Israel’s crisis has been especially shocking because no one saw it coming just a few months ago. When the current coalition came to power, I do not recall any predictions of the astonishing breakdown in Israeli politics and now in its economy, nor of the enormous demonstrations. It is almost unbelievable that just weeks ago, the World Happiness Report found that Israel was the fourth happiest country in the world.
The crisis changes from day to day. My own initial views were given in Commentary Magazine in its February issue. There I argued that the reaction to the judicial reform proposals reflected a very deep split between Israelis (and American Jews) who see Israel as a secular state and demand that it stay that way, and the fast-growing religious sector of Israeli society. The latter feel they keep winning elections and being blocked by the Supreme Court, which is why the judicial reform proposals have raised far deeper issues about Israeli society and politics.
Here at the CFR site, I tried to explain the legal context for the judicial reforms in an article entitled “Israel and the Debate Over the Role of the Judiciary in Democratic Government.”
Writing in the Jerusalem Post last week, I urged that the reforms slow down so that a broad consensus can be sought—and one hopes attained. Polls suggest that most Israelis favor some reform, but oppose the full set of changes the ruling coalition has proposed.
Israel does need judicial reform, because the Supreme Court has assigned to itself a larger role than courts should have in a democracy. But how has that effort become a national crisis? The excellent Israeli journalist Haviv Rettig Gur offers an explanation in the Times of Israel today, in an article entitled Things Fall Apart. Gur’s conclusion about the Israeli Right: “Never in the history of the country has so much political capital and hard-won electoral success been so swiftly and comprehensively squandered.”
It will take years for the damage to Israeli society to be mended, and the fundamental issues facing it remain. The question of the judicial power in a country without a constitution must be addressed, and the role of religion and of religious Israelis must as well. Here I recommend a probing conversation with Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, in a podcast last week. Pfeffer is a haredi rabbi, editor of the haredi journal Tzarich Iyun, and also a lawyer who clerked on Israel’s Supreme Court. Pfeffer wrote for that journal an article entitled “No Longer a Minority: Behind the Veil of Israel’s Public Unrest,” which he explains in the podcast. As he wrote in his article, “The true issue underlying the protests sweeping through Israel is demography rather than democracy; a compromise solution concerning judicial reform will be a band-aid alone. The solution depends on Charedim espousing an attitude of broad responsibility and the rest of Israel inviting them to participate as equal partners.”
If any good is to come from the upheaval in Israel, it would be from facing these social and political challenges—which have been brewing for decades and must be addressed as Israel turns 75 years old this May. But the tone of the current debate, with vicious language and efforts by some politicians to bring down the government rather than find a solution, suggests that a peaceful, sober, and careful debate will be difficult to achieve.