July 28, 2023
“A Loss for Everyone”
There’s a famous poem by the iconic Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai, called “The Place Where We Are Right”:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Like many people, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words over the situation in Israel right now. As most of us are aware, the Knesset passed the first “slice” of its sprawling judicial overhaul plan on Monday, and a country that has been on edge for much of the past year has now been catapulted into dark, new territory.
The details of the situation are far too complicated to delve into in this forum. I have been reading articles and op-eds on the right and the left for many months now, and am aware of the arguments in favor of, and against judicial reform. There is no doubt in my mind that if the coalition government currently in power were to enact its full agenda of judicial reforms, the nature of Israeli liberal democracy (such as it is) would be effectively ended, resulting in a near-total power-grab by the most radical government in Israel’s history. This would be a catastrophe for the country. And this course is now in motion.
There are plausible arguments which suggest that the removal of the “reasonableness doctrine” – the subject of Monday’s vote in the Knesset (through which Supreme Court judges can scrutinize and block high-office administrative decisions based on a somewhat subjective reading) will have only a minor impact of the workings of Israeli democracy. That may be true. The nature of Israeli governance did not shift dramatically between Monday and Tuesday. “Reasonableness” is not remotely the problem.
The problem is consensus. Most Israelis are aware that this bill is only the beginning, the first “slice of salami” (as Israelis are calling it) in what we know is the coming onslaught. Many coalition officials have made no bones about their intentions. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting in the streets for 30 weeks now against such a power grab. They fear, profoundly, for the country’s future. They know the cast of characters – ultra-Orthodox religious fanatics seeking to theocratize the state; ultra-nationalist racists chomping at the bit to increase settlements, take unfettered control of the West Bank, and drive out the Palestinian residents once and for all; corrupt (actually convicted) opportunistic politicians looking to skirt existing laws and agreements and increase their own power. For the last few weeks, even when it was immediately clear that the “reasonableness law” was the only thing on the table, everyone understood that much more was on the line.
What’s truly shocking – what’s truly tragic – is that the coalition government can see what is happening, and they don’t care. A considerable majority of Israelis agree that some kind of judicial reform is necessary, but the coalition leaders have sought no consensus. “We won the election,” they say, “and we’re going to do it our way – the way our voters sent us to do it!”
The cost of this kind of unilaterality, at present, is a severe threat to the readiness and viability of the Israeli Armed forces; an emboldened enemy, lurking on the border waiting for its opportunity to pounce; an economy (start-up nation!) that is in peril; a threatened (and actualizing) exodus of the engines driving the economy, both people and capital; the deterioration of civil discourse and the threat of civil war; and the list goes on. The coalition, so rabidly sure that it is right, and that it is in the right, is willing to jeopardize the entire Israeli experiment rather than take heroic and historic measures to reform the government with broad consensus. That is the tragedy – not the “reasonableness law.”
I attended an event last week in Manhattan, sponsored by UJA Federation, the day after President Herzog addressed Congress, in which Herzog was interviewed by CNN anchor Bianna Golodryga. The President delivered up the inevitable truism: “a victory for one side is a loss for everyone.”
Israeli writer, thinker, and author, Netanel Elinson wrote what I think of as an update to the Yehudah Amichai poem which also captures Herzog’s sentiment. It’s called Everyone is Right in a Civil War:
Everyone is right in a Civil Fight (War)
by Netanel Elinson
Psalm 122 contains the famous line, sha’alu sh’lom Yerushalayim, yishlayu ohavayich; y’hi shalom b’cheilech, shalva b’armenotayich.
Seek the well-being of Jerusalem;
May those who love you be at peace
May there be well-being within your ramparts,
peace in your citadels. (vv. 6-7)
Just a few verses earlier, we find the recipe for this vision: omdot hayu ragleinu bish’arayich Yerushalayim; Yerushalayiim ha’bnuyah, k’ir sh’chubra lah yachdav.
Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem built up, a city knit together. (vv. 2-3)
Let us all pray, with all our hearts, for an “ir sh’chubra lah yachdav” – a “city knit together.”
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.
Shalom al Yisrael – Peace be upon Israel.
Rabbi Sam Levine