Since Israel’s election on Nov. 1, there have been daily indications that its next government will take the country in a direction that could inflict grievous damage upon the Zionist dream – and Israel’s character not only as a Jewish state, but as a democratic one.
The threat comes in large part from the Religious Zionism Party faction – the most extreme in the coalition taking shape as I write this – but also from elsewhere, including Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
I acknowledge that the country’s young people have shifted further to the right to some extent, but the assumption is some of them voted for the Religious Zionism faction as a protest vote. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Pensioners’ Party, which in the 2006 election came out of the blue as a fad and won seven Knesset seats. By the following election in 2009, it was gone.
This time around, Religious Zionism, a joint ticket composed of three parties, garnered about 11% of the vote and 14 seats. The faction is led by Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich, by Jewish Power Party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is a former disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, and by Avi Maoz of the small anti-LGBT Noam party. The slate won’t disappear like the Pensioners’ Party did, but even before it takes office, its leaders are advocating policies that won’t sit well with some of those who cast protest voters.
First, Smotrich voiced support for halting professional soccer matches on Shabbat, a centerpiece of the weekend for many Israelis. Then, Religious Zionism and the two ultra-Orthodox parties in a future government demanded legislation legalizing gender-separated public events, based on the religious view that men and women shouldn’t sit together. Currently, such a practice is largely considered illegal discrimination in Israel.
The father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, had a vision – presented in his novel, “Altneuland” – of a Jewish country that would be respectful of diversity and women’s rights and that would be fervently democratic. What is being proposed is a step toward illiberal Jewish supremacy.
Of my concerns for Israel’s future, the greatest is the tinkering proposed to its system of government, which could transform it from a wondrous multi-party system in which the Supreme Court is the ultimate guardian of the rule of law into one in which the majority rules and minority rights are undermined – a Middle Eastern Jewish version of present-day Poland or Hungary. For incoming Prime Minister Netanyahu, it would be a way to end the possibility of his going to jail on pending corruption charges.
The most major change would be passage of legislation that would permit the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings. Many of its proponents propose that the court’s rulings even be overturned by a bare majority of 61 Knesset votes to 59.
Amidst all of this alarming stuff, it was a relief to read an op-ed piece in Haaretz, the newspaper I work for, last week by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who reminded readers that as grim as things seem, Israel is a wonderful place whose achievements need to be preserved.
“Israel has been and remains an extraordinary success story, having experienced seven wars, two intifadas, endless military operations, the in-gathering of the exiles, peace accords with a significant number of its neighbors, a 14-fold population increase and an 80-fold growth in the output of the economy over the past 75 years,” Barak wrote. “It has seen a blossoming of culture and science and become the startup and high-tech nation with a strong currency and high GDP. These achievements belong to all Israelis. And yes, to all of Israel’s governments.”
“We’ll make it through this, too,” he wrote.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East from Ra’anana, Israel. He is an editor at the English edition of Haaretz.