “Constitutional Convention,” with all political camps sitting down to try and hammer out enduring procedures and the substantive principles underlying Israel’s polity. It won’t happen “tomorrow,” but when societies find themselves at the precipice, they tend to take a few steps back and consider building a safety net for all. And that would be the most unintended consequence of all: political disarmament!

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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