Is this the last gasp of Israel’s secular Left?
The ultra-Orthodox community is now in the ascendancy
For the past few months, the world has watched as Israel has faced mounting domestic turmoil. On the face of it, the mass protest movement that has formed in response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is aimed at preventing an overhaul of the court system that seeks to reform the traditionally powerful Israeli judiciary. But there is a much deeper trend at play: the electoral rise of the country’s ultra-Orthodox population.
The question of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or “Haredim” in Hebrew, has long been the third rail of Israeli politics. The ultra-Orthodox community has traditionally served as a stop-gap in Israeli governing coalitions, presenting as a willing quid-pro-quo partner that could fill out a coalition with the requisite seats needed to form a government. The exchange was simple: the coalition takes care of a few key demands by ultra-Orthodox parties, like the funding of state-sponsored yeshivas or centres of religious study, and the ultra-Orthodox parties offer a willing vote on most issues.
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This was even the case with Netanyahu’s government, whose Knesset Speaker, Amir Ohana, is openly gay (ultra-Orthodox members of the administration walked out during his swearing-in). But with 18 of the current government’s 64 seats coming from ultra-Orthodox parties — and another 13 coming from religious Right-wing parties — we are witnessing a major shift. For the first time, Israel’s secular Left has seen its deepest demographic fears spring to life.
With ultra-Orthodox birthrates at nearly seven births per woman — nearly triple that of secular Israelis — electoral supremacy by Israel’s religious faction is a virtual foregone conclusion. While the secular Left has known this for some time, never before has it been a political reality. Now it is.
This marks a significant sea change. For most of the past 70 years, Israel’s Labor Party ruled the country politically, economically and culturally. Its most cherished institutions, including the IDF, were dominated by Labor. This dominance began to fracture in the years after the First Intifada, and finally shattered with Labor dropping from a major party to a political afterthought. It now has a pitiful four seats in the Knesset. The greatest strength of the secular Left, its unity, was lost.
For most secular Israelis, the court represents the last bulwark against what they see as a complete re-writing of the state’s national code by religious voters. Since the days of Aharon Barak, Israel’s famously activist former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Israel’s judiciary has not been shy about striking down laws passed by the Knesset.
The judicial reforms will shift the balance of power markedly in favour of the legislature. But what this really means is that the shift could put the country’s politics — as well as the cultural and economic conditions that result from it — in the hands of religious and nationalist parties.
This is enough of an incentive to keep hundreds of thousands of mostly secular Israelis on the streets for nearly a year. And, with the resignation of Netanyahu’s (secular) defence minister, it might even topple the government. That may result in the judicial reforms being postponed or even completely derailed, but it will do nothing to stem the rising tide of religious voters.
But secular Israelis, who still comprise about 45% of the total population, will not helplessly stand by as this long-term trend unfolds. Just as ultra-Orthodox parties were for decades willing to put aside differences, and even principles, in favour of creating a united voting bloc, it’s possible we will see a political realignment that shifts the traditional political axis that, since the Oslo Accords, has been mostly divided along the Palestinian issue.
Instead, Israel is likely to see the rise of a new axis focused on religious-secular issues that will unite moderate and hard left, centrist and even right-of-centre secular Israelis under the banner of a new resistance to religionisation of the state. Precisely by making this leap to the centre, the Israeli Left may reemerge as a political force. It’s a watershed moment, with secular Israelis seeing the protest movement as proof that, when politically unified, their demographic strength may remain intact.
The author is surely right in his analysis, but there is one weakness in all this; a democracy with a Supreme Court which will cheerfully overrule elected governments is not going to remain a democracy for too long.
This was kinda my thought. IDK a lot about Israeli politics, but from what I understand it has one of the most powerful, unaccountable judiciary’s of any democratic nation. Rolling back that power and giving some of it to the legislature seems like a step forward.
The particular issue in Israel is there is v little ‘check and balance’ to untrammelled Exec power if this measure got passed. It doesn’t have a Constitution or Bill of Rights as such. It doesn’t have a 2nd parliamentary chamber. It’s also prone to more extreme minority parties holding the balance of power.
Thus the argument goes that a strong Supreme Ct is essential as a check and balance – and most successful democratic nations retain specific checks and balances. (Founding Fathers in US obviously spent ages getting this clear and for a reason)
Netanyahu obviously has some personal reasons too for wanting to muzzle the Judiciary.
The other worry is the extremists then can extract things like the disfranchisement of the Arab population with no check against this, or similar closure of some media outlets. None of that would represent the continuation of a democratic pluralist society.
In some regards the UK has a history of more moderate, less divisive politics and broader pluralism that, so the argument goes, has meant we haven’t needed a written constitution. But Israel is currently a deeply divided country and thus the worry is it doesn’t have that cultural brake on extremism. Hence why many have taken to the streets. They see the danger.
Isnt Israel infamous for its unstable coalition governments due to its electoral voting system? How many general elections have there been in the last few years? It is a little rich to raise the bogeyman of a dictatorial parliament given such realities.
Quite the reverse I think. If elected Govts remain unstable and prone to being pulled in extremists directions, all the more important other parts of the democratic structure remain resilient and in place. I mentioned it elsewhere but always thought provoking to see why the Founding Fathers in the US insisted on v clear separation of powers in the Constitution. Doesn’t mean all states have to or should mirror the US system, but the separation of powers element correlates strongly with stable democracies.
Like the US, the UK and the EU, Israel will be defeated by its aggressively ‘liberal’ elite. Then all will be ruined.
Er, the trend is very obviously the other way. What planet are you one?
The large non-Jewish minority (nearly 25% of the total, Arabs and Christians etc) seems to be missing from this analysis. Lumping them in with the “secular” Jewish population doesn’t work.
Statistical Report on Arab Society in Israel :2021 – The Israel Democracy Institute (idi.org.il)
Also, consider the future of the West Bank – can this be fully absorbed into Israel without giving votes to the Palestinians?
This therefore seems an appropriate place to repeat the truism that in the longer term, Israel can be a Jewish state, or it can be a functioning democracy. It can’t be both.
Judges who appoint themselves are a rarity in the world. The 9-member council that appoints justices must have 7 out of 9 majority to nominate a new member to the High Court of Justice. 3 of those 9 seats are reserved for sitting justices. You do the math …
Netanyahu has already passed a law aimed at entrenching his position, in a manner similar to Putin. His so-called reform of the judiciary was a blatant attack on the principle of the separation of powers. Any government is capable of enacting illegal and unconstitutional laws. Any democracy must retain courts that can strike down such laws. Contrary to some of the sillier comments on here, that judicial ability is not a “problem” – it’s an essential feature of a functioning democracy. Read AV Dicey’s book The Law of the Constitution. Otherwise, the govt can pass a law tomorrow appropriating the houses of any fat person with red hair, and there’d be zero you or any fat red-head could do about it.
“blatant attack on the principle of the separation of powers”. Traditionally, concern about separation of powers would go more to worry that the executive would get too big for its boots and seek to dominate the judiciary. This is the first time I have heard of a judicial power exceeding its remit by hand-picking its successors, but yes, it’s a worry.
The real solution for Israel’s political future is to shrink the scope of the state. The secular left was very happy to use the organs of state to impose its world view while it had an electoral majority. Now they see that the weapon of politics can be used to impose on them.
Ironically, there is a good Torah argument that a Jewish state is a minimal state (see Deuteronomy 17:14-20 where the king is the power of the state). The secularists should push for a minimal state now, while they still have strength.
Not a detailed student of Israeli politics but like many I suspect felt some unease at what has appeared to be a religious fundamentalist drift in that one established democracy in the region. Not a recipe for peace and moderation in the region one thinks and likely to further energise and fuel corresponding fundamentalism in their opponents. Any conflagration likely to spread and few parts of the world would be unaffected onlookers.
So if Author is correct and the threat stimulates a reduction in the ‘narcissism of small differences’ in the more secular element of society that feels like in the interest of many of us who don’t reside in the area too. It may also show that when the secular core of many western societies does really stir it’s potentially much more united on some key basics than we suspect.
This is such a typical Israeli Government that it is even headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been the default Prime Minister throughout the memory of more than half the population of a country that has a median age of 31. Hence the muted Palestinian response to the rage against it and him. “Well, yes, that is all true. But what’s new?” It was true but not new when people were expelled from the Labour Party, and Jeremy Corbyn was being called an anti-Semite, for saying everything that has become a commonplace in places like The Guardian. Corbyn should have sued then. He should sue now.
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