Benjamin Rubin

Whether it is Permissible to attend a “Rally for Israeli Democracy” – in Toronto

"Rally to Save Israeli Democracy" at Toronto City Hall, Sunday March 26, 2023. Photo by Benjamin Rubin

Thank you א for sharing your thoughts, some of which I agree with, some of which I disagree with, and all of which has prompted me to respond.

I must admit I have mixed feelings about attending the rallies down at Toronto City Hall in solidarity with the Israeli demonstrations. I don’t agree with everything that is said there. I find the slogans chanted simplistic, the tone self-righteous, and I also wonder what benefit these attendances do for advancing the opposition to the judicial reform, other than making Toronto attendees feel good that they are contributing to a cause which they support.

But I don’t agree with you that there are only two categories of Jews: those who are living in Israel and paying taxes there, who are entitled to voice their opinion over developments in Israel, and those who live in Canada (or elsewhere in the diaspora) and pay taxes to their new place of residence.

Jewish identity and the connection to Israel, like so much else, has changed over 40 years. In Canada alone there are tens of thousands of Israelis living here, some Sabras, others born in the USSR who spent years in Israel, others who married Diaspora Jews. And many living in Canada, wherever born, have close ties to brothers and sisters, parents and children, living in Israel.

I am among them. I was born in Toronto, learned my Hebrew at Jewish day school, and only moved to Israel after college to join my brother and sister who made aliya years earlier and live there still.  At Hebrew University I met my Israeli wife. I ended up moving back to Canada to attend law school, and went on to practice law here for 33 years, but we visited every year. And between my brother and sisters and my wife’s brothers and sister, our Canadian-born children have 21 first cousins living in Israel. And now, we have just returned after five months living at our place in Israel, where we were totally involved in the society and its politics, attending demonstrations against the judicial reform in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Raanana and Netanya. (I guess I was following A’s suggestion, that it IS okay to attend demonstrations – in Israel.)

I admit that returning to Toronto, which I experience as an alternative reality to Israel, I do feel some discomfort attending rallies at City Hall. But my point is that one’s connection to Israel is NOT binary: either you live in Israel and attend demonstrations, or you live in the Diaspora and don’t.

Moving on to the substantive points that you raise. Having watched the news daily in Israel through the end of March 2023, I agree that the behaviour of ALL the parties in the Committee of Law and Constitution was problematic.  While many people, including those within the Opposition, agree that SOME reform to the judicial system should be made, the PROCESS of the government in attempting to ram through what is really constitutional change without building consensus was wrong.

“Democracy” is a simplistic word. If democracy just means “majority rules and elections” then I agree that on November 1, 2022, Netanyahu and his right-wing and religious allies won a clear majority of Knesset seats in free and fair elections. But as I have explained in greater detail and more systematically in my article published in Times of Israel,  Israel’s unique constitutional structure, in which the entire country is one riding, the vote for the Knesset is through proportional representation, means that whichever coalition controls 61 or more seats in the Knesset constitutes the government.  And in the absence of a constitution, a Bill of Rights, a Senate or a directly elected executive, in Israel, the ONLY defence against “the tyranny of the majority”, and the only defence of individual rights, the only defence against the actions of the government, is the Supreme Court.

The people who support the proposed judicial reform, (a much smaller group than those who voted for the Netanyahu-led coalition parties), have long believed that Israel “votes right but is governed left”, and they correctly point out the clear ideological preferences of the Supreme Court.  Like Israel’s mainstream media and academia, and the top echelons of business, the civil service and the army, Israel’s Supreme Court has favoured the preferences of the elites of Israeli society: secular (vs. religious); liberal (vs. conservative); globalist human rights (vs. nationalist).

There have already been some correcting tendencies in these areas. In the army, infantry officers once long ago kibbutznikim, are now Dati Leumi. Channel 14, which is like an Israeli Fox News, is more popular than channels 11, 12 and 13.  And Ayelet Shaked, the right-wing Minister of Justice under Bibi’s former prime ministership, succeeded in putting on the Supreme Court conservative, religious and Mizrachi judges (without “reforming” the committee to appoint judges). But I agree that some reform is required so that the makeup and outlook of the Supreme Court better reflects Israeli society as a whole.

You talk leniently about the law legalizing corruption. Yes, it is true that there is corruption in government everywhere, even in Canada. But passing a law legalizing it is a step too far.  It reminds me of a joke that they once told about Aryeh Deri, when Deri was first accused of corruption. Deri says, (along the lines you raised), “Come on! We all know that EVERYBODY pisses in the swimming pool.”  “Yes,” was the reply. “But not from the diving board!”

Of course I agree with you that Israel has changed over 40 years, just as Canada and America have changed, and the whole world has changed. The rise of populist anti-liberal anti-elite forces is not unique to Israel: it’s happening in America, and Hungary and Turkey and India. And as Trump has shown, the politics of resentment against liberal elites can be an effective political tool. But dafka the demonstrations in Israel, carrying Israeli flags and singing Hatikvah and “Ayn Lee Eretz Acheret”, have also shown the world how to galvanize forces, not necessarily of left-wing politics, but more so a no-longer-silent majority who favor liberal democracy. And the radical reform of Israel’s Supreme Court and the other related moves, as part of the so-called judicial reform, would indeed undermine Israel’s liberal democracy.

At the “Rally to Save Israeli Democracy” at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto City Hall. March 26, 2023. Photo by Benjamin Rubin

And since I too, as a Diaspora Jew, living with close connections to Israel through family, identity, and part-time residence, strongly support liberal democracy in Israel; therefore, although I share some of your concerns about the rallies at Toronto City Hall, I feel on balance it is worthwhile to demonstrate our solidarity with those who are rallying in favor of liberal democracy in Israel.

About the Author
Benjamin Rubin was Chair of Limmud Toronto 2018, elected to Zionist Congress, and VP of Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Under his pen name eBenBrandeis, he composes YouTube poems, translated from Hebrew a pre-war Pinsk biography, edited and published a book of contemporary Jewish humour, and created, a Zionist conceptual art project. Since retiring from the practice of law, he and his wife split their time between Toronto and Tel Mond. He has an abiding interest in Israeli contemporary music, the Golden Age of Hebrew poets from Andalusia, and the Muslim-Christian-Jewish convivencia of Spain. Writer, producer and director of the Zoom teleplay series, “Golden Age Travel”, about 12th century Hebrew poet and Arabic Jewish philosopher, Yehuda HaLevi, travelling through time. Episodes of the series have been performed online at Limmud Festivals in Toronto, Boston, Seattle and Winnipeg. GAT episode VI, "Berlin 28, Paris 38, Jerusalem 61" was premiered at Limmud Toronto November 2021.