The proposed judicial reforms in Israel have brought about a very vibrant discussion about the direction of Israeli democracy. Never in the history of Israel have so many concerned American Jews have been trying to understand the complicated and sometimes convoluted Israeli rules and laws.
Both sides — those who advocate for significant judicial reforms by curbing the power of the "overly activist" Israeli Supreme court and those who would like to maintain the power of the supreme court as the "defender of last resort" of the fledgling Israeli democracy — see this as the only opportunity to save Israeli democracy. The political stakes, both real and perceived, have led to rhetoric detached from facts and reason.
Is Israel at risk of Hungarization? It's impossible to provide a simple summary that will either justify or diffuse the dire warnings of world experts and pundits who think so. But under current law, before any reform is even enacted, the Supreme Court does not provide the iron-clad protections opponents of the reforms are claiming — the court is neither backstop nor slippery slope.
The 1995 “upgrades” to the power of the Supreme Court were passed with little fanfare or debate since, up to that point, the perception of Israel as being a lesser democracy was not even on the table. The members of Knesset who voted for the 1995 reforms accepted the arguments of the court — that their expanded powers would be used rarely and responsibly and that, at any point, the Knesset could pass new laws to replace any legislation that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional.
There are other elements of the 1995 changes that are now being debated and among the reasons why some in Israel are seeking to return more balance to the balance of the power between the court, the executive branch and the Knesset. The reason for the sharp disagreement is beyond the debate about law. It's also about politics. Since 1995, Israel — similarly to other democracies — has experienced increasingly contentious and divided politics.
The difficulty in forming lasting coalitions — combined with Bibi's populism and his more than 15 years as an in-your-face PM — play a huge part in the growing political rift. The centrist opposition block, along with much of the liberal media, doesn't put much trust in the ethics and values of the current coalition partners, whom they view as inherently corrupt and undemocratic. Similar sentiments exist within the ruling coalition; for them the opposition is driven by pure political calculations and by extreme resentment towards Bibi and his partners. The coalition views the last elections as a mandate to implement their plans. They see the supreme court as an impediment to the will of the voters — just as the opposition views the court as the last line of defense, offering reasoning and moderation against the right-wing extremism threatening basic freedoms and human rights.
Yet, the crucial discussion on the judicial reform should be on its merit. While the opposition is correct to call for a consensus-based process of reform, it is not entirely focused on the "right path for consensus," as their campaign against the reform is also accompanied by the typical political rancor and cynicism. The battle cry of "the end of Israeli democracy as we know it" has been effective to harness sympathy — and to bring along American Jewry, world leaders and media outlets to advocate against the impending disaster — just as the coalition has been pushing through a hasty legislative initiative to get the reforms enacted into law while ignoring important voices such as President Hertzog.
What Israel badly needs is a restoration of trust in its ability to work through difficult issues and external and internal threats without forgoing our common commitment to why we exist in the first place.
The essential founding value is that we are here because there is really no other alternatives — this is the only place where we can live as Jews in our own country and provide a future refuge to any Jews who is in need of one. We need to go back to a place where we trust that any elected government will protect this essential value as much as the opposition. The fact that Modern Zionism viewed a "sovereign democratic Jewish nation" as the best path for realizing this essential value is just as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.
I know I may be branded a wreckless optimist, but I maintain that — like other obstacles we have encountered in the past — this too we will overcome. The current political discourse is actually a testament to the resilience and energy of Israeli democracy.
The rumors about the impending Hungarization of Israel are just that — rumors. To my American Jewish friends, I suggest that you take a deep breath. Israeli politics is not for the faint of heart, and the New York Times is rarely effective in contextualizing its complex ecosystem and many moving parts.
If you love Israel, then love it enough to trust our democratic traditions and our resiliency to work through the most serious challenges.