Rabbi Isaak’s Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5784 Sermon – Israel’s Democratic Challenge

The state of Israel will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.  It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture. It will safeguard the holy places of all religions and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

These words from Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence incorporate the highest aspirations of a newly constituted state in the midst of its becoming.  They were not simply empty sentiments.  In fact, there were fierce arguments over the meaning and intent of virtually every word.

And in much of what was expressed there, we have much to be proud of, not as citizens for we are not, but as Jews who identify with our people and the Jewish project that Israel is.  In 2022 Israel was the fastest growing country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  In 2022 Israel entered the top 20 ranking of countries with the highest GDP per capita. Through all its external and internal challenges, Israel remains the only democratic country in the Middle East, though that designation is under threat as never before in its history.  Incidentally Israel, you may be surprised to learn, is evidently the fourth happiest country in the world (whatever that means) behind only Finland, Denmark, and Iceland!

However as we have all become aware recently, if you had not been previously, Israel has no constitution.  Ben Gurion and the founders promised that they would create one, and though valiant attempts have been made, such a formative document never came to be.  Some would say that this occurred because they couldn’t/wouldn’t decide on crucial questions normally settled in a Constitutional Convention:  fundamental, formal rules on separation of church and state, whether the ultra-Orthodox should be required to serve in the army, what should be the relationship between the Jewish majority and the Arab-Israeli minority that today makes up 20% of the Israeli population.  Israel functioned instead on a “live and let live” basis, not resolving these and other issues, but making compromises for different factions in order to get through the other serious domestic and security issues the country faced.  Now after 75 years, those unresolved issues are tearing the country apart.

In lieu of a formal constitution Israel’s Supreme Court of fifteen justices engages in judicial review similar to our Supreme Court; but without a Constitution. They do so on the basis of a group of what are known as Basic Laws.

No legislature likes a judicial body that can countermand appointments or legislation that it has enacted.  However, up until the current administration, the government has respected the court’s rulings. However when PM Netanyahu succeeded in putting together his majority coalition of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, its first undertaking was to curb, if not eliminate the power of the Supreme Court, undermine the scope of the basic laws, redesign the process by which Justices are appointed and provide legislative means to overrule Supreme Court decisions. By so doing this extreme government coalition can achieve its three primary objectives: a) prevent the drafting of ultra-Orthodox young men into the army, b) provide the right-wing conservative element the necessary means to annex more of the West Bank into Israel proper, and c) allow prime minister Netanyahu to prevent corruption indictments from sending him to jail.  Since the coalition by definition has a majority of the 120 votes in the Knesset, there is no legal means to prevent them from enacting the legislation if they vote as a block.

How did this happen? Doesn’t the Parliamentary system represent the majority of the country? Yes and no. In putting together his 60+ seat coalition, the Prime Minister included tiny parties that in themselves represent small extremes in the society.  Cabinet ministries were handed to extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir, indicted 57 times, and convicted in 2007 for incitement to racism, and Bezalel Smotrich, racist and homophobe who after the recent settler riot in the Arab village of Huwara said he “believed the village of Huwara should be wiped out.”

The government has already taken the first step in July by voting to amend one of the Basic Laws, removing from the Supreme Court some of its authority to review the Knesset’s enactments.  Can the Knesset actually do that? It would be as if our Congress arbitrarily voted to limit our Supreme Court’s ability to engage in its important function of Judicial Review.

This past Tuesday the Israel Supreme Court sat for the first time in its history as a full court of all fifteen Justices to consider petitions claiming that the Knesset was out of bounds to do so.   What will happen if the Court decides that the Knesset has no legal authority to amend, abrogate, or undermine the Basic Laws that function as an Israel’s quasi-constitution?  Will the Israeli military follow the Knesset or the Court?  How will the police decide who has authority?

This debate as the Justices argued the issue is not simply about the much-publicized “reasonableness clause”, or just about the Israeli judiciary.  What is at stake is the very nature of the Israeli enterprise itself, and significantly, we non-citizens of Israel living thousands of miles away, have a vital interest in the outcome.  Not least of the reasons is that a significant portion of the current administration challenges whether what we do here as Conservative or Reform Jews is even acceptable as legitimately Jewish.  Issues of women’s equality and LGBTQ rights are also on their agenda.

In fact, there are two Israels, divided by their adherence (at least in principle) to either liberal democracy or to Jewish ethnocentrism.  But the center of these two Israels is not holding.  The purpose of the current Israeli administration is to tip the balance, to proclaim that only Jewish self-interest must predominate and that the historic democratic values are of lesser, if any significance.

Much to the surprise of those in power, this debate provoked the Israeli public.  Unlike in Hungary and Poland where authorities successfully undermined their judiciaries and democratic norms without much of a public outcry, we are witnessing tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of Israeli patriotic flag-waving citizens taking to the streets to proclaim that they will not accept the undermining of their country’s democracy.

The estimated half million protesters who have taken to the streets would be the equivalent of 17 million Americans!  And they are not alone.  Doctors, as well as 150  of the largest companies, have gone on strike.  Lawyers, scientists, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, and agricultural workers joined the protest.  The Histadrut representing 700,000 workers has been pressured to call a general strike.  Tech firms have threatened to leave the country.  Women’s rights advocates demonstrate in somber red capes of the Handmaiden’s Tale.  Thousands of reservists, including pilots and members of elite units have threatened to withhold their service.

For 36 straight weeks, these inspiring demonstrations and rallies by people fighting for the country they love, have protested the government’s threatened proposals.  People young and old, Kibbutznikim and city folk, Vatikim and newer arrivals all across the country say no, not in our country.  (I am from the generation of Viet Nam war protests.  This is like nothing I have ever witnessed.)

And Israelis are signaling to us and asking for the world to pay attention.  This is important.  And so this Rosh Hashanah, let me urge you:

If you have found that you have lost interest or for some never had any interest in the state of Israel, now is the time to tune in and watch carefully, because what is happening there is truly remarkable.

If you have become frustrated, even turned off by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, now may be the time to support hopeful developments.  They are not happening yet, but I am hopeful.

If you are outraged by this effort to undermine the imperfect democracy that Israel has forged, then join me in supporting those Israelis who are putting on a good fight in any way we can.