It is no secret that Israel has been wracked by demonstrations in recent weeks. Each Saturday night, tens of thousands of protesters pack main squares in cities all over Israel and for several weeks running, protesters have shut down traffic in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the middle of the week. Tempers are high. The rhetoric is horrific. The protestors carry signs warning of the end of Israeli democracy and accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of tyranny. They warn that Israel will become a theocracy. High-tech entrepreneurs threaten to move their companies out of Israel, investors threaten to stop investing in Israeli companies and army officers threaten to stop serving in the army. Tensions are at an all-time high. But what is this really about? Can all these passions really be centered on various proposals for judicial reform?
Much of what we are seeing on the streets of Israel today has been brewing for quite some time now. Some would even say, since the State of Israel was established. From the very beginning, the leaders of the nascent state decided to avoid creating a constitution in order to bypass divisions between religious and secular views on the nature of the State and its institutions. Rabbis were hesitant to confer ultimate legal authority to a document that was not the Torah, as expressed in Jewish law. Secular Zionists denied the Messianic nature of Israel’s restoration. While people can live together while holding different views, when it came to creating a foundation for the state, it became easier just to avoid the argument.
In the early years, religious Jews were a small minority of the population and leadership of the State of Israel. While they had political representation, they tended to restrict their attention to issues concerning religious observance: protecting the rights of Jews not to work on the Sabbath, restricting public transportation on the Sabbath, ensuring that public facilities would observe the dietary laws and that Jewish weddings and divorce would comport to Jewish traditions. These latter issues, in particular, guaranteed that regardless of private religious observance, there was commonality in the public sphere amongst all Jews.
Much has changed since those early years. The first change was actually represented by the settlement movement. No longer would religious politicians be content with narrow religious issues. A Biblical view of the newly acquired areas of Judea and Samaria demanded Jewish settlement in the area. What began as a grassroots movement became a political position, adopted by religious and traditional politicians, joined by hawkish secular politicians. But the actual movement to settle the land remained religiously motivated from the start.
This was the first time a religiously-based idea became the basis of public policy that not only affected domestic issues in Israel but changed the way the nations around the world viewed Israel. For years, this issue was the crux of the division between right and left in Israel and for most of that time, there was parity between right and left.
But in recent years, the population of Israel has shifted. More secular Israelis are identifying as traditional, finding themselves more closely allied with the values and political sentiments of the religious. Religiously-oriented families tend to have more children than their secular counterparts with a far smaller tendency to emigrate from Israel to other western countries. The result is that Israel today is the only western country that is more religious today than it was twenty years ago. And that means that the political elite has changed. The religious/traditional/conservative public is now the leadership.
While demographics is often a catalyst for change, change is often a catalyst for division. The original hegemony does not want to let go. Sometimes, they are simply power-hungry Sometimes, they are merely afraid of how the change will affect their lives.
Judicial reform in Israel is a response, first and foremost, to the fact that, unlike the Knesset and the Israeli government which reflects the new demographics through democratic elections, the judiciary remains the bastion of the left. It is an appointed body of jurists, appointed by the judges themselves, who, for the most part, are trying to preserve their left-wing majority. Too many times, the Israeli electorate has voted in a government to implement conservative policies, only to have those policies thwarted by the Supreme Court.
The tragedy of the current situation, however, is the fact that it is focused on judicial reform. The vast majority of the population are not lawyers and do not understand the nuances of the judicial system. What they do understand is fear. And the left-wing activists who are fueling the demonstrations, as well as the media which is fanning the flames, keep repeating the mantra that the proposed reform will spell the end of democracy. What it may well do is spell the end of left-wing, secular domination of the judiciary. But for the average citizen, even for those who have criticized the legal system bitterly over the years, words like “end of democracy” are enough to stir their passions and drive them to the streets.
But these protestors aren’t what is fueling the division. It is a shrinking minority of secular, left-wing citizens who cannot accept that they are now a minority.
As I look to the future, I have to believe that we will find a way to communicate, to bridge the gaps that have opened up between us. But in order to do that, we have to neutralize the power struggle. And we, as the religious right, have to reach out our hands to our more secular brothers and sisters and convince them that we are not here to force anyone to believe or act in a way that runs contrary to their beliefs. Faith can never be forced. All we are trying to do is to create a public space that is more Jewish, that is more traditional, that is more conservative, in keeping with the beliefs and ideologies of the majority. And I have to believe that with G-d’s help, we will succeed.
Sondra Oster Baras is the founder and director of CFOIC Heartland, an organization that connects Christians all over the world to the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, Israel’s Biblical Heartland. To learn more about her work and to support the people of Judea and Samaria, visit www.cfoic.com.