Israel in Crisis

Posted on March 24, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

Last Saturday night, 500,000 Israelis took to the streets all across the country. It was the 11th consecutive week of mass protests against the Netanyahu government’s efforts to undermine Israel’s democracy.

500,000 represents 5% of the entire population of Israel; the equivalent in the United States would be 16.5 million Americans. Could you imagine such a thing?

What has raised the ire and concern of so many of Israel’s citizens?

From its inception, Israel has been committed to be a Jewish and democratic country. As it’s Declaration of Independence declared:

The State of Israel will … ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…

Since January, when the most right-wing government in Israel’s history came to power, the ruling coalition has begun to use its majority to pass laws that would undermine the letter and the spirit of these commitments by seeking to concentrate absolute power in the legislative/executive branch (Unlike in the US, in Israel they are one and the same).

The most egregious of these laws would give the Knesset the ability to overturn any ruling of the Supreme Court by a simple majority vote. This would nullify the power of judicial review, stripping the judiciary of its ability to be a check and a balance on the power of the ruling coalition. Israel would cease to be a liberal democracy, becoming, in effect, an autocracy, with Benjamin Netanyahu as its dictator.

This is but one of the anti-democratic proposals currently moving through the legislative process.

Netanyahu’s government has just passed a law guaranteeing that neither the courts nor the Attorney General can declare a prime minister unfit to serve. This is convenient for Netanyahu personally, as he is currently standing trial on three different charges of corruption and abuse of power. Thus, this legislation is itself corrupt.

Next on the government’s agenda is a law that would give the governing coalition absolute control over the appointment of judges. This would further weaken the independence of the judiciary, giving the Prime Minister and his coalition nearly absolute power.

At stake are civil and human rights currently enshrined in Israel’s Basic Laws, which have been consistently and vigilantly guarded by the Supreme Court. If these laws were to be passed, there would be no protection for the rights of women, Israel’s Arab citizens, LGBTQ+ people, religious minorities like Reform and Conservative Jews, and others in Israel’s diverse, though not necessarily pluralistic, society.

Attempts by the ultra-Orthodox, ultra-nationalist, racist, and homophobic extremists in the Netanyahu government to deny the freedoms enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and its Basic-Laws (most notably the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty) could not be thwarted by the courts or any other body.

The government has already indicated that it intends to pass laws that would withdraw all recognition of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism; cancel all their government funding; reverse the recognition of their conversions; legalize discrimination against women, LGBTQ+ people, and Arabs; and increase military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox while increasing government funding for their institutions.

Among those opposing these draconian measures are former heads of Israel’s military and security forces, former chief justices and attorneys general, and the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, who has been working day and night to engineer a compromise that would prevent passage of the worst excesses. Many of the CEOs of Israel’s largest companies and the heads of its banks have warned of irreparable damage to Israel’s economy and standing in the world. And perhaps most alarming and telling of all, hundreds of Israel’s military reservists, officers, pilots, and heads of elite fighting units are refusing to show up for training, thus weakening Israel’s security.

So what are we to do?

Some among us have decided that they can no longer identify with a Jewish state that is a betrayal of our Jewish values and are simply giving up on Israel. For me, that is unthinkable. Israel is too precious and too integral to who we are as Jews. It is where a majority of the world’s Jewish population — our extended Jewish family — makes its home. Among them are vast numbers of people who share our values and our outrage at the attempt to undermine Israel’s democracy. How can we, in good conscience, turn our backs on them?

Reform Judaism in Israel has grown remarkably in strength and numbers and is changing the religious and values landscape of the nation. Our Israeli Reform rabbis and lay leaders have taken a bold position at the vanguard of the struggle to save the soul of the Jewish state — and they need us now more than ever. We can support the fight for Israel’s democracy by writing to the Israeli consulate in NYC, by writing to our members of Congress, by joining the demonstrations that are being held in major American cities like New York, and by supporting our Israeli Reform Movement.

Together with our brave and committed Israeli partners, we can help Israel remain true to the vision of its founders and grow to fulfill its promise to be a light among nations. Let us never waver in our commitment to this cause until “Zion is redeemed in justice.” (Isaiah 1:27)

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck