The Israeli right’s lack of “democracy” in “Jewish democracy”


Anti-democracy alert: Likud Minister of Knesset Danny Danon proposed a new bill today which so fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of democracy and democratic institutions that I am left a bit breathless.

Terminology clarity: Democracy is not the tyranny of the majority but the protection of the rights of everyone. Democracy by definition grants the individual and minorities disproportionate security — precisely so that the whim of popularity cannot abuse the most vulnerable. This is the approach adopted by legacy Jewish institutions (back in their heyday) like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee; democracy protects us all. And in Israel, an otherwise vibrant democratic society, those lack of protections for minorities like Arabs grants Israel surprisingly low marks on civil liberties. And over the past year, Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wingers has proposed and enacted a slate of some two-dozen initiatives — bills and inquiries — that will depress those grades further!

It takes your breath away to hear the proposal made by MK Danon:

  • Only one case from any one petitioner at a time
  • Only petitions from Israelis and Israeli-registered entities
  • Every NGO will have to include a full list of donors’ identities and nature of their funds

Read his rationalle, quoted in Ynet:

“These petitions, which sometimes caused a serious change in a decision or governmental action even to the point of causing them to be canceled, carry great weight and recognizably influence the actions of the executive and legislative branches.”

Levin and Danon added that “when this information is made available to High Court justices they will be able to make sure that foreign causes supported by hostile groups cannot make their way into the court under the guise of public-interest petitions” … “hostile groups have been trying to influence the authorities’ actions under the guise of petitions in the name of the public good,” they wrote.

Does Danon even understand the principles of democracy? I have often mused on the different cultures between the United States and Israel, wherein our apparent likenesses seem only skin-deep on closer inspection.

The judicial system is the key to a properly functioning government. Danon has the audacity to complain that the High Court “recognizably influence[s] the actions of the executive and legislative branches.” Minister Danon: the high court of any land is supposed to influence the other two branches. Nay, to hold veto power over them both. The three-way system of checks and balances represents modern democracy. Every criticism of Iran, Egypt and Syria, among others, is based on the very real hegemony of the executive branch upon the other two.

Danon and his contemporaries in Likud and more rightward don’t believe in the “democracy” in “Jewish democracy” anymore than their Arab neighbors. They don’t believe in the rule of law, for how else could they pass a law as anti-democratic as this?

The very premise of this bill is not that we must execute law to its logical conclusion (the correct one), but that fairly implemented law is a problem in itself. We must stop petitions to the High Court, his reasoning goes, because if they reach the court, then we’ll be forced to implement them. We should throttle, limit, and filter the petitions before they reach the court, by restricting the number of cases at one time that an NGO or individual can appeal for justice. (This is akin to saying that the ACLU can only have one case in appeal at a time — preposterous and criminally unjust.)

And only Israeli citizens should be able to receive justice before the court — foreign workers, stateless Palestinians, other governments, and international bodies are prohibited. Precisely the very groups who Israeli law also expressly protects: those beneath Israeli sovereignty and subject to Israeli law either because they’re on Israeli soil or under Israeli occupation. (Remember that the High Court has upheld Israel’s obligations under the international laws of benevolent occupation to residents of the territories, including their right to appeal to the highest court of the land.)

And once these petitions (which seek to do things as harmful as insisting the military obey its own regulations! or the government obey its own Basic Laws!) reach the High Court, the judges should see not the legal logic but make a decision upon who the petitioner is, be they an international, Arab or leftist. Such discrimination is precisely what democracy was created to protect against, not enshrine: that all will be equal before the law. Is this not the very building block of democracy, liberal or otherwise?

Make no mistake, this law’s unintended consequences will boomerang against Jews as well. Let us presume that an American Jew finds her conversion revoked by the increasingly haredi rabbinate. She would then no longer be an Israeli citizen — and barred from approaching the High Court! Were her case to be taken up by the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform movement or the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, their sound legal reasoning should be taken with a fatty grain of salt because they both receive funding from liberal American Jews. (None of whom can be pro-Israel at all because they do as Israelis do and disagree with government policy, right?)

This morning I received a briefing with Sari Bashi of Gisha: The Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, discussing the legal petitions before the High Court on various issues. The High Court, lacking a Constitutional protection of judicial review, is already hamstrung in ruling as the law dictates. If the court rules in line with law but out of step with populist demands, it may find its powers stripped by the Knesset. Which is no empty threat, as Sari detailed several times when rightists made moves to scale back the court’s powers. In America, we would never permit such a fundamental protection to be stripped entirely. Americans agree that healthy judicial review is a hallmark of a healthy democracy — one that protects us all on both right and left from the excesses of the other.

And while the Jewish establishment insists that its fight against “delegitimization” requires a belief in a Jewish and democratic state. Yet whenever you attend an Israel day parade or a pro-Israel rally, it’s clear that plenty gung ho American Jews in the crowd don’t believe in the “democracy” in “Jewish democracy.” In this increasing obsession with fighting delegitimization of Israel, they better apply their guidelines just as readily to the right as they do the left.

For all that American Jewish leaders derive succor from Israel’s “vibrant democracy,” this Knesset is trying its damndest to delegitimize itself. While a few major organizations uttered some tepid critiques of this accelerating trend, it certainly hasn’t stopped MK Danny Danon from proposing a replacement to his previous attempts to muzzle democracy.

When will the establishment spend their copious resources that?

Mechon Hadar’s lecture series on religious Zionism


Mechon Hadar offered this three-part series “Redemptive Dreams, Stubborn Realities: The Past and Future of Religious Zionism” by Rabbi Shai Held, a thoughtful and progressive thinker that I greatly admire. I wish I could have attended this lecture. It is odd that my own approach to Israel is outwardly secular and inwardly religious, yet I am not nor ever could be a religious Zionist. I am not a nationalist by nature and I don’t believe that God entitles us to possession of the land of Israel. But I believe intensely that my spiritual encounter in Israel commanded me to work for peace and equality in the region. That means I stand outside the nationalist and messianic conversations about Israel in present-day Judaism.

And that makes these lectures by Rabbi Held fascinating and important for me to understand. Hat tip to chillul Who for reminding me all Mechon Hadar lectures are posted online.

n this series, we will explore the theological ideas that animate religious Zionism, examine their political consequences, and encounter religious Zionist thinkers in all their broad ideological and political diversity. We’ll try to understand where religious Zionism has been, and offer a vision of how it might move forward into the twenty-first century.

We will consider questions such as: What is the religious significance of having a Jewish State after centuries without one? Is the State of Israel a fulfillment of messianic dreams or a purely this-worldly reality? Is having an army after being powerless for so long somehow holy, or merely necessary? Does Judaism have to change to make statehood viable? Is democracy a Jewish idea? What should the status of Arabs in the Jewish state be?

Please note: this is not a class in Israeli history or in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Rep. Anthony Weiner: There are no Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories


This most laughable of assertions I think shows not how right-wing American Jews are, but how phenomenally ignorant. I’m not sure if Rep. Weiner was trying to play to a sizable conservative base in his Queens-Brooklyn district, which notably includes Kew Gardens, or if he really believed this.

Wiener was on a panel with former Rep. Brian Baird, moderated by Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist. Americans for Peace Now promptly shot him an invitation to visit the West Bank. (No response as yet to neither the invitation nor press inquiries from the Washington Jewish Week). Watch below at 45 minutes:

Meanwhile the Israeli government announced a new plan to remove outposts built on Palestinian private land — and legalize swaths of others. At least 70 outposts are built partly or entirely on private property, as detailed extensively by Peace Now. (“Outposts” are small settlements illegal under even Israeli law, forgetting international law for a minute.) The state intends to annex lands to the state, then legalize the settlement.

Gee, what progress! Israel must really be committed to peace.—  If the settlements are legal according to Israeli law, then surely the international community and Palestinians will see reason.


The distancing of American Jewish identity from Israel


I don’t agree with Shmuel Rosner at the Jerusalem Post very often. But when it comes to statistical reportage about American Jewish attitudes towards Israel, there is little to disagree about. From an excerpt to his forthcoming book, he mentions some statistics that I also detailed on my Tuesday packed-house panel “Engaging Young Jews with Israel” at TribeFest:

In a working paper entitled “Identity, Assimilation, Continuity” prepared for the participants of the conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem, professors Sergio Della Pergola and Chaim Waxman placed less emphasis on the general support American Jews express for Israel (82%), and more on the fact that only 28% of American Jews define themselves as “Zionists.” The rate of “Zionism” among American Jews drops the younger they get, just like many other aspects related to one’s connection with Israel. For older people, the percentages hover around 40%; for those under 35, it is just over 20%. In other words, for the large majority, including those who have a connection with and support Israel, this constitutes long-distance support for a state where Jews live, but not necessarily an acknowledgment that this state is the state for all the Jews. Zionist Israel may have a hard time relinquishing its perceived front seat, but Jewish America won’t settle for playing second fiddle in the Jewish world either.

More reportage from Las Vegas forthcoming.