Micah Segelman

We need dialogue – not Israel’s version of MAGA

Even from thousands of miles away in the United States, watching this bitter judicial reform fight between right and left unfold in Israel has been traumatic. The potential for irreparable damage is real, and damage has already occurred. Despite the complexity of the issues, and that the issues are truly deeper than just the details of the judicial system, I feel so much of this boils down to “othering” – and the consequent inability for many people to listen to the perspective of people who are different from themselves.

I see so many parallels to what is going on in United States. I am devastated that some leaders in Israel are behaving like the Israeli version of the MAGA movement, with the potential for damage even greater than what MAGA has inflicted on America.

The denial of the 2020 election results, and the attempts to illegally overturn that election, were made possible because Trump’s supporters chose to live in an echo chamber and were unable to listen to those who they perceived to be on the other side. Being MAGA came to mean demanding unwavering loyalty and unquestioning faith, and lacking any nuance in depicting one’s opponents. In the eyes of Trump loyalists, all opponents were leftists and enemies of the American people. MAGA supporters could see things only in black and white (or red and blue as the case may be). Compromise was seen as weakness and even acknowledging the validity of a point made by the other side was seen as heresy. MAGA loyalists chose raw emotion over reason and tribalism over principle to the point that right and wrong and even truth itself were no longer relevant. MAGA meant waging a war against “the other” without bothering to think if this made any sense and whether it was possible to instead have constructive disagreements with opponents. Fostering division and anger, and not achieving unity and cohesion, were the necessary tools to gain power. MAGA was a movement fed by grievance, fear, weakness, ignorance, and lack of self-awareness.

I do my best to avoid partisan politics. I fully acknowledge that many of the traits I described are not limited to some on the extreme right and apply to some on the extreme left as well. However, there are important distinctions. The most extreme parts of the left have at least so far not gained the power that Trump and the MAGA movement did, nor have they staged their equivalent of a January 6th. The fact is that America is a changed country since 2015 and I believe the damage inflicted by the MAGA movement on the Republican party and the country as a whole will last for generations. And, of course, things could get worse before they get better – Trump is running for office again in 2024.

Powerful arguments have been made for the necessity for judicial reform to address the problems caused by an overly powerful judiciary, and equally strong arguments have been made that the reforms currently being put forward by the coalition are an overcorrection and remove necessary checks on the legislature. Or to put this differently, the feelings of each side cannot simply be ignored and steamrolled. A lot of people have legitimate concerns with the existing state of affairs and feel their voices are not being heard. At the same time, a lot other people have legitimate concerns and feel that the proposed new system will not restore balance and fairness and will instead weaken democracy. I believe we can only move forward if we are willing to acknowledge the validity of points being made by both sides.

There is a strong desire on the part of many – left, right, center, secular, and religious – for a reasonable compromise that can achieve consensus. And yet, key figures in the coalition have displayed a willingness to act unilaterally, without consensus, and without dialogue with the other side, to make major changes to the foundational issues. Their unilateral actions have been accompanied by harsh and uncompromising rhetoric, justified by grievance and fear, resulting in polarization perhaps never seen before. Many of the words and deeds emanating from parts of the right suggest an extremism and intolerance of the other side on par with the MAGA movement. There is a Trumpian proclivity for constant provocation, divisiveness, intolerance of difference, and bravado among several key actors. And it is critical to point out that in the opposition as well, there have been voices that have been combative, at times disdainful and even hateful of segments of the right, and invalidating of the legitimate concerns that have been raised.

I want to assert that unilateral action without at least a serious attempt at achieving consensus is not the authentically Jewish approach. What other people besides the Jewish people possesses a tradition spanning thousands of years on how to conduct debates and navigate disagreements? And yet some of Israel’s elected leaders are willfully ignoring what our tradition says about how to move forward through conflict.

The Talmud records numerous disputes between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai (the House of Hillel the House of Shammai).  As a general rule, the law follows the Beis Hillel. Why? The Talmud says that the reason we follow Beis Hillel is because they were superior to Beis Shammai in their character. They calmly respected the opinion of Beis Shammai, even going to so far as to first cite the opinion of Beis Shammai on any given topic, even before stating their own opinion. Rabbi Yehuda Loew (the famed Maharal of Prague) explains that these character traits enabled Beis Hillel to come closer to the truth because they overcame their ego and were able to stay focused on the issues. Even though intellectually Beis Shammai were better equipped to be more on target in their analysis, they fell short because of their biases, however subtle. Beis Hillel were humble and were able to learn from Beis Shammai’s insights, and thus refine their own thinking to ultimately reach the truth. They didn’t feel a need to argue simply for the sake of winning the argument. They could agree with Beis Shammai insights where they felt it was justified, and disagree where they felt the situation warranted it. Their pure motives and sterling character allowed them to focus on the substance of the issues itself.

What a beautiful ideal! Israel’s elected leaders are falling way short of this ideal. But as a people, we have the knowledge of how to extricate ourselves from this predicament. Let us hope we have the courage to make ourselves vulnerable enough to listen even when it is hard, to sideline extremists on both sides, and to ultimately reach a place where both sides can feel understood and that their major concerns have been addressed. Based on the most recent developments, there is now a small opening for dialogue. I truly hope leaders on both sides rise to the occasion.

About the Author
Rabbi Micah Segelman writes both scholarly and popular articles on Jewish topics. He is a health policy researcher and completed his PhD in health services research and policy at the University of Rochester.
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