Principal Marc Light looks at the camera, he is wearing a grey suit and smiling. The King David School's logo is behind him, silver on a wood background.

Engaging with the nature of democracy in Israel

This week I returned to School after my sabbatical leave. The majority of this time was spent in Israel where I had the opportunity to visit innovative schools, meet with outstanding educators and to explore some of the unique programs and experiences that Israel offers to promote the Arts, culture, entrepreneurship, and coexistence.

The backdrop to this experience was, of course, the volatile political atmosphere that was dominated by the Government’s proposed legislative agenda including the hugely controversial judicial overhaul.

To offer some brief context, Israel is a nation with no constitution. While the founding document of the modern state, The Declaration of Independence, promises that one will be confirmed by 1 October 1948, this never eventuated.

As such, the state relies upon a set of Basic Laws to enshrine the structures of democracy. Additionally, the unicameral nature of Israel’s parliamentary system means that there is no secondary house of review with regards to proposed legislation.

Some of the Basic Laws have provided the Supreme Court with the power to review the legality of government legislation. These have served as a strong check and balance on the operation of political power and have, for example, intervened at times when proposed legislation has been seen to impinge upon human rights or facilitate perceptions of corruption.

Members of the ruling coalition have accused the Supreme Court of being “left wing” and have suggested that its blocking of legislation is undemocratic. The proposed legislation allows for the Knesset to appoint judges and to limit the power of the court to review legislation. The Coalition argues that its recent electoral success provides a democratic mandate to institute such changes.

To put it simply, many Israelis disagree. Hundreds of thousands of civilians across the breadth of the nation have taken to the streets twice-weekly to oppose what they believe to be a blatant power grab that would see the government give itself the power to effectively review its own legislation and thus pave the way for an aggressive legislative agenda which opponents believe will impinge upon the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, non-Orthodox Jewry and the Arab citizens of Israel.

The situation is so volatile that I found it to dominate the focus of most Israelis I encountered throughout my trip. I have always been a keen observer of Israeli politics but since the break down of the last substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the second Intifada, I have often come across resistance from Israelis who seem reluctant to discuss politics who have made dismissive statements like, “There’s nothing to talk about … Nothing ever changes.”

Not this time. Everyone I encountered was politically engaged. Most homes seemed to have the TV news channels on in the background throughout the day and any attempt to speak to anyone while the news bulletin was on was met with that unique Israeli hand gesture which means “wait a minute!”

Rabbi Daniel Gordis characterised this change with these words: ”What we have seen this year has been an extraordinary exhibition of love of country, of devotion to Zionism, of almost completely violence-free protests by hundreds of thousands of people for three months. What you witnessed was the left-center adopting and embracing the flag, embracing and loving the country that many people thought they’d long since stopped caring about. They took to the streets to defend it, to protect it, to preserve it. This was about love.“

The protest movement gained such momentum that almost one in two Tel Aviv citizens were out on the street. They adorned themselves with Israeli flags and seemed to reclaim the symbols and icons of the modern state. On Rehov Kaplan, the central site of the protests, a huge projection of David Ben Gurion reading the Declaration of Independence seemed to reinforce the belief of the high stakes of this battle for the nature of Israeli democracy in line with the vision of its founders..

One of the common creative themes at the protest were women dressed as handmaids, the oppressed characters in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian books about an extremist religious takeover of a democratic state.

While there have been repeated concerns that the volatility could lead to a civil war, the protests have been almost entirely non-violent.

When members of the protest movement took the provocative step of taking their protest to the almost entirely Orthodox centre of B’nei Brak, rather than being met with hostility, they were met with supporters of the overhaul who had prepared cholent for their opponents.

Similarly, I was approached by Modern Orthodox youth movement leaders on the streets of Tel Aviv who were handing out sweets with notes on them declaring love for their fellow citizens regardless of political differences.

While the protesters were able to achieve a pause in the legislative process and force the government to the negotiating table, many remain sceptical about the genuineness of the negotiators and their capacity to reach consensus. It is apparent that the coming weeks will be crucial in determining the outcome of this issue but also in shaping the nature of Israel as it moves into its 75th year. I hope and pray that what emerges is a peaceful outcome which protects the rights of all citizens and preserves the integrity of government, the courts and all democratic institutions.

As acclaimed Israeli writer David Grossman states: “[Israel] might not be the utopia envisioned by Theodor Herzl in Altneuland, or the humanistic idyll outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. But out of the numerous hopes, disappointments, anxieties and creative forces, what has emerged here is a strong, unique state that can rise above all its divisions. A state that has managed not only to function but to flourish for 75 years, even if it does so with the wobble of a tightrope walker.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Marc Light