Friday March 10, 2023 – י״ז אַדָר תשפ”ג
שִׂמְחָה רַבָּה, שִׂמְחָה רַבָּה, אָבִיב הִגִּיעַ, פֶּסַח בָּא!
“Great happiness, Great happiness, Spring has arrived, and Pesach is coming!”
~ Yaffah Bilha
In December 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest outside a government office in the little-known town of Sidi Bouzid. In a matter of days, his act of defiance set off a revolutionary movement that rippled across the Middle East and North Africa, toppling some long-standing authoritarian regimes. This became known to many in the Western world as the “Arab Spring.”
Protesters across the Arab world were motivated to rebel against their governments by many factors, but analysts agree that a common theme was a push for basic dignity and human rights in the face of dictatorships and authoritarian rule. In many countries, religious tensions also played a significant role.
But what came out of the “Arab Spring?” What was accomplished?
In some cases, Islamist parties gained power (e.g. in formerly secular Tunisia and Egypt – although only temporarily in the latter). Meanwhile, deep sectarian divisions helped give rise to the anti-government movements in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. So far, only Tunisia made a lasting shift to democracy. Egypt backslid, while Libya, Syria, and Yemen spiraled into protracted civil wars resulting in hundreds of thousands of people killed and many more displaced.
Journalist Maytha Alhassen, writing in the Huffington Post over ten years ago, commented:
“…that term ‘Arab Spring’ has its extreme limitations, ones bordering on being offensive. I have begun referring to these movements as the Dignity Revolutions. Although any kind of naming has its limitations, I have found a focus on “karama,” [the Arabic word for] dignity, as the most unifying demand present in these uprisings and resistance movements. What is truly remarkable and distinctly ’revolutionary’ about these movements is the almost consistent focus all the movements have on karama.”
Purim is now behind us, and springtime is right around the corner. This moment is not just about the winter passing, “the rain is over and gone, and the blossoms have appeared in the land.” (Song of Songs 2:11-12)
Are we now witnessing the Israeli Spring?
We are now amidst the most severe crisis in the history of Israel. With little else in common with the uprisings and protest movements of a decade ago among Israel’s neighbors – or the tent protests of Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011 – this Israeli revolution could also be considered a revolution over dignity and freedom.
Ostensibly, this is a crisis over two visions of government and two conflicting sets of values. One vision privileges supervision and limitation over the parliament and the government – what we commonly refer to as basic checks and balances; while the other prefers a pure rule of the people – where the majority of elected representatives of the people (the Knesset or the legislative branch) should have full, unencumbered power to decide how the country is run and what laws should exist.
That is what we call the pshat, or the surface-level understanding.
But below the surface, as my friend and teacher Reuven Kalifon commented, “it is about real evil.” The Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and the Hardalim (ultra-Orthodox and ultra-Nationalist) wish to end the role and authority of the high court because they don’t believe in equality (time after time the high court strikes down their initiatives). The Religious Zionists know that the high court stands in the way of their “vision” for the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. The Likud and the other members of the coalition want to be in power, and this is their chance to be in power permanently.
This moment in history is a “perfect storm” created by dangerous people who feel that the rules of fair play, themselves, are the problem at hand. As journalist and pollster, Dahlia Scheindlin commented:
“The three major ideological goals of the coalition partners are annexation, theocracy, and inequality. Combine that with Netanyahu’s expedient need to legitimize corruption, which requires weakening the judiciary. It’s a perfect storm.”
So, in what way is this also about dignity?
In 1992 the Knesset passed the Basic Law: Human Rights and Dignity, and the Supreme Court elevated this law – which included the values of equality, freedom of employment, and freedom of speech – to a position of normative supremacy thereby granting the courts the ability to strike down legislation which is inconsistent with the rights embodied in the Basic Laws. In a governmental system that lacks a constitution, the court took it upon itself to use this as an opportunity to establish a judicial review of laws (the ability of the Court to declare a Legislative or Executive act in violation of the Constitution – think Marbury vs. Madison in the United States of 1803).
Many on the National Religious Right see this as the source of the problem and find it as an imposition of Western values over Jewish values, a quasi-oppression of the ‘elites’ over the salt of the earth.
A friend who lives in a small Settlement deep in the West Bank/Judea commented to me that this crisis is an uprising of the “Jewish majority” who resents the country being run by “Western liberal progressive interpretations of human rights implemented by universalists with disproportionate power who have been imposing their values on the ‘Jewish majority,’ and now are upset that their power is waning so they take to the streets.” That this was about the elites losing to the majority. This smells of a similar sentiment that we heard in the U.S. around the election of former President Trump in 2016. Where the Clintons were perceived to be the elitists, and Trump, literally living in a golden tower, who owns multiple properties, etc… was not perceived as being an elitist, as he came from outside the previous political establishment.
While I’m all for a healthy exchange of ideas in the marketplace of thought, I could not disagree more with my friend’s interpretation. We, who generally hold universalist and Western views that the government should be responsible for safeguarding its citizens’ freedom and equality, should be sensitive to those who have been harboring a reservoir of anger and resentment.
But, now this is about right and wrong. Much of society accepts the critique that the Israeli judicial system is in need of some reform. The Supreme Court could stand to have more ideological and ethnic diversity, and, over the past three decades, it has acted as an ‘activist court.’ But reform should be about process and change, about the question of how to (and who can) interpret the law. It should not be an excuse for the evisceration of all judicial authority.
The proposed program for change (what former Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch referred to as the coup d’etat) will be shot down by the high court. It’s all illegal, and the bad guys know it. That’s why they are suddenly willing to talk about “compromise,” (through the efforts of President Isaac Herzog) even though they hold all the cards and have all the votes. They want to present themselves as “reasonable,” but, in reality, they won’t back down. Backing down means the government would fall (the ultra-Orthodox insist on veto power or override over the high court). Bad actors, indeed! There isn’t even one ‘righteous person in Sodom’ (not a single Minister in the government has raised even a little whisper of protest, despite hearing a murmur from a few moderate Likud MKs).
The parliamentary coalition system in Israel brings fringe groups to the front and center, and only the high court can force the ruling party (in this case the Likud) to “explain” to the fringe partners that their ideas (annexation, theocracy, and inequality) are off the scales and unacceptable in a democracy. Only the High Court can utter the magic word: “equality” or “fair play.” The Knesset can’t. Israel desperately needs a constitution, which would unequivocally establish the supremacy of civil law. But in its absence, there is only the high court that is capable of maintaining normalcy, freedom, equality, and yes, dignity.
As this week’s protesters took to the streets, blocking Ben Gurion airport, Haifa port, and more, they do so not out of an intellectual disagreement about governance structure, but out of an attempt to preserve Israel as a State that upholds dignity and freedom (more on that next week).
To Prime Minister Netanyahu: if the pilots of your own national airline refuse to fly you abroad, you know you have a problem.
Happy Spring and Shabbat Shalom.