Israel captured world headlines in July after launching massive attacks in the occupied West Bank and after Israelis staged mass street protests to stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to prohibit Israel’s Supreme Court from restraining or restricting his government. Opposition began slowly in January but has grown into a full-blown political crisis involving constant demonstrations, labor strikes, work stoppages by soldiers and doctors, and objections by the country’s 200 biggest tech companies, 150 major corporations, and President Biden. Even so, on July 24, its parliament passed a partial judicial overhaul, after opponents boycotted the vote, which means that the controversy is far from over. Israel is a country divided into four warring “tribes”: The religious nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and Arabs. The first two tribes are now in bed with the Prime Minister which “is a risk for the other tribes,” said law professor Yedidia Stern. “Liberal and secular Israelis feel that the balance that we used to have is being shaken.”
The religious agenda includes building more settlements in the West Bank and eventually annexing it despite international objections, imposing their “laws” on all other Israelis, and boosting incomes and privileges for themselves. These have always been their goals, but secular Israelis are now being rapidly outnumbered by the “cradle” as birthrates soar among the religious. Clashes won’t bridge the divide because differences are irreconcilable and present a greater existential threat to the nation than does the threat posed by Israel’s millions of external enemies. Secular Israelis want the country to remain a vibrant economic and technological powerhouse and a liberal and pluralist democracy. Religious nationalists and ultra-orthodox Jews, or Haredim, believe Israel should be a theocracy for the devout. They disdain civil courts for encroaching on their beliefs or threatening their privileges, notably their exemptions from serving in the military or from paying taxes.
Israel arrives at a turning point because its extremist religious leaders have power politically as well as demographically. They support Netanyahu, a former “liberal”, left-wing politician, and in less than two generations the Haredim population will represent half of Israel’s population as a result of sky-high birth rates. Netanyahu sought their support after he fell out of favor with voters in 2019 following corruption charges. He pulled together a right-wing alliance and was re-elected in November. His priority was to get the Supreme Court off their backs, and his as well, but the coalition now attacks the West Bank and supports limiting the rights of Palestinians, LGBTQ individuals, and secular Israelis.
This is not a political spat, but a crossroad. Each side desires a unique future for the nation-state, its democracy, and the rule of law. Ultra-Orthodox leaders want to control the courts so that the judiciary won’t strike down as unfair their draft exemptions for yeshiva students, tax exemptions, or authority over marriages, education, and other civil law. On the other hand, secular Israelis want to protect the courts because they realize that the religious will replace the judiciary with their rules. Shops will have to close on the Sabbath, women and men will have to sit separately in public spaces, homosexuality and abortion will be outlawed, and a war to annex the West Bank will be inevitable that secular soldiers will be forced to wage.
Netanyahu has always skated to the right. In 2018, he gave the religious special entitlements such as exclusive control over the education of their children and state financial support for their growing “community of learners” (Torah students) who are not only exempt from military service but may refrain from paid work. The result is the creation of a gigantic, unfair, growing, unproductive “leisure” class that is already a burden to the state and will be more so as its members continue to multiply.
By 2065, Haredi Jews will have raised millions of children who will be mathematically and scientifically illiterate, say experts. At the same time, in 2018, pluralism was attacked by the Nation-State Law which declared the right of national self-determination as being “unique to the Jewish people,” rather than to all Israeli citizens. This was a blow to Israeli Arabs who enjoy higher living standards and more freedoms than their counterparts elsewhere. Half of Israel’s pharmacists and one-fifth of all its physicians are of Arab background, but inadequate housing and policing needs for many poor Israeli Arabs remain unaddressed.
Obviously, the rise of this religious right is a red flag for them and many others. What’s unique about these protests is that the nation’s tech and major corporations have waded into the controversy and are heavily in favor of upholding the rule of law as it has existed for decades. Israel’s companies underpin its prosperity — tech alone represents one-sixth of Israel’s economy and half its exports and Israeli major companies are world leaders in many fields. They warn that the removal by Netanyahu of court oversight from the country’s parliament will lead to mass disinvestment and corporate departures.
This threatens Israel’s status as a “start-up nation”, wrote socio-economist Dan Ben-David in a breakthrough article for The Times of Israel in 2019, as does the educational shortcomings provided in religious schools. “One-quarter of Israel’s schoolchildren are Arab-Israeli and perform poorly in core subjects – in math, science and reading – even below that of other Muslim countries, and most of the Haredim (ultra-orthodox) children don’t study these subjects in their religious schools. Not surprisingly, Israeli students as a whole underperform the rest of the developed world in terms of test results.”
Gilead Sher, former chief of staff for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, wrote recently in Newsweek: “The right's policies are enabling the wildly expanding ultra-religious sector—the Haredim—to not teach children math, science, and English in schools, creating a largely unemployable underclass. They are a fifth of the country today and average seven children per family; it is a recipe for collapse. There are other issues, including the sorry state of the Israeli Arabs who account for a fifth of Israel's citizens.”
Besides economic trouble ahead, Israel’s democracy, the only one in the Middle East, is at risk. Netanyahu’s initial court-curbing measures were approved by 64 members of the Knesset on July 24. Opposition parties, representing the other 56 members boycotted the vote because a reasonable compromise was not offered. In November, Netanyahu will seek final approval for an “override clause” that will allow parliament to overrule the Supreme Court by a simple majority. If passed, this would gut the rule of law and remove the only check and balance in the Israeli system. Currently, the Knesset is only held in check by the court… or the “streets”.
What’s at stake is the essence of today’s Israel: “We made this country because we wanted some place for Jewish people” to live in safety, said one protester in a newspaper interview. “What we’re seeing is an attempt to enforce Jewish law on other people.” Some opponents believe this will be the beginning of a dictatorship for Netanyahu and that the proposed court restrictions are simply a cynical get-out-of-jail-free card for him to avoid prison.
And Israel’s ongoing socio-economic struggle has grave implications for the country’s national security. Israeli reservists threatened to avoid duty in protest over military exemptions for the Haredim. During demonstrations, 37 of the 40 pilots in the country's elite squadron refused to fly in protest, and when the country’s defense minister warned Netanyahu that this path endangered security, he was fired. This led to bigger crowds and he was quickly reinstated. But anxiety that an autocracy is around the corner remains both at home and abroad. Israel is a nuclear power and dependent on American support diplomatically and financially. The United States gives Israel $3.8-billion in military aid annually.
Professor Ben-David put the existential challenge bluntly years ago. “It should be clear that the complexity of the challenges that Israel faces extends far beyond the issue of Haredim. Pervasive poverty and income inequality also exist among non-Haredi Jews, not to mention Arab-Israelis. Not everything begins and ends with education. But if a population group this large continues to exercise considerable influence on the direction and amplitude of flows from the government faucet in a manner that only further enhances their exponential growth, while concurrently depriving their children [and others] of the vital tools necessary for integration into a competitive global economy and a modern society, Israel will cease to exist.”
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