Under intense pressure from the Biden administration and a crippling national strike that shuttered schools, shopping malls, the airport and 200 McDonald’s franchises, Netanyahu succumbed Monday night and halted for at least a month his self-serving and Draconian plan to undermine Israel’s status as the Middle East’s strongest democracy.
But this is at best a temporary reprieve to the forces tearing Israeli society apart and threatening to make it an international pariah, and we must not be lulled into thinking it will be OK in the end.
Nearly 56 years into Israel’s “temporary” occupation of the West Bank, the status quo is simply not sustainable. And after 12 consecutive weeks of mounting protests against the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, neither is the political and religious hegemony inside Israel itself.
Not if it is to remain a democracy, an ally of the United States and a beacon for we Jews of the diaspora. The country’s lack of a clear constitution protecting the tricky balance between its Jewish character and its democratic principles has left it in present danger of imploding.
Reasonable people are talking in serious ways about civil war. Hi-tech entrepreneurs are fleeing, Americans planning to make aliyah are reconsidering, military reservists are not reporting for exercises, the shekel is faltering.
The other day when I texted a friend in Jerusalem to check in, she responded, “Well, a Jewish State was an interesting experiment while it lasted.”
And when I spoke Monday with Barry Shrage, a center-right Zionist who headed Boston’s Jewish federation for three decades, he likened today’s extremists to the zealots of the year 70 C.E., who burned their own food stocks during the failed effort to ward off the Romans from seizing control of Jerusalem and destroying the Second Temple. “They’re threatening to commit suicide,” he said.
As I prepare for the Passover Seders next week, I’m grappling with how to approach the closing line, “Next year in Jerusalem!” For most of us, it’s less about aspirational travel than about the idea of a city of peace that is the capital of a Jewish and democratic state.
How can we say it with Jerusalem now in the grip of leaders who seem to lack both democratic and Jewish core values? With the real possibility that this could be yet another period in our tortured history when Jewish control of Jerusalem proved fleeting?
Israel will soon turn 75. I hope the protesters are back on the streets for Independence Day April 25-26, demonstrating vividly what democracy looks like, and demanding it be preserved. And if they sing “Yihye Tov,” I hope they will do so with skepticism.
Because it is not OK — in fact Israel’s attorney general has said it is illegal — for Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, to mess with the judicial system at all.
It is not OK to strip the Supreme Court of its ability to review bills passed by Parliament. It is not OK to give the Knesset majority control over the appointment of judges.
It is not OK for Haredi rabbis to assert their misogynistic fanaticism over religious matters including marriage, conversion, kashrut and prayer at the Western Wall.
It is not OK for Itamar Ben-Gvir — who was deemed too extreme to serve in Israel’s military — to be minister of national security. And it is definitely not OK for Netanyahu to placate Ben-Gvir, as he did Monday, by promising to create a National Guard under Ben-Gvir’s control.
It is not OK for Bezalel Smotrich — who said Palestinians do not exist and called for a West Bank town torched by Israeli settlers to be wiped off the map — to remain as finance minister.
And, no, it is also not OK for Palestinians to have rejected innumerable peace plans, to launch rockets or send suicide bombers into Israel, to celebrate with sweets the latest murderous attacks on Jews. But this column is not about them; they do not sing “Yihye Tov.”
Finally, it is not OK for American Jews who love Israel or care about its future to sit this one out.
At the rally on Sunday, the speeches were in English, but the chatter in the crowd was mostly Hebrew, because nearly everyone was Israeli. If waving signs and singing peace anthems is not your thing, you could call the White House or your Congress member and say you think military aid to Israel should be conditioned on the judicial overhaul being not just paused but scrapped.
Yes, protecting Israel’s security is paramount, both so it can be a safe haven for the world’s Jews and because it is Washington’s most reliable ally in a volatile region. But the existential threat to Israel’s survival today is its own government. And the U.S.-Israel alliance is supposed to be rooted in shared values — democratic values.
You could hang up an Israeli flag next to a sign about democracy. You could make a donation to the Israeli Democracy Institute. You could pull out of a planned trip to Israel — or better yet, go and join the protesters in the street.