Israeli expats and allies protest the Netanyahu government's proposed judicial reforms outside of the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, July 13, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy UnXeptable)
Israeli expats and allies protest the Netanyahu government's proposed judicial reforms outside of the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, July 13, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy UnXeptable)

The fight over Israel’s democratic soul began decades ago

The Israeli Knesset passed on July 24 — with the votes of all 64 members of the ruling coalition and all 56 members of the opposition absent from the chamber — a law that abolishes the reasonability cause, removing in effect the Israeli Supreme Court’s powers to overrule policies, legislation and appointments made by the government.

>This was the first major legislative act in what the government has been calling a judicial overhaul, or what its opponents have termed a “judicial revolution,” aimed at shifting powers away from the courts and giving the executive branch greater “freedom” to enact its policies and goals.

In a country without a constitution, the courts have served as a crucial check on the powers of the government. However, the current Netanyahu government and primarily Justice Minister Yariv Levin have argued that since the 1990s, the courts have assumed an activist role, taking powers away from elected officials. They claim that their goal is to restore the powers of the people’s representatives as opposed to those of unelected judges who, from their point of view, impose their ideological vision on the government’s agenda.

To those who oppose the government, though, this means the end of Israeli democracy.

Since the justice minister introduced his “judicial reform” plan in January, tens of thousands of Israelis have been taking to the streets on a weekly basis, protesting the proposed revolution advanced by Israel’s most right-wing coalition ever, that is headed by the Likud Party and supported by ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties.

In the days leading up to the vote in the Knesset, the protests intensified. For a growing number of Israelis, this seemed more and more like an existential battle. To them, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been using the playbook of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan: neutering the courts as a way to amass unbridled political power.

The founders of the Zionist movement were informed by European liberal movements and political traditions. They created democratic political institutions, which became the foundations of Israel’s political structure. Starting in the 1920s, the Zionist Labor Party became the movement’s dominant political force, shaping much of the Jewish community’s and later the Jewish state’s political, social and cultural character. And while far from perfect — most notably for non-Jews — the country’s democratic institutions withstood many challenges and upheavals, developing an equilibrium among the branches of government that, while not enshrined in a written constitution, was grounded in common law precedence.

The pre-State Jewish community and the Zionist leadership were made up by and large of a rather homogenous group: secular, Ashkenazi Jews.

The pre-state Jewish community and the Zionist leadership were made up by and large of a rather homogenous group: secular, Ashkenazi Jews who rebelled against certain legacies of traditional forms of Jewish life in the (Eastern European) diaspora and sought to create a modern, western state that would join the progressive forces in the world.

Political Zionism’s first leader, Theodor Herzl, put forward this template in his utopian novel “Altneuland” that envisioned a future Jewish society in Palestine in which democracy, modern technology and European culture (Herzl was an avid opera fan) thrived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

The old Zionist establishment continued to rule Israel until 1977, when the Labor Party was defeated by Menachem Begin’s Likud Party. While Begin and the other Likud leaders were secular and Ashkenazim, the voters that brought their coalition to power tended to be Mizrahim (Jews who came from Arab and Muslim countries) and religiously observant Jews. Both were elements of Israeli society that felt marginalized and neglected by the Labor Party and the traditional Zionist leadership. And since 1977, with very few exceptions, the Likud and its religious coalition partners have been the dominant political force in Israel, reflecting the decline of the country’s traditional elite and the rise of new social and cultural forces.

Despite the right’s political dominance, many of its leaders have felt that they cannot truly change the country’s character to reflect the values and interests of their voters because a nonelected elite committed to foreign, abstract universal values still controls crucial parts of the state.

When he first ran as the leader of the Likud in 1996, Netanyahu’s core promise was that he would lead the battle against the old establishment and turn Israel into a more distinctly Jewish state. Netanyahu’s first major target was Israeli media. He has repeatedly tried to deregulate the media market and shift power away from traditional media outlets. In fact two of the criminal charges that Netanyahu is now being tried for deal directly with his attempts to control the media and weaken the country’s most popular daily newspaper, Yedioth Aharonot. (It has since been supplanted by Yisrael Hayom, a pro-Likud and pro-Netanyahu free newspaper funded by the late Las Vegas magnate Sheldon Adelson and his family.)

But for Netanyahu and his allies, the real enemies have been the courts, the attorney general and the unelected ministerial judicial advisers who, from Netanyahu’s perspective, place universal principles ahead of the political agenda of elected officials. From Netanyahu’s vantage point, a true democracy means allowing elected officials free political reign. To opponents, this means unbridled populism and the end of protections for minorities and marginalized groups. It also means that Israel will no longer align itself with progressive, liberal forces in the world.

In many ways, this is a battle over the soul of modern Israel — whether it will adhere to its traditional, western orientation or will embrace a nationalist, religious political course.

Eran Kaplan
Eran Kaplan

Eran Kaplan is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor in Israel Studies at San Francisco State University. His most recent book is “Projecting the Nation: History and Ideology on the Israeli Screen.”