Judicial reform is an attempted coup

By Matan Rudner

At the time of this writing, Yom HaAtzmaut is upon us and as the state of Israel celebrates the 75th anniversary of her rebirth, so much feels different.

Since the founding of our modern state, we’ve faced many struggles and have always prided ourselves on our ability to celebrate life despite the constant battles raging from within and from without. And to be sure, this year, as every year, as Yom HaZikaron turns into Yom HaAtzmaut at sunset, our commemorations will turn into celebrations across the land, with millions attending parties, barbecues, concerts and mass prayers. And yet, this year a dark cloud, an ominous question, hangs before us.

What is happening?

To be clear, I am not a legal expert, a journalist or an historian. Much has been written about the current political crisis in Israel, and this column is only my perspective. I encourage all those who are interested to seek other and various sources.

As you may well know, the immediate cause for concern here is the attempt by the current government to effectively neuter the judicial branch and concentrate all of the state’s power in the hands of the governing coalition. The proposed legislation is unprecedented in our history.

Israel’s judicial system, like its political system in general, is not perfect. We are one of only three democracies worldwide with no constitution and our executive and legislative branches are essentially one and the same. Our parliament of 120 members is the sole representative body of our citizenry.

True reform, which would ensure the strength of the democratic system through checks and balances and the separation of power, is necessary, and those who are against the current legislation do not claim that the existing system is without flaws. But this is not true reform. This is, in the words of renowned author, academic and historian Yuval Noah Harari, an attempted coup.

To be clear, the massive protests against the legislation are not the result of disappointment at having lost the election last autumn; they are the result of a deep concern for every democratic election to come.

The content of the legislation, which among other things would give the governing coalition complete control over the appointment of judges and, most alarmingly, give the coalition the power to declare any legislation as beyond the scope of the courts, is destructive, and has been initiated by the most radical government in modern Jewish history.

This government includes ministers who have been imprisoned for bribery, under investigation for corruption and arrested for attempted domestic terrorism. It includes a minister of internal security and a minister of finance who are verified racists, homophobes and supporters of Jewish supremacy and terrorism. It includes a prime minister who is currently under investigation for numerous crimes.

It is a government that has set out, since before it even came to power, to curtail the rights of women, Arabs, LGBT people and all non-Orthodox Jews, to weaken the power of the courts and the police and to reshape the structures of the state. The proposed legislation which would alter the DNA of Israel’s democracy did not come about through a nationwide constitutional convention, but instead has been rushed through every Knesset committee by simple majority.

The people of Israel — the majority of whom, including those who voted for the current government, do not support this legislation — have responded in kind. Over the past three months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets; retired public servants, military generals and executives of our financial institutions have spoken out in opposition to these undemocratic proposals; and military reservists, the backbone of the security of the nation, have led our demonstrations. Even President Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, has dedicated himself to finding consensus and bringing about an end to this crisis.

Things took a turn for the worse when Defense Minister Gallant, appointed by the prime minister himself, suggested simply pausing the legislation out of fear that it would have detrimental effects on the state’s security, and Netanyahu announced, within hours, his intention to fire him.

Immediately, the largest spontaneous protests in Israel’s history began, local governments announced hunger strikes, every single university in Israel shut down and even the airport closed in protest.

The outcry produced results and the Prime Minister announced the next day that he would pause the legislation until the next Knesset session, to open after Yom HaAtzmaut. And so this year we mourn our loved ones, defenders of our freedom, on Yom HaZikaron, celebrate our miraculous achievements on Yom HaAtzmaut and prepare to fight for our democracy as the sun rises the next day.

For everyone who cares about the Jewish people in our land, it has been a dark few months.

How did we get here?

The immediate cause of the crisis was the election last November of the current extremist government.

When, after over a decade in office, Netanyahu was ousted as prime minister two years ago, he committed himself to returning to power by any means necessary. By sheer force of will and political prowess he legitimized the most radical groups in our society (groups with whom the legendary founder of Likud, Menachem Begin of blessed memory, refused to engage), promised them power in exchange for support and ultimately regained a slim majority.

Growing up as an American Jew, I admired Netanyahu greatly. Like many other Diaspora Jews, I looked up to him as the well-spoken, charismatic leader of the state I love so much. But what has been made painfully clear over the past few years is that, regardless of who Netanyahu was when he first came to power in 1996, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In a country that does not place term limits on the office of prime minister, Netanyahu has become the longest-serving premier in our history, outlasting even David Ben Gurion. In the over 15 years that he has ruled this country, he has remade it in his own image. While those who oppose him cry out at protests “Democracy,” his supporters unironically proclaim “Only Bibi” and “Bibi, King of Israel.” We are terrifyingly close to Louis XIV’s “L’état c’est moi” or “The State is Me.”

And yet, for all of his role in the crisis, he is both a cause and a symptom of the greatest issues in Israeli society, including traditional Jewish infighting, the polarization of different groups in Israel, the completely different worldviews of those populations, the lack of a constitution, constant threats from without that have destabilized the country and a century-long conflict with our Palestinian neighbors that has made Israel more radical and more violent.

The despair that I feel is hard to put into words.

Like all those who love Israel, I have always worried over the daily struggles we face, and I am devastated by the tragedies that continue to befall us. And yet, I also believed deep down that those who came before us had cleared our biggest hurdles. I was born after the Holocaust, after the founding generation lived and died in sacrifice of the state, after they labored to build it, to ingather the exiles, to fight the wars of ‘48, ‘56, ‘67 and ‘73 and to dare for peace in the interim.

I have grown up with an Israel that knows very well how to thrive, an Israel that has learned, for better or for worse, how to manage its challenges rather than solving them. Despite my protestations, I thought I was living in a long-awaited era, with the people of Israel returned to our land as in the visions of our prophets, with the state as reshit tzemichat geulatenu, the first flowering of our redemption.

I should have known better. For if one thing is clear from the heartbreakingly cyclical nature of Jewish history, it is that gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass. Each generation has its share of challenges, not just those generations who regained our independence but those generations who must maintain it.

We are one of those generations. Our challenges require us to be no less committed, no less self-sacrificing, than those who came before us. We must defend our democracy and ensure it is both robust and stable for generations to come. We must not surrender, here or anywhere, to the worldwide attacks on democracy in the 21st century.

All of us are required to step up and to meet the challenges of the day, for that is the blessing and the responsibility of our covenant with God.

What can we do?

The best thing to help steer Israel forward is to make aliyah and bring your bodies, your voices and your wallets to this beleaguered but beloved land; to stop saying “Next Year in Jerusalem” and instead take your seat on tomorrow’s flight. For those who wish to remain in America, I implore you to ensure that your connection to the land of Israel is strong and to prove that your love is not contingent, but your support of the current government absolutely is.

I’ve always believed that Israel’s existence is the only thing required of it, that American Jews must be eternally grateful for it and allow Israelis to govern themselves without interreference, and I still believe that. But if we as Israelis are going to continue to ask for billions of dollars of military aid, to continue to demand that American Jews and American politicians support us as the only democracy in the Middle East, we are required to at least be a democracy. And so, I feel it is incumbent upon all of Israel’s supporters in America to make it clear to their elected officials that support of Israel is support of Israel as a democracy, not of a country of despots and terrorists dressed as ministers.

In their attempts to delegitimize the millions of us who oppose this attempted coup, the prime minister and his government have called us “conditional Zionists,” as if our devotion to the state is contingent upon support of their brutal policies. At the counterprotests, signs proclaim that all liberals and leftists are traitors, not loyal enough to King Bibi. And yet at every protest we wave our Israeli flags by the thousands, we call out our love and dedication to the land and our commitment to continue to fight for the only place we have ever called home. We sing “Hatikvah” from the streets.

Some have asked me what my plans are amidst this mess, knowing that this proposed legislation would have an immediate and detrimental effect on my own life as a university student, a tour guide, a military veteran, a gay man, a citizen and a Jew.

Let me be clear. I dreamed of coming to this land and I did. I enlisted and served, pay my taxes, vote in elections and spend my time sharing the story of Israel with all who are willing to listen. No matter what this government tries to do, ein li eretz acheret, I have no other land, and I am here to stay. I’ll be waving my flag on this Yom HaAtzmaut and every day that follows. I pray that you’ll join me.

Matan Rudner made aliyah from Dallas and served as a Lone Soldier. He lives in Jerusalem where he is a tour guide.

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