Just yesterday, Israel’s president Isaac Herzog addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington D.C. Without getting into the content of his speech, one thing that struck me was when President Herzog noted that yesterday marked the first day of the Jewish month of Av. This is the month during which the Jewish people traditionally mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem—the symbol of Jewish sovereignty and the exile and diaspora that followed. Herzog was contrasting this moment of bitterness with the moment of joy he felt celebrating 75 years of Israel’s existence.
And while I believe it’s important to celebrate the establishment and existence of Israel, this year—this Av—as hundreds of thousands of Israelis continue to take to the streets to protest the Israeli government’s attempt to eviscerate its own democracy, I believe it is more important to remember this: our tradition teaches that the reason for the downfall of the Jewish kingdom and the destruction of the Temple was “sinat chinam” or baseless hatred between Jews. And right now it is incumbent upon all of us who care about Israel’s future to recognize that it is in terrible danger because of the baseless hatred of this government towards those Israelis—and all of those around the world—who disagree with its authoritarian agenda. If we care about Israel, we must stand in support of those Israelis who are pushing back against the attempts to change their country into an ethno-religious autocracy. By my lights, it seems that what this moment really calls for is action.
That’s what we do at the New Israel Fund—we support those activists on the ground in Israel who demand democracy and are working for a better future for everyone.
This Israeli government is barreling ahead with anti-democratic legislation to weaken Israel’s judiciary, the only real check on the power of the government. A bill that would eliminate the “reasonableness” standard has already passed its initial reading and will, if Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t stop it, breeze through its second and third next week to become law.
This standard is important. It is what has prevented Netanyahu from successfully appointing a man who was convicted of tax evasion, corruption, bribery and fraud—Aryeh Deri of Shas—as a minister in his government. When Netanyahu wanted to appoint him, the court said no, the appointment of a recent felon to such a position was “unreasonable.” And this is why Netanyahu wants to ax it. First, because he needs a stable coalition to stay in power.He wants to be able to appoint people like Deri, whether or not they have a criminal record of corruption, to his cabinet. And second, because Netanyahu himself is still on trial and he wants to be able to fire people like the Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara, who he fears is an independent and honest official, not beholden to him—and thus a threat. Netanyahus’ own Communications Minister Shomo Karhi has said on the record that the only thing standing between Netanyahu and firing her is the reasonableness clause.
The elimination of this standard would not end Israel’s checks and balances, but it would chip away at them. We know that democracy does not die overnight. It does not fade in an instant. It is whittled away as gatekeepers are replaced by “yes” men and women. It is shrunken when the right to protest (and rights of protestors) are threatened, all while driving off a cliff into the abyss of apartheid.
But we are also seeing Israelis reacting: dissenting, protesting peacefully, putting their bodies on the line in mass demonstrations and civil disobedience. On Saturday night more than 150,000 people came out to Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street in protest, scrawling “Biden save us” on the road ahead of Herzog’s address in Washington. This past Tuesday tens of thousands went to the streets for another Day of Disruption. They headed to central arteries and public squares of the country: the stock exchange, the military’s headquarters, railway stations, main roads like the Ayalon highway, and, of course, in front of the Supreme Court and Knesset in Jerusalem.
The situation in Israel took center stage in America this week with Herzog’s visit and Biden’s phone call with Netanyahu on Monday. As NIF board member and former peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, wrote in Foreign Policy last week, Biden is finally “waking up to the inconvenient fact that whatever he thought he knew about his good friend Netanyahu… the Israeli leader has undergone a change from a difficult partner—cautious and risk-averse—to a desperate, risk-ready politician who seems to stumble from one disaster to the next.”
But even as Israelis, Americans, and the rest of the world focus on the threat the Netanyahu government poses to Israeli democracy, the “second revolution” unleashed by this extremist government—the attempt to dramatically increase the settlement enterprise while aiming to accomplish de facto total Jewish supremacist annexation of the occupied West Bank—continues unabated. Multiple violent pogroms—much like the one we witnessed in the West Bank town of Huwara back in February—carried out by settlers in the West Bank over the last few weeks, including one in the quiet, beautiful village of Turmus Ayya, where many Palestinian-Americans live.
This past Tuesday on an NIF webinar, hosted by our VP of Public Engagement, Libby Lenkinski, we heard testimony from a Palestinian-American woman named Olfat Abdelhalim. Olfat told a horrifying and heartbreaking story of trying to drive back to Turmus Ayya to reach her children who believed they were going to be murdered, as settlers burned cars and smashed anything they could get their hands on just beyond the door of their home. Avner Gvaryahu and Ziv Stahel from NIF grantees Breaking the Silence and Yesh Din also spoke, giving high-level analysis of why this is all happening and what we can do to stop it. You can find a recording of that webinar here—and I highly recommend watching, even though it is very upsetting to hear.
Amidst the darkness and uncertainty of this month of Av, I want to end on a note of hope from Yuval Noah Harari (the Israeli author of “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”) from a piece he wrote for Haaretz recently. He wrote:
I hope that the government of Israel stops its antidemocratic power-grab, heals the national wounds, puts down the flames of Hawara, and prevents a Third Destruction, whether material or spiritual. And if the government of Israel carries on with its dangerous policies, then it is the duty of all Jews, wherever they live, to resist this government in every nonviolent way we know.
As the month of Av arrives, I too hope that we can prevent a Third Destruction. It will take all of us, together, to build the future that we want to see.