Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, architect of the judicial overhaul, at the Knesset on Monday./YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90

The Israel we know has fallen

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The Israel we know has fallen

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, architect of the judicial overhaul, at the Knesset on Monday./YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90

In what appears to be a tragic convergence, in the week of Tisha B’Av, when we mark the destruction of the Temple, attributed by our sages to bitter hatred among Jews, the Knesset has passed the first piece of judicial reform that has torn Israeli society asunder.

When the President of Israel speaks publicly about Israel being in “a state of emergency,” it is not hyperbole to assert that as the bill to limit “reasonableness” in judicial decisions becomes law, Israel has gone over the cliff’s edge, no longer the democracy it has proudly fostered and sustained for 75 years. Civil war becomes an all-too real possibility, a dire threat to the security, economy and diplomatic status of the Jewish state as well as a moral failure that could unravel support among diaspora Jewry here and around the world.
We are in uncharted waters.

Biblical allusions to the ancient tragedy surround us. “Alas,” begins Lamentations, the ancient book we read on Tisha B’Av, describing Jerusalem in mourning. “She dwelt among the nations but found no rest, all her pursuers overtook her in narrow straits.”

The pursuers of old were the Jewish people’s Babylonian enemies, determined to conquer the land. Today’s pursuers are a handful of Knesset extremists hell-bent on weakening the state’s judicial system that serves as the only check on the other branches of government. This radical element is determined to remake Israel into a religious state with little interest in democratic values or citizens – be they secular, gay or Arab – who don’t share its messianic views.

The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av are a solemn period of mourning, leading up to the saddest day of the Jewish year. This summer, each of the past three weeks marked the passage in a Knesset committee of requirements to move forward in expunging “reasonableness” as a standard in Israeli law.

Footage from the air this week of tens of thousands of Israelis marching 37 miles from Tel Aviv to the Knesset evoked powerful images of the pilgrimages the Jewish people made to Jerusalem in days of old.

But the streets of Jerusalem today are not desolate, as described in Lamentations. They are filled with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, left, center and right, observant and secular, who represent the majority of citizens opposed to the pace and extremism of the current Knesset efforts. They are the hope for the future, the vanguard of all those committed to restore the balance of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.

Israeli Police use water cannons against protesters who oppose Likud’s judiciary overhaul.

The tragedy here is the inability to achieve compromise when many of the critics of the new law acknowledged that reforms were in order. But they were pleading for the process to be slowed down and to strive for consensus. Some proponents of the bill admitted it was extreme, but felt the need to pass it while they could.

Even the reports of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pacemaker surgery evoke Biblical references to God hardening the heart of the Egyptian pharaoh in moments of crisis.

Cheap shot? Maybe, but the fault for this frightening scenario can be attributed essentially to the man whose legacy as one of Israel’s most effective leaders seemed assured a few years ago. Sadly, the combination of his multiple years in power and the prospect of prison for alleged crimes of fraud and bribery resulted in Netanyahu forming a government dependent on radical ultra-nationalist and religiously ideological characters drunk with power of their own.

Many Israelis are deeply worried that these chaotic times may well lead to a large emigration to the U.S. and other Western countries of Israelis no longer willing to bear the burden of paying high taxes and risking the lives of their children in the army to support a burgeoning population of Haredim, many of whom are under-employed and exempt from military service.

“This would be the first emigration based not on economics but on ideology,” an Israeli friend told me, warning that the country could lose some of its best and brightest young people, disillusioned by today’s realities.

With all of these dark signs, though, it is important to remember that at the core of Judaism, and Jewish history, there is always hope for a brighter future. Ironically, during the past seven months of national turmoil, Netanyahu finally managed to unite a significant majority of the country; but in opposition, not in support. Politically, the left, center and moderate right, and religiously, all but the Haredim and religious nationalists, stood firm for seven months in opposing the rush to pass legislation that could well lead to autocracy.

The flag of Israel is waved by virtually everyone now, not just those on the right. Leaders from every walk of life have stepped up and spoken out about the precious nature of democracy and how it must be protected and preserved, no longer taken for granted. Is it too late?

The Book of Lamentations, with all of its vivid and horrific descriptions of the suffering of the Jewish people, ends on a positive note: “Bring us back to you, Lord, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.”

The irony here is that both sides can lay claim to that statement, underscoring that the battle ahead is for the very future of the Jewish state. After 75 years, its leaders are still grappling with the two imperatives of democracy and Judaism.

This Knesset vote was a defeat for democracy.

If we are ever to learn the lessons of the past, that extremism leads to chaos and that nations are only as strong as the bonds among their citizens, it is now. Θ

Gary Rosenblatt is a Pulitzer finalist who has been covering the Jewish world for more than four decades, most recently as editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York. He writes a newsletter called “Between the Lines.”

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