Monday, March 27, 2023

A House Divided

Chaos in Israel (Time)
One nation under God. These words from the American Pledge of Allegiance came to mind as I was contemplating what is happening to my beloved Israel. Not because it applies. But because it should – and it in fact does not. At least not anymore judging by the unparalleled upheaval going on there right now.

The lead story on the CBS national morning news broadcast was about the massive protests going on there.  The latest of which was caused by the Prime Minister firing his defense minister – a member of his own political party, the Likud. 

I suppose that is a prime minister’s right. But having the right to do so does not mean it is the right thing to do. And in this case it was not. Even if one agrees with the prime minister’s positive view of judicial reform to the same extent he does - it was the wrong move. 

The reason Netanyahu fired his Defense Minister was because of his very sensible suggestion that the vote in the Knesset to pass judicial reform into law should be delayed by a month. There is no reason to rush it through. A month is not an eternity. Netanyahu had to know this would not be a popular move. Delaying the vote might have actually calmed down those protests. Instead - what he did exacerbated it. 

Watching scenes of these protests on the news this morning made the entire country look like Meah Shearim on a bad day. The protests included, burning tires and police spraying water cannons on unruly crowds. But when half the country is protesting, a lot more takes place than a few burning tires as noted by an email sent to me by the Forward this morning: 

After massive protests overnight, a national strike gripped Israel Monday morning: No flights departed Ben Gurion airport, schools and universities canceled classes, non-emergency care at hospitals were suspended, shopping malls closed their doors and hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets. Some mayors called for a hunger strike. McDonald’s closed its 200 stores in Israel in solidarity. 

When people think their way of life will be dramatically disrupted, all hell can break loose. This is true of the Meah seharim protestors who see a cell phone shop in their neighborhood that way. And it is true of secular Israelis fearing the imminent rise of a theocratic government. Which they fear will ‘enslave’ them much like Iranians are enslaved by Iran’s theocracy. – forcing them into an observant lifestyle they do not wish to have anything to do with.

And that is the crux of the issue. Israel is not one nation under God. It is  2 nations. One under God and the other - not so much if at all. Secular Jews do not see themselves that way. They see themselves as a free people with rights not limited by the laws of the Torah. 

This is not to criticize secular Israelis. On the contrary. Even though there is major disagreement about what kind of country Israel should be, I never saw these two communities in competition with each other. There has always been peace between them (if an uneasy peace) each doing their own thing. Each contributing in their own way. (Albeit not without complaining that the other side falls short in some way related to their worldview.)

The fact is that one of the things I am most proud of is how much my coreligionists on the secular side of Israel have contributed to the world. In so many ways. While this is not only true of secular Jews, clearly the vast majority of contributions in non religious endeavors has been on the secular side. Whether it is in agriculture, military prowess, science, the arts, medicine, literature, social disciplines, economic disciplines, or technology.. you name it! Every time I hear of yet another Israeli Nobel Prize winner, my heart swells with pride.

By the same token the religious side has made their own contribution. Mostly in the spiritual realm. For those of us that place high value on Torah study, the state of Israel has grown from being an ‘also ran’ into becoming the primary Makom Torah in the world. More Torah study takes place in Israel than at any other country in the world. and at any other time in history. Surpassing even the US in the minds of many.  

And Charedim do it with full dedication. Many families surviving on a shoestring budget.  All the while being extremely charitable with their meager funds to those with even less funds to survive upon that they do. While there are some notable exceptions, materialism is not  part of their Weltanschauung. They do not chase money as a primary goal. They believe in serving God in the best way they know how. Which is the Mitzvah of  Torah study. While I have my own serious differences with them on a few issues, I cannot deny their focus and fervor in doing will of God. 

One country. Two peoples. On the secular side they see freedom to do as one wishes without the impediment of religious laws. Religious Jews see Israel defined by Torah law as interpreted by the leading rabbis of the generation. When two peoples define a Jewish state in radically different ways, inevitably conflict will take place. Now that Israel religious parties have come into power, the specular side sees its vision of Israel about to be decimated in favor of the other.

The last election is what made this happen. The majority of those who voted in the last election voted to the right. They are not the ones protesting. Those who voted to the left of center and beyond are. Although there are some right wing voters proesting as well, they are a relatively small portion of those protesting. 

Although the right wing is populated by Religious Zionists.  there is another demographic that is religious as well and although many of them might be Religious Zionists, too - they are not in any way right wing. They are often referred to as Dati Leumi or DL). They do not want a government that is run by Charedim either.  There is no love lost between these DL Jews and Charedim. in fact I am ogten surprised at how much hatred they express at the Charedi world. It is almost as if they hate Charedim more than secular Jews do. They are all out there - joining their secular brethren in protest. They do not want to see Israel be governed by Charedim.

That being said, as a religious Jew, I have often expressed the view that in an ideal world Israel should by defined by religious law. But in the real world that exists now, attempting to do that would spell catastrophe. Now that religious Jews in form of both the Charedi and Religious Zionist camp have unprecedented representation in the governing coalition - a catastrophe might actually be happening.

Judicial reform is seen as a first step in the direction of a theocracy.  They fear Israel becoming the Jewish version of Iran. And are not going to take that sitting down. which is why the state of Israel seems to be in full blown chaos right now!   

With substantially more than half the population being either secular or DL they are not going to tolerate what they see as movement towards a theocracy. Not to be outdone, Charedim hate secular Jews as much as secular Jews hate them. But I think the biggest hatred is reserved for DL Israelis on the left.

Now all this hatred has bubbled up to the top. Now I‘m sure that there are many exception where secular and DL Jews on the one side and Charedi  Jews on the other and actually get along quite nicely. But I think that is more the exception than the rule. The hatred is palpable on both sides and is now exploding in the streets. Exacerbated by politicians on both sides.

As I recently noted lot of the secular and DL hatred is focused on the prime minister. He is being blamed for selling out to the religious parties for purposes of retaining power. And the fact that he has been indicted and being tried for corruption is not working in his favor. They see his push for judicial reform as a means to change the law so that gifts of expensive  of champagne and cigars would no longer be seen as legally corrupt. Thus eliminating the basis for his trial and charges would be dismissed. I’m sure that’s part of his plan. But I think it’s mostly about retaining power by giving his religious and political right what they want.

I have long been a fan of Netanyahu. Not withstanding views to the contrary by my friends to the left, I believe he was one of the most effective prime ministers in Israel’s history.  Apparently a plurality of Israeli voters saw him that way and expressed that sentiment at the polls many times. Incluidnig he last one

However, to quote a line Abraham Lincoln used as part of a campaign speech at an1858 Illinois Republican state convention: ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’. The time has come for Netanyahu to step down from his leadership of the Likud. He has made too many enemies to govern effectively. His government’s push for judicial reform is tearing the country apart – and bringing out the worst in everyone.

This is no longer about judicial reform - if it ever really was. It is fight over the soul of the country. And a fight that cannot be won by either side. 

I truly believe that Israel should exemplify what it means to be one nation under God. But  it should also exemplify the rest of that sentence – with liberty and justice for all. When one side believes that justice will be denied them they are going to fight to retain it. 

Whether justice will actually be denied if judicial reform in its present form is passed is unlikely  But that is what the vast majority of protestors believe and they will not be convinced otherwise. That is the state of affairs in my humble opinion.

 Both sides ought to stop fighting and return to once again living in peace with each other. And that can only be done if everyone stops hating each other!