From ICEJ head office, by Dr. Jürgen Bühler
As Israel is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary in just a few weeks, the Jewish State finds itself in possibly the greatest internal crisis since the establishment of Israel in 1948. The heated national debate over judicial reforms has drawn masses of demonstrators into the streets every week since early January. While the new government hoped early on that the protests would fade out over time, the opposite has taken place. The protests have grown not only in number but also intensity.
Major highways in and between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have been blocked multiple times, causing havoc to many commuters. In a more serious development, hundreds of Israeli reserve soldiers, particularly in such elite units as air force pilots and intelligence officers, have refused in increasing numbers to show up at their bases for their annual “miluim” (reserve duty) that every soldier in Israel is asked to fulfil until age of 40. Hi-tech leaders here in the renowned Start Up Nation have divested hundreds of millions of dollars out of their Israeli accounts to foreign banks. According to some bankers, up to $4 Billion in total was removed from the country so far, partly in protest and partly in fear of Israel’s economic future.
This week, the national unrest reached a dangerous peak as the Histadrut, Israel’s national workers union, called for crippling nationwide strikes to stop the judicial reforms. Most notably, Ben Gurion Airport – Israel’s main international air hub – temporarily stopped all flights abroad. In addition, Israel’s diplomatic corps around the world halted their work. Talk of a ‘civil war’ was heard with frightening frequency. Without a doubt, this has been one of the most critical moments in Israel’ modern history.
So what is at stake that would cause such a large portion of this nation to sacrifice their time and energy to stop what they see as a ‘coup.’ Emotions indeed are high! Some observers of this turmoil, including many pro-Israel Christians, reduce the anti-reform protests to a mere showdown between liberal, secular Tel Aviv and religious Jerusalem, or between leftists and conservatives. Others oversimplify matters by pointing to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the problem. For certain, all these issues are relevant to the debate, but the current crisis goes much deeper.
Interestingly enough, the vast majority of Israelis would generally welcome a set of measured, common sense judicial reforms. President Isaac Herzog, the former chairman of the left-leaning Labour party, supports judicial reforms, as does Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid, the main opposition party who started the protests in January. Even the previous Bennett-Lapid government was working on some very similar judicial reforms and could have enacted them if they had maintained their Knesset majority. So why then the protests?
Aside from the usual party politics and the anti-Bibi sentiments, there are two main reasons why an increasing number of Israelis from all walks of life, both secular and religious, are showing up at protests and calling for reforms based on a broader consensus. Even within Netanyahu’s own Likud party, more and more voices are being heard calling for a compromise.
The issue at stake is how much power should the Supreme Court have and how should the Court’s justices be appointed. And here nearly everyone agrees: Israel’s unelected judges have too much power over laws, even Basic Laws, passed by the democratically elected Knesset. They get too deeply involved in political matters and they are appointed by a majority of fellow judges with only limited say for the Knesset. All this should now change.
Yet the majority of Israelis today also fear that the currently proposed judicial reforms will swing the pendulum of power from one extreme to the other. Power will go from mostly liberal judges into the hands of the most religious, right-wing government Israel has ever had. If the main judicial reforms pass, curbing the power of the courts to review and strike down bad laws, there is a second tier of proposed laws waiting in the queue that raise serious fears of religious coercion. There could be new religious restrictions on who can immigrate to Israel, and forced observance of Sabbath and Kashrut regulations. Women could face imprisonment for exposing their elbows at the Western Wall plaza. The death penalty could return for certain crimes, and Israeli doctors could be encouraged to give preference to Jews before Gentiles. This is without mentioning the dangerous anti-missionary law that could have led to believers in Jesus being imprisoned simply for sharing their faith. Thank God many of these laws were already declared non-starters, but they do reflect the leanings of the current government.
The big question confronting all sides in this crisis is what the future of the Jewish State will look like. It is true that the vast majority of those protesting would identify as Zionists. This is particularly true for the elite soldiers who refuse service. These courageous men and women are willing to sacrifice their lives for the survival of the State of Israel. Also, the majority of the protesters want Israel to be a Jewish State as Theodor Herzl envisioned. A home for Jews from around the world to seek refuge. A place where being Jewish is not a badge of shame but one of honor. A nation that celebrates Jewish holidays and where on Yom Kippur over 80% of Israelis are voluntarily fasting and even more stop driving their cars.
The question, however, is how forceful would be the ‘Jewishness’ imposed by the State upon its citizens? Or how much freedom would each citizen have to express his own Jewishness in daily life?
Over the past decades, Israel mastered this balancing act with incredible finesse. On the one side, it allowed maximum freedom of expression by all its citizens, yet at the same time it protected the right of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to have gender-segregated classes, for example. Some areas in Israel are off limits on Shabbat to any type of traffic, while in other parts of the country you find busy shopping malls packed with cars and people on Saturdays. The majority of Israelis today, even among the religious, would like to retain these individual freedoms in Israel. And here, the Supreme Court justices were often the moderating voice that guaranteed this sociological diversity between the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-secular.
There is one more facet of this debate that concerns many Israelis, and it might even be the core issue, and that is demographics. The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel has grown from a few hundred adherents at the time of Israel’s founding under David Ben Gurion to around 14% of Israel’s population some 75 years later. And the future trend looks no different. Today, 25% of all Israeli first-graders are attending haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools. A popular chant at the anti-reform protests is “de-mo-kat-ya” (democracy), but it should rather be “de-mo-graph-ya”, insists one astute rabbi. Because the fear is that if the haredi community keeps growing faster than everyone else and the judicial reforms are passed as is, then Israel’s face will change from a liberal Jewish democracy to becoming a religious theocracy.
It is a fact that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community carries only 2% of the national tax burden, even while it consumes 40% of the social welfare benefits. This is while ultra-Orthodox children are exempted from serving in the army. Therefore, many Israelis resent the haredi flaunting of the old social compact which demands that every Israeli pay their fair share of taxes and send their sons and daughters to the army. It also upsets them to hear haredi politicians accuse IAF pilots of being “unpatriotic” for not showing up for reserve duty. To be clear, most Israelis respect the ultra-Orthodox community as the guardians of Jewish religious traditions, but they are afraid that the judicial reforms would empower the ultra-religious right to rob them of the freedoms and liberties for which many Israelis fought and died for in countless wars.
With the above in mind, a Christian leader recently asked me: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all Israel were forced to live according to God’s commandments?” I do not believe so! Our own Christian history shows that devout and well-meaning religious leaders do not always make for good politicians. For a short time, the revival in Geneva once led by John Calvin birthed a short but glorious period when Geneva was called “the city of God.” Yet it ended up in a draconian rule by religious leaders where children were encouraged to spy on and betray their parents should they sin. Similar stories are reported from Florence, Italy under the reformer Savagnola. And when Martin Luther’s reformation brought forth the first Protestant state in Germany, it led to the killing of tens of thousands of Baptists as ‘heretics’ by Luther’s Reformed church.
While I am convinced that these medieval examples will not be repeated by the Jewish state, it does teach us that overly religious leaders often overrule the conscience of a nation. The hope that the Jewish and Christian scriptures give us is that ultimate freedom, righteousness and justice will only be accomplished by the one who will sit on the Throne of David and govern His people with equity and justice.
Israel’s prophets gave the world what we today consider the proper division of governmental powers. In Isaiah 33:22, the prophet says: “For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver,
the Lord is our King; He will save us.” The early Reformers said only a perfect God can properly exercise these three powers of making laws (legislature), judging (judiciary) and serving as King (executive). We humans are too sinful and corrupt for one man to hold all these powers. And this is what is at stake in Israel today.
Therefore, Israel today finds itself at a critical and complex juncture as its 75 birthday approaches. It needs our prayers more than ever before, as this time will truly shape the future of Israel.
So, how shall we pray for Israel in these challenging days?
- Pray for the political and religious leaders of Israel to have wisdom and grace to restore the unity of the nation. This is essential as Jesus himself said a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:24). Jewish tradition says that it was “sinat achim” – the hatred between brothers – which led to the Roman exile. Please pray according to Psalm 133:1, which says: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
- I am intrigued that Abraham was 75 years old when he, as the father of faith, entered the Land of Promise (Genesis 12). Let us pray that on Israel’s 75th birthday, they will enter into their spiritual inheritance as a nation. Pray that out of this chaos, Israel will emerge as a light to the nations. Let us pray that this difficult time will cause a time of Israel seeking God and God answering by pouring out the Spirit of grace and supplication upon Israel (Zechariah 12:10ff).
- Pray for Prime Minister Netanyahu, that God will give him wisdom to rule this nation in righteousness and justice. “Give the king Your judgments, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s Son. He will judge Your people with righteousness, and Your poor with justice.” (Psalm 72:1-2). “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.” (Proverbs 21:1)
- Pray for Israel’s security, as some of her adversaries already sense the vulnerability of the Jewish state amid this internal turmoil. “Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:4)
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