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I’m devastated by Israel’s judicial overhaul, but I’m still moving there

Israel needs us now more than ever

Back in March, when the push for judicial reforms first sent the country spiraling into mass protests, I articulated my fears for Israeli democracy in the Forward. While writing, I bounced ideas off of a friend who roamed around my New York apartment.

“I just don’t see what the big deal is,” he said at one point. “It’s not like this is really going to end Israel.”

Frustrated, I shot back: “Yes — that’s exactly what’s at stake. This will end the Israel we know.”

Startled by my response, he stopped pacing and paused. “So then I’m confused,” he asked. “Why are you moving to a country that will be beyond repair before you even arrive?”

I’ve thought about that conversation intermittently over the last few months. I do believe that if these changes move forward, Israel will enter perilous territory, and the “only democracy in the Middle East” may cease to be. The country can crumble. But I know now that it’s precisely because of this risk that now, more than ever, I feel the urgency of moving to Israel.

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like in the years before Jerusalem’s final destruction 2,000 years ago; if the impending doom was imaginable; if people trembled with anxiety in the months and weeks, or even the days, of its death rattle. Were the warning signs blaring on the precipice of national destruction? Did the average citizen simply turn away?

Those questions haunt me most profoundly when I think about the protests surrounding the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul. This week, the Knesset abolished the Supreme Court’s ability to curb governmental “unreasonableness” — namely, the court’s ability to block legislation that technically may be legal, but whose impact on Israeli society and basic civil rights is deemed “unreasonable in the extreme.”

While the country will not deteriorate from one alteration to the Supreme Court’s power, this initial “reasonableness” reform is only a foreshadow of what’s to come: The government plans to effectively obliterate any checks and balances on the Knesset. The bludgeoning of Israel’s judiciary is in its early days.

This law is “only the beginning,” Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir declared to reporters. “There are many more laws we need to pass as part of the judicial overhaul.”

That we are only days before Tisha B’Av — the Jewish day mourning the Temples’ destruction and our subsequent exiles — is eerily poetic, and terrifying. As we remember Jerusalem’s demise two millennia ago, we will sit in the shadows of Jerusalem’s demise two days ago. I am watching my dream slip into disaster.

“For these things do my eyes weep” (Lamentations 1:16). I wonder if these are our blaring warning signs, if we are all simply turning our heads from the dark days facing Israel. I hope, I pray, otherwise. But I see Israel’s democracy dying in the daylight.

This upheaval in Israel feels personal. In three weeks, I will, for all intents and purposes, be an Israeli citizen — living in a millennia-old fantasy of the Jewish imagination. But my approaching arrival is colored by Israel’s dire state of affairs.

I wish my aliyah could be cheery, filled with selfies landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, spiritual ecstasy traveling in my monit sheirut (service taxi), and my ancestors’ unburdening breath while unloading luggage into a new place I call “home.” But that’s a delusion — an Israel, and a Sruli — that is already gone. Now is not the time for blind celebration.

Tanach illustrates where we are headed: Hubris and authoritarianism are a fatal concoction. A glance into Judges, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Psalms tells of the same failures plaguing Jewish history: “[God] hoped for justice — and behold: injustice; equity — and behold: inequity” (Isaiah 5:7).

Justice is the backbone of Jerusalem; without it, the country cannot stand. If the judicial overhaul continues charging forward as Ben-Gvir plans, it will “erode almost all institutional checks and balances, concentrating immense power in the hands of the executive.” Israel will fall into the throes of totalitarianism.

But there is an important difference between the Israel of old and the Israel of today. When reading Tanach, we are helpless witnesses to our ancestors’ repeated mistakes. But the gift of living in Israel today is that we can make new choices. Action is still possible.

It’s true that moving to a country whose “damage to society might not be fixable,” as The New York Times put it, is probably not advisable. But Israel is not just a country — it is our homeland, our everything. The threat toward Israel appears dauntingly insurmountable, but we cannot afford to cower into complicity.

Tanach is being written now. The sirens are blaring now. The time to act is now.

So my days in Israel will be different than I expected: I’ll be joining Jews marching in the streets, not learning in the beit midrash; protesting in Jerusalem, not praying at the Kotel. That is the sacrifice of the moment — what Israel needs. I am blessed that I can finally provide. On the eve of Tisha B’Av, I refuse to deafen myself to the warning signs; I refuse to turn my head.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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