We are about to enter the most introspective time on the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashana begins at nightfall tomorrow and ten days later we have Yom Kippur, the day when we ask ourselves who we have been and who we want to be in the coming year. This year, the state of Israel is doing some of that introspection too.
We can hope for—but also work towards—a future where God, Fate, or whatever else you want to call a higher power seals the State of Israel in the Book of Democracy this coming year.
This past Tuesday, on September 12, Israel’s Supreme Court held an unprecedented, 13-hour hearing that ran from 9AM to nearly midnight. And while the hearing was ostensibly about whether the “reasonableness standard,” a tool of judicial oversight, should be maintained or not, the discussion also dug into some of the most critical and unresolved questions that the state of Israel has ever had to ask: can the court strike down a constitutional amendment? If so, when? Where do Israel’s fundamental values stem from? The Declaration of Independence? Its quasi-constitutional Basic Laws? Its majority?
At the New Israel Fund we know that the key to a better future for all who live in Israel lies in a shared and equal future. This is the message we have been promoting in the protests and in all of the work we do.
The entire 15-justice panel was present, a first in Israel’s history, as civil society organizations, among them our flagship grantee, the Association for Human Rights in Israel (ACRI), stood before the court and explained what it means for the courts to have the power to check the government. What it means for the rights of all Israelis, especially members of its minorities.
At one point, Justice Anat Baron interrupted MK Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the judicial coup who wants so badly to concentrate power in the hands of the the government, to ask him a hypothetical question: What if the government tied the hands of the judiciary, but then decided, say, that Arabs are no longer allowed vote, or that elections were only to be held every ten years? What would happen then? Who would tell them they couldn’t do that? Rothman had no real answer for her.
But the future and the past hold both good and bad alike. Allow me, in this moment of uncertainty and introspection, to tell you about someone that NIF in Israel recently honored during our board meeting in Israel with the Bill Goldman “Truth to Power Prize” in Israel—well, in the West Bank. His name is Nasser Nawaj’ah, and he is an incredible Palestinian activist whose family was expelled from his home in Susya (where, now, the State of Israel has set up an archeological site. Susya is in Area C of the West Bank). Since he was expelled, Nasser and the other residents of Susya live across the street, on farmland that they own. Even so, they are in a constant battle for their right to live on their land. They face repeated demolitions, violence from the security forces, denial of access to water and clogging of wells, and right-wing organizations who track their activity and work towards their expulsion. All while being confronted by settler violence on a daily basis. Yet Nassar believes things can be different and has documented human rights abuses in his area for years. His attitude can only be called steadfast and resilient.
In a video NIF made for the award ceremony (which he was unable to attend since the military would not give him a permit to enter Israel), Nassar thanked the New Israel Fund for the award saying: “The only thing that is certain is that one day the occupation will end and everyone who works for justice will win.”
The “Truth to Power” award is named after the late professor Bill Goldman, who was an activist and board member of the New Israel Fund. Bill courageously worked to promote compassion, justice, and equality and contributed so much to organizations that worked to build bridges between people. It is this prize — a donation made yearly by a progressive American Jewish family worth NIS 100,000 — and activists like Nassar who keep me optimistic in these troubled times.
We at the New Israel Fund know that we have the power to help change things for the better in Israel, and I want to thank you — our supporters, our donors, our constituents — for being there for us every step of the way.
We see civil society as a critical gatekeeper for democracy today in Israel. You help us keep activists working to educate, expose, demand, and say what we are against and what we are for, strong. With your help, may this be the year when we see Israeli democracy take root in a deeper, healthier way than ever before.