Reflections on Israeli Democracy

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 08th Sep 2023

Senior Masorti Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and Rabbi Jeremy Gordon share their thoughts amidst ongoing UK demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government’s judicial overhaul.

Senior Masorti Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg:

I was privileged to be part of a round table with Professor Yuval Noah Harari this morning. Everything he said confirmed my worst intuitions and fears.

The legislation proposed by Israel’s government adds up to 225 laws. At their heart are the limitation of the powers of the judiciary, the politicisation of appointments to the Supreme Court, and the severe curtailment of the rights of minorities. Over 80 of these laws have already been passed. These changes are of the utmost significance for the character of the country.

Israel’s Supreme Court is the only check on the government’s powers. Once the Knesset legislates to overrule its jurisdiction, Israel will have no checks and balances and the government will be able to do anything, including potentially annexing the West Bank, extending the powers of religious courts, curtailing of the rights of women, enforcing what will effectively be a racist ideology, and even lengthening its own terms of office. It will be able to destroy the very democratic foundations on which it was elected.

The government’s actions have already proved severely corrosive to Israel’s character. They have divided Israeli society and undermined the spirit of dedication and sacrifice which has characterised the country. They have made whole sectors of the community fearful, including Arab citizens, Palestinian neighbours, many women, and LGBT+ communities. They have left millions of Israelis and Jews abroad afraid for the country’s spiritual, moral, social, economic and political future. The government is flagrantly in breach of the courageous and inclusive vision of the State’s founders, and Israel’s Declaration of Independence, with its emphasis on justice, human dignity and equal rights for all.

It is essential to understand that it is not only the future of Israel which is at stake but the very nature of Judaism and the reputation of the Jewish religion. Judaism stands upon core values, originating in the Torah and refined over centuries amidst the bitter experiences of exile and persecution. These are the sanctity of every human life, the supremacy of impartial justice, the immeasurable importance of compassion, and humility before God, especially in those who hold temporal power. These principles were close the heart of the founders of religious Zionism.

Even Judaism’s understanding of God is at stake. For we declare daily that God is one and that ‘the soul of every living being is in your hands’, and we state in the very first chapter of the Torah that all human beings are fashioned in God’s image, uniquely yet equally.

There will be nowhere for us to hide from what may become the perceived the image of Judaism, as a power-based, supremacist ideology. We will be asked by others, and ask ourselves, ‘Have you learnt nothing from the Jewish People’s long history of persecution, from the importance of tolerance, justice and the rights of minorities?’ Then we will say to ourselves, why did I not do more in the hour of urgency?

In Yuval Noah Harari’s words, this is not the eleventh hour but already extra time. ‘Act now,’ he urged. There may yet be hope; the demonstrations across Israel and the Diaspora are unprecedented; the big issues about Israel’s future are all on the table. Look to that future and make it one of true vision.

When the core values of Judaism and the very nature of Jewish identity, as well as the future of Israel as a democratic country, are all at stake, silence is not an option.

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon:

The model of judicial interference in the exercise of executive power is old. Very old. God as the ultimate seat of executive power waits for Abraham to oppose God’s desire to destroy villages in which innocents live six times. 

In a remarkable rabbinic commentary, the destroying angels are imagined tarrying after Abraham gives up after his sixth ‘judicial review,’ in the desperate hope that he might try again. 

All governments should be sensitive to the possibility that their political aspirations, even if democratically mandated, risk an affront to higher callings made on those with executive power; the obligation to act with compassion towards all.  

All governments should be understand there is a space between doing what is ‘good’ and what is ‘politically expedient.’ It breaks my heart to see the Government of Israel acting in ways that are not good. It breaks my heart that some of the most powerful voices determining the policies of the Government of Israel claim religion guides their political positioning. As a religious Zionist I want to say, “No, this is not good and this is not my understanding of our religion.” 

May this time of reflection and Teshuvah bring a desire to change. 

Join Masorti Judaism at a rally for Israeli Democracy this Sunday at 3pm. Rabbi Jeremy Gordon will be speaking. Click here to learn more.

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