Identity Politics Underpin the Controversial Judicial "Reforms" that are Gutting Israel
Israel’s ongoing political crisis has everything to do with misdirected anger from long-festering culture and identity wars and less to do with any well-formulated ideas about justice and democracy
Part I. Getting Even
i) The Million Man March in Jerusalem
It was billed as the “Million Man March”.
Organizers had worked for weeks to attract one million Israelis to demonstrate in Jerusalem in support of the coalition government’s judicial reform legislation.
In the end somewhere between 100,000-200,000 supporters of the reform made their way to Jerusalem last Thursday evening to show that they, too, have game and can fill the streets.
The crowd was overwhelmingly Religious Zionist*. Secular Likudniks were scarce, likely because recent polls confirm that 70% of Likud voters are opposed to the legislative changes and the manner in which they’ve been undertaken. Few, if any, ultra-orthodox haredim attended, in keeping with the directives issued by their political leaders and rabbis. Their avoidance has everything to do with opportunism and fear and nothing to do with principle. The haredim are walking a tightrope these days, afraid of the government collapsing, which would be calamitous for them. All they care about is having the state budget pass in May, which will ensure that they receive huge increases in funding for their schools and kollels.
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Sharing his glee regarding the turnout, Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted his gratitude to the “hundreds of thousands” (actually official estimates pegged the peak crowd at 150-200,000) who came to back his coalition government.
What he chose to overlook was that his supporters had prepared giant posters bearing photographs of Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak and current AG Gali Baharav-Miara featured prominently. They were used as floor mats for protesters to walk on; the sort of stuff we are more accustomed to seeing in Tehran than Jerusalem. Mostly young, Religious Zionist supporters trampling the likenesses of such senior and distinguished public servants, present and past, was a stomach-churning sight.
Every large group of protesters will have its outliers, always. But no one – most notably, not even PM Netanyahu, castigated this conduct. And such tendencies – of which there are many examples – seem under-reported, generally.
ii) Deep Hatred of Ashkenaz Jews
Former Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, lives comfortably on a quiet street in central Tel Aviv. A neighbor of his, who happens to be a friend of mine, told me about a recent demonstration on a Friday afternoon in front of his apartment, where protesters shouted at the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor that it was unfortunate that he, too, was not killed in the Shoah.
This underbelly is not uncommon among supporters of this coalition. It reflects a deep and longstanding current in Israeli society, primarily among a sizeable number of Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews and their visceral – and misplaced – resentment of the Ashkenazim; the “white Jews” of Europe who they feel have long dominated “elite” Israeli institutions. They feel disrespected and degraded and are fueled by an intense anger to exert their power and control over what they caricature as an elitist, leftist Tel Aviv cabal.
That the “leaders” of this government’s social revolution (a more accurate description than judicial reform) are all white, Ashkenaz men is an irony the aggrieved ethnicities seem to overlook. Their hero, Benjamin Netanyahu, who spent much of his youth and young adulthood living in Philadelphia and studying at the elite American university – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – has revealed himself to be a champion of self-interest, not cultural grievances.
Accordingly, Bibi has seized on this sense of injustice and leveraged it at the polls. Deploying and playing to identity politics is a desperate populist tactic that never ends well. I mean – it may keep this coalition government in power a little longer – but in the meantime it will tear the country apart.
iii) The Deri Factor
Among Netanyahu’s key supporters in the coalition is Aryeh Deri, who has made a career of brilliantly exploiting culture wars. Moroccan-born, Deri is a Sephardic rabbi who chose to study at a Lithuanian yeshiva; another extreme irony. Lithuanian haredi culture is ascetic, closed, hard-edged and snobby. Before the Holocaust, so many great Torah scholars were schooled in Vilnius that it was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. In the days when there was a robust culture of orthodox Jewish learning in Eastern Europe, that recognition was significant and the Litvackers, as they are known in Israel, continue to see their sect as being “best in class”. That Deri chose to insert himself, a Moroccan, into this environment, is bizarre.
But, it was clever and likely calculated to prove that he’s “just as good as”, in order to pre-empt any derisive comments about his religious knowledge or commitment. Deri is the kind of guy who probably planned his political career when he was ten years old. He would have been well aware that in the early years of statehood, the Ashkenaz Rabbinate was less than accepting of Mizrachi or Sephardic peers. Aryeh Deri has always been exceedingly ambitious. He was a man with a plan. And he understood what he was up against.
Deri is also a recidivist criminal leader of the Shas party – which was founded to give voice to the disenfranchised Mizrachim and Sephardim. He has masterfully stoked this ethnic and racial tension for many years. When he emerged in the late 80s, he was seen as a modern, politically savvy, ultra-orthodox leader with the potential to engage and cross “boundaries” in connecting the religious with more traditional and secular populations; a modern, charismatic, cross-cultural Sephardic politician.
In the decades since his debut he has distinguished himself, instead, as one of the more ethically challenged leaders in Israeli history. And yet, he commands 11 of 120 Knesset seats and his power is indisputable.
Many Shas followers are not ultra-orthodox but they support Deri because they are determined to take their place in society – as first class citizens. This identity-based agitation has become normalized in Israel, particularly among what’s left of the once mighty Likud party.
And whereas there is much legitimate criticism of anti-Mizrachi discrimination - that was widespread in the early decades of the state - the issue is being manipulated and wildly exaggerated today. PM Benjamin Netanyahu will say and encourage anything, it seems, to stay in power.
Part II – The Story of Tamir Pardo, Head of Mossad, 2011-2016
i) Taking a Stand
Last March, Tamir Pardo sat down with the Israeli television journalist, Ilana Dayan, the host of “Uvda”, Israel’s equivalent of “60 Minutes”. It was an extraordinary exchange for many reasons; foremost being that a former Mossad chief submitting to a television interview with unsparing candor is not an everyday occurrence.
It was also an impactful conversation, one that I find myself thinking of often, as it distills so much so powerfully.
Pardo is among the hundreds of senior leaders in Israel who oppose this judicial reform and have stepped up and out publicly. Whereas Netanyahu and his coalition partners have, variously, denigrated their opponents as leftists, anarchists, Tel Aviv Ashkenaz elitists etc., they are anything but. The opponents of the proposed reforms are from all walks of life, areas of expertise, represent every ethnicity in Israel and many have never before been involved politically. That, in and of itself, should speak volumes.
The reform opponents include every living former IDF Chief of Staff, Israeli Air Force Commander, Governor of the Bank of Israel (the current one included), head of Mossad as well as professional associations, and many IDF reservists in the Air Force and elite combat units. Jakob Frenkel, a former Governor of the Bank of Israel (appointed by Bibi, no less) who is now Chairman of JP MorganChase International, has also endorsed the “leftist anarchists”. He even showed up one Saturday night at the Kaplan demonstration in Tel Aviv in March to address the protesters from the main stage and then mingle among them. This is not a lightweight crowd. And they all concur with the bleak assessment stated by Tamir Pardo: that Israel is on the verge of disaster.
I am unaware of a single Israeli of this stature who has spoken in support of the legislation. If there was one they would have owned the stage at the Million Man March last week. Instead, the big names speaking to the crowd were the architects of this mess: MKs Yariv Levin, Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir and Simcha Rothman.
Pardo has known Benjamin Netanyahu well – for more than 45 years – and served beside his late brother Yoni in Entebbe. He is emphatic and unequivocal in saying that this is not the same Benjamin Netanyahu he knew in the past. Something dramatic changed in 2015, when Bibi triumphed in an election that he seemed certain to lose. At that moment, Pardo says, Netanyahu began to see himself differently. He seems to have understood his election victory to confirm some sort of larger-than-life personal destiny, bigger than all of us.
What Pardo hints at is something that one hears often these days from people who worked closely with Netanyahu in the recent past. They say he has developed a variation on a messiah complex, truly believing that only he is fit and suited to lead Israel.
And if we step back and consider the roster of eminent Israelis – from all sectors and ethnic groups – vehemently opposed to these “reforms”, well, one has to ask.
Does Bibi not pause? Does he not hear?
“No,” says Pardo. He stopped listening long ago.
A horrific turning point for Pardo, and many Israelis, was what transpired in Huwara on February 26 and in the days following.
A Palestinian town in the northern West Bank, Huwara has become a flashpoint and also exposed the true face of the Religious Zionist camp. On February 26, two brothers – Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, 21 and 19, respectively, were shot, point blank by a Palestinian man. They were stuck in traffic in their car while driving through the town. Sitting ducks for a random terror attack.
Hours later, gangs of religious zionists torched cars and homes in a revenge attack. And in the middle of the carnage, they stopped to pray. They stopped to pray while the town burned and Palestinian civilians cowered in fear. Speaking at a conference the following Wednesday, Religious Zionist leader and Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, stated that “…the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out [and that] the State of Israel should do it.” In a frantic effort at amateur damage control, Smotrich stated soon after on Israeli TV that his comment “was a slip of the tongue in a storm of emotions.”
Pardo dismisses this as a meaningless gesture. “It’s what he thinks.”
Smotrich and his equally radical colleague in the government coalition, Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir, are the most dangerous political figures in Israel today, in Pardo’s view, because what they really want is a halachic state governed according to Jewish law. Not democracy.
Ben Gvir is the Minister of National Security, responsible for all policing matters as well as having recently been granted control over a new and yet to be formed National Guard. He has demonstrated repeatedly that he is a hothead who is quick to draw his pistol and wave it around, threateningly. When he was of draft age the IDF refused to accept him due to his extremist views.
These are Netanyahu’s closest allies in the coalition government. And what is clear now is that, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s constant assurances that he is “in control and driving the bus”, he is not.
This coalition is a cluster of destructive interests held together by retributive agendas. Smotrich says the “leftist elitists” opposing judicial reform are to blame for any economic fallout. This is how the Minister of Finance conducts himself. He rages and blames others based on their ethnicity and a fabricated and baseless group political identity.
iii) The Ultra-Orthodox/Haredim
And then there’s the Shas leader, Aryeh Deri. He wants to overhaul the judiciary so that he may sit as a senior minister in the government; he would destroy the justice system to satisfy his personal avarice. That a man twice convicted of corruption-related crimes should be in any position of influence, never mind a top cabinet post, and supported by PM Netanyahu, is incomprehensible.
The haredim collectively – Shas and United Torah Judaism (Ashkenaz haredi party) - could not care less about the independence of the judiciary or liberal democracy. Their Holy Grail is to see that it is written into law that haredi men will be exempted from army service for eternity. They are also demanding – and the coalition agreement confirms that they shall receive – generous financial support for all their educational institutions, which promote religious study only. They see this as a propitious moment to grab. Their gluttony has compounded the anger towards them by those Israelis who serve and work; most of whom oppose the judicial reforms. As we have covered in a previous podcast “those” Israelis – the leftist anarchists – are demanding a new “contract” with the state. From the outset of this volatile period they have been saying that it is time for the haredim to work and serve. Their resolve has only strengthened in the ensuing months.
And Likud? They stand for nothing but power. They will do anything to hold onto it, including overseeing the gutting of the tech economy and the army. They seem to not understand that they are playing the highest-stakes poker. This will not blow over.
Netanyahu and his Likud colleagues must be stung by their plunge in the polls, which also reflect the wipeout of the Labor party (successor of the founding party of Israel) and surge of Benny Gantz’s National Unity party. That, more than any principle, will snap Bibi and Likud into formation. Whether it has the same effect on the RZ crowd is less certain.
v) The “Sarvanim”/Resisters
Among the many controversies racking the nation in recent months was the “refusal” of 37 Israeli Air Force pilots to serve one of approximately 60 days of reserve duty (as they do each year). It was a symbolic and powerful statement. And the coalition government went ballistic.
For Tamir Pardo, these combat pilots honored the flag to which they had sworn allegiance. In light of Israel’s drift towards illiberal democracy, at best, or dictatorship, at worst, Pardo feels that the pilots had no choice. Should they just carry on blindly, he asks, and continue to execute orders, no matter why or by whom they are issued?
Israeli warriors have served many governments in the last 75 years with which they may not have agreed, Pardo points out, but they honored their duty. They will not continue to do so, robotically, if the nation’s leadership lacks legitimacy, in their eyes. And without a strong IDF, he cautions, there is no Israel.
Pardo unequivocally admires the integrity of the sarvanim. “They raised the flag,” he says, and told the leaders: “Pay attention to where you are going. Stop. Please. You are leading us straight to Hell.”
vi) Identity Politics and Culture Wars
The combined effect of this chaotic, backwards leadership will also destroy the economic miracle that Israel has become, Pardo warns, and turn it into a poor, backwards country. It can happen very quickly. Many economists and business leaders warn that the decline has already begun. And those who will be most impacted are not the wealthy but the poor and marginal populations who support this government.
Yet Netanyahu, Religious Zionist MK Simcha Rothman and Likud Minister of Justice Yariv Levin – the leaders of this judicial overhaul (who are all as Ashkenaz as can be) continue to whip their voters to fight the “elites.”
Ilana Dayan asks Pardo: Are you not a member of the elite? Were you not born into privilege?
“What elite? What privilege did I have?” He questions, disbelievingly. His mother, he said, hid alone from age 12-16, eventually making her way to Israel; the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. She came with nothing.
He himself served in the army for 7 years and then 35 in the Mossad.
Turning the tables, Pardo asks: “Simcha Rotman - where is he from? Tangier? Marrakesh? And Bibi. Is he from Yemen?” They are as Ashkenaz as can be, yet affect this ethnic rage of the oppressed.
In other words, he suggests, they are manipulative frauds, attacking swaths of society with identity smears which they know to be baseless and utterly untruthful. And their so-called revolution may well destroy Israel.
Netanyahu is politically beholden to extremists who place little stock in liberal democracy and seem to have a questionable understanding as to what constitutes a democracy at all. The prevailing view in the coalition government is that the majority represented in the Knesset should have absolute power, with no review by the Supreme Court or any other government branch.
That may be many things, but it is not democracy.
vii) What Did Sunday Bring?
Upon opening the cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, PM Netanyahu made brief comments to the media, as is his custom. Following the one-month holiday “pause”, during which time the various parties have been engaged in negotiations under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu made clear that he expects and hopes for a compromise solution to be reached soon.
As well, several key demands by the haredim have been deferred. All of which sounds hopeful, but it just postpones the inevitable. Even if the pace of “reform” is slowed, the demographics in Israel show a clear trend. It is the RZ and haredi communities that are growing rapidly, outpacing the non-religious, traditional and more moderate modern orthodox populations. Without a dramatic shift in priorities of the haredi and RZ sectors – which is not at all likely - it is a matter of time until their preferred form of governance and government is adopted.
The only reason that the coalition is easing off the gas pedal somewhat is due to their fear of an economic slowdown, of which there are already early signs. In addition to global pressures like inflation and other issues, Israel has compounded its economic dilemma, which likely scares the bejeezus out of Bibi. Among Likud voters, polls indicate, concern regarding the economy is the top issue. Interest rates, inflation and a depressed tech economy are taking a toll. Rating agencies are watching the impact of political instability on the tech and other sectors which are heavily dependent on foreign investment. Already, billions of dollars of planned investment have been postponed, most notably by tech giant Intel. Money and companies have pulled up stakes and moved offshore. And VC firms as well as investment banks and rating agencies have taken notice.
In mid-April, the influential economic rating agency, Moody’s, stopped short of dropping Israel’s credit rating but did downgrade its economic outlook for Israel, a clear warning that if the domestic situation does not stabilize that an unwelcome “adjustment” is highly likely. It would be disastrous for Israel, as other rating agencies would surely follow Moody’s lead and the gut punch would be felt almost immediately. In such a small country there is not much grace time before the pain.
As stated in the Moody’s report:
The change of outlook to stable from positive reflects a deterioration of Israel’s governance, as illustrated by the recent events around the government’s proposal for overhauling the country’s judiciary. While mass protests have led the government to pause the legislation and seek dialogue with the opposition, the manner in which the government has attempted to implement a wide-ranting reform without seeking broad consensus points to a weakening of institutional strength and policy predictability.
Following the Moody’s announcement, Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich blamed “leftists” and protesters for these problems but Netanyahu knows that is nonsense. Political instability and a politicized judiciary are not appealing environments for western capital to invest in.
Moody’s, however, did Israel a huge favor in further stating that:
The government has reiterated its intention to change how judges are selected. This means that the risk of further political and social tensions within the country remains. On the upside, if a solution is reached without deepening these tensions, the positive economic and fiscal trends that Moody’s had previously identified remain.
My bet? Netanyahu and President Herzog, in their well-publicized “back door” chats with Moody’s in the period leading up to the publication of this report, urged them to issue a statement along these lines. They needed outside pressure to leverage Likud’s coalition partners to take these economic issues more seriously. It is speculation on my part but not at all unlikely that this is exactly what transpired. This is the only way for Netanyahu to please both masters simultaneously: rating agencies and his coalition partners.
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And it is the only reason that Netanyahu is so determined to salvage Israel’s economic and political credibility. Because if he fails to do so, there will be no bottom. But this “fix” is just a band-aid measure, buying time. The fundamental grievances and intentions of the coalition partners remain.
This was evident in the joint statement that was issued by Netanyahu and Smotrich, which stated, in part:
As people who believe in the strength of Israeli society, in its unity and its ability to get through disputes and crises, as we have done many times in the past, we are sure that, with God’s help, that will be the case this time too.
This comment invoking the Almighty did not reassure a group of several hundred top Israeli economists, including Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann and Professor Eugene Kandel (who co-authored an essay published in STLV in March) .” The economists further warned, in writing, that the government’s continued commitment to implement its judicial overhaul proposals was “extremely worrying and disconnected from reality.”
(Another very trenchant concern – which is not an issue for Moody’s - is the possibility that Israel’s judiciary would no longer seen to be independent by international institutions – like the International Criminal Court, UN and others. What has shielded Israeli army officials from being charged with war crimes in the past is the confidence placed in its judiciary and judicial system. Should it be seen to be a tool for political leaders then the ability to protect IDF officers will very likely be compromised.)
What the governing coalition seems to have difficulty understanding is that the principles of democracy require institutional constraints be present to manage the will of the majority when it acts more like a tyranny. Which happens. Which is exactly why mature democracies ensure that such checks and balances are robust.
Haredi leaders and Smotrich and Ben Gvir have a very different agenda. Protecting liberal democracy is not high on their priority list. But Benjamin Netanyahu, the ultimate Ashkenaz elitist, understands what’s at risk. Very well.
Sunday evening also brought a demonstration in support of Former Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, in his leafy neighbourhood close to where I live. Regrettably, the hate-filled underbelly not only returned, but chanted slogans, again, taunting the elderly man about having survived the Holocaust.
Such talk, in Israel, is shattering. Incomprehensible. And this is the handiwork of Benjamin Netanyahu. He just kind of lost control this time. Or, as I’ve commented previously, he out-Bibi-ed Bibi.
When those who know and have worked with him closely for decades are asked – “What’s going on?” They say – “He is not the same man he was five years ago.”
He no longer listens, they say.
Asked, in closing by Ilana Dayan: “Where does this all lead?”
Pardo responded: “I don’t know. But I have a bad feeling.”
*Throughout this report we have capitalized the term “Religious Zionist.” There is a political party with that name led by Bezalel Smotrich. During the election, however, Otzma Yehudit leader, Itamar Ben Gvir also ran under the RZ banner. Then, there is the broader religious Zionist community, which may or may not vote for one or both parties associated with the political movement. It all gets messy and confusing. So, I decided that RZ can refer to any or all of the above. The context makes clear which variation is applicable.
A similar solution was applied to the use of Mizrachi, which, often is used to refer to Jews of middle eastern and north African origin. However, many north African Jews, particularly Moroccans, refer to themselves as Sephardim. Where it is important to denote Sephardim, we have done so specifically. However, for the sake of flow, where that distinction is not critical we use the term Mizrachim to include all north African and middle eastern Jews.
I am confident that there are many well-informed views out there on this nomenclature. Happy to receive comments about this online. I just wanted to clarify how and why we have used certain terms.
Vivian, thanks for this depressing, but meticulously compiled document. It really makes the situation - very dire - clear in granular detail. I am conflicted about posting it, as it is blood in the water for the usual sharks. I am also conflicted about Jews demonstrating at the Israeli consulate here for the same reason. You did a masterful job here. Kol ha kovod. Barb
I'd love to hear from readers about this piece. In Israel we're working hard to make sense of this next level chaos. These are tough topics to reckon with. What strikes you about the situation here.....especially if you disagree!