Israel Aflame

Richard C. Gross
6 min readJul 28, 2023

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BY RICHARD C. GROSS

“Our future does not depend on what the Gentiles will say but on what the Jews will do.”

— David Ben-Gurion, first Israeli prime minister, 1955–1963

This is not your father’s Israel.

Shortly after Israel’s 75th birthday May 14, the country’s

first ultra-conservative coalition government passed legislation in the Knesset (Parliament) 64–0 Monday that robs the Supreme Court of its ability to rule against government actions it considers “unreasonable.” All 56 opposition members refused to vote and walked out yelling “shame.”

The court is the only check on the government because there’s no written constitution, only 12 Basic Laws that substitute for one. The Knesset passed only one part of a package of bills. The threat is that more will be adopted when it reconvenes in the fall.

The secular, more liberal opposition wants to retain a pluralistic society and freedoms as outlined in the 10th of those laws. Adopted in 1992, it “Declares basic human rights in Israel are based on the recognition of the value of man, the sanctity of his life and the fact that he is free.”

The court agreed to petitions from civil rights groups to review the law in September that seeks to curb its own role in an increasingly fractured society. It could rule to vote down or accept the law’s divisiveness. Either way, it could create more dissension, more major demonstrations, more dissatisfaction with the outcome. It’s never been easy being Israeli.

The law means bad news for Israeli Arabs, who represent about 20 percent of Israel’s 9.5 million population. The extremist nationalists and ultra-Orthodox want to make the country more Jewish. They want to expand Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank that could lead to annexing the former Jordanian territory captured in the 1967 Six-Day war.

About 450,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and another 220,000 live in East Jerusalem. There’s not much space left for a negotiated Palestinian state, a goal of the 1993 Oslo Accords.

“A majority of Israelis did not vote for the ultra-nationalist parties,” the liberal Reform Rabbi Marvin Schwab, 76, of Poway, Calif., told me in an email. “No opportunity was given for a national referendum to express the will of the Israeli people on this issue.”

Many Israelis have accused secular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of wanting to change the Supreme Court to protect himself if he is convicted of longstanding corruption charges and possible imprisonment. Sound familiar?

Netanyahu, whose nickname in Israel is Bibi — nearly all Israelis have a diminutive — has served the longest as prime minister, beginning in 1996. It’s obvious from the Knesset’s action that he will do anything — anything — to retain power, even defy appeals from President Joe Biden not to pass the bill.

He absolutely reminds me of Trump.

Biden, a longtime backer of Israel, has stayed mum. But his White House called the vote “unfortunate.” It remains to be seen what effect it will have on Israeli-American relations.

“This decision lays the groundwork to give the minority’s very religious elements of society the power to control that society,” Rabbi Schwab wrote. “This is not about protecting the rights of the minority. This is about giving that minority the power to determine how the majority will live their lives.”

The conservatives argue changing the court will mean further democratizing Israel because they believe they’ve been ignored by it all of these years, with secular Israelis getting everything. Example: The court of 15 judges refused to permit Netanyahu’s choice of Aryeh Deri, a convicted felon, to be seated as a cabinet minister.

Israel could use a written constitution. Badly. All it has are those Basic Laws that do not provide checks and balances of the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government. That’s the court’s job. The U.S. Constitution does that for us. Thank James Madison, our fourth president, who drafted it in 1787.

The months of parliamentary deliberations in the one- chamber, 120-seat legislature ignited 29 weeks 0f tumultuous, dramatic and historic demonstrations by tens of thousands of protesters waving blue and white Israeli flags. As never before, their numbers overwhelmed the hilly streets of staid Jerusalem, those of the more free-wheeling coastal Tel Aviv’s and elsewhere.

The only American comparisons I can make are demonstrations by Black Lives Matter and those protesting the Supreme Court’s overturning the legal right to abortion.

Hundreds if not thousands of marchers made the exhausting 40-mile trek up steep hills from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the Knesset there over four days, camping out overnights in small white tents. Even that didn’t help sway the extremist lawmakers, some from ultra-Orthodox parties. They want to ensure the ultra-Orthodox don’t serve in the military and will get more money for their schools.

There is a difference between the Orthodox and the more severe and faithfully religious ultra-Orthodox. The former serve in the military and pay taxes. The latter mostly don’t work and get money from the government so they can devote their time studying the Torah and religious commentaries.

“This is the most widespread and significant democratic awakening in the history of the country,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem policy outfit, the AP reported.

This is what happens when people living in a democracy take it for granted. I hope Americans are paying attention.

“I think this country is going to either split into two countries or be finished altogether,” protester Yossi Nissimov told the AP from his tent city outside the Knesset.

There’s precedent for that, the Bible says. Ancient Israel split in two, the Kingdom of Israel in the north, with Samaria as its capital, and the Kingdom of Judah, or Judea, with Jerusalem its capital and the Dead Sea its eastern border. The reasons: It’s complicated.

“From today, Israel will be a little more democratic, a little more Jewish, and we will be able to do more in our offices,” ultra-extremist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, 47, told reporters. “With God’s help, this will be just the beginning.”

I’m not so sure God is listening. Ben-Gvir, a severe right-winger, was convicted of supporting Kach, a Jewish terrorist group run by Rabbi Meir Kahane, an Israeli-American killed by an Arab in Manhattan in 1990.

And, no, the legislation doesn’t make Israel more democratic just because Ben-Gvir thinks dismantling the Supreme Court will give the minority extremists more freedom to control Israel. Netanyahu may be voted out of office in the next election and it could mean lost power for this coalition of ultra-conservatives.

“The demographics that underly Netanyahu’s coalition already promised to make this seemingly abrupt crisis just the start of a phase to change Israel’s character,” wrote Tom Ackerman, 75, a retired journalist of Corte Madera, Calif., in an email. He reported from Israel for seven years and from various locations for Al-Jazeera for 10 years.

“Nearly half its Jewish school-age children are ultra-Orthodox who enjoy exemption from national military service and whose schools don’t provide a modern education,” he wrote.

For those attuned to symbols, the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av on the lunar Hebrew calendar, which this year coincides with July 26–27) is a time of mourning for the religious faithful. It commemorates, in part, the destruction of the Jewish temples in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II’s Babylonians in 586–87 B.C. and by Emperor Vespasian’s Romans in 70 A.D.

Another, perhaps a more concrete symbol, is for Biden to stop being Mr. Nice Guy with Israel. He should declare the United States will reassess its relations with the Jewish state with an eye toward halting, substantially decreasing or suspending its annual $3.8 billion grant to the country.

If Israel’s democracy is made extinct and replaced with a theocracy, there’s a substantial price to pay for that.

Richard C. Gross, was a bureau chief and staff correspondent in Israel for seven years, a reporter at the Pentagon for another seven years, the foreign editor of United Press International and was the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.

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Richard C. Gross

Correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor at home and abroad with United Press International. Retired as opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.