An open letter to Israel’s friends in North America
Diaspora Jews have both the right and the responsibility to speak out against a government that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos
To Israel’s friends in North America,
We are taking the unusual step of directly addressing you at a moment of acute crisis in Israel. We write with a sense of anguish and anxiety for the future of our country. All of us moved to Israel from North America and raised our children here. Between us are many decades of work as reporters, literary chroniclers and translators of Israeli reality for audiences abroad. We have explained and defended Israel against the campaign of distortions that seeks to turn the Jewish state into a pariah and will proudly continue to do so.
Today, though, protecting Israel also means defending it from a political leadership that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos, the foundations of the Israeli success story. The changes afoot will have dire consequences for the solidarity of Israel’s society and for its economic miracle, as our leading economists are warning. It will also threaten Israeli-American relations, and it will do grave damage to our relations with you, our sisters and brothers in the Diaspora.
This crisis is unique, and uniquely heartbreaking, because it comes from within. None of us is an alarmist. But this is a moment for alarm, and one in which the voices of Israel’s friends must be heard.
Israel’s government is moving to eviscerate the independence of our judiciary and remake the country’s democratic identity. That initiative needs to be understood through three lenses: the substance of the proposed changes, the process by which they are being promoted and the identities of those pushing for the change.
In substance, the changes would remove the only effective brake on government power and profoundly weaken the only body capable of protecting citizens from the tyranny of a majority – protection that has never seemed more vital.
Israel’s government is moving to eviscerate the independence of our judiciary
In a misleading campaign in the American media, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to present his plan merely as an adjustment that would align Israel more closely with other democracies. No serious legal figure in Israel believes this is true.
Even if elements of the proposed changes may seem similar to practices in other democratic countries, as the government maintains, all of those democracies have powerful institutional checks and balances, absent in Israel, that limit unbridled executive or legislative power and protect individual rights. Israel has no formal constitution and no second legislature. It has no federal system or regional elections. The prime minister’s plan effectively concentrates nearly all power in the hands of one person – the prime minister himself.
This is no “judicial reform,” but a dramatic alteration that would bring Israel’s governing system closer not to the US and Canada but to Hungary and Turkey.
As for process, this radical transformation of Israel’s governing system is being pursued at breakneck speed without any national discussion, without having presented it to the electorate in any meaningful way before the recent elections, and without regard for criticism now coming from across the political and social spectrum.
This is no “judicial reform,” but a dramatic alteration that would bring Israel’s governing system closer not to the US and Canada but to Hungary and Turkey
We agree that a constructive national discussion on legal reform is not only necessary but overdue. But that is impossible when the government refuses to slow its pace and engage in discussion aimed at genuine, rather than cosmetic, compromise.
Hatred and schism
As for who is behind this initiative: A prime minister currently on trial for corruption, and who has appointed ministers with criminal records, is claiming legitimacy to overturn the legal system. Understandably, many of Israel’s supporters want to believe that Netanyahu is still a cautious conservative loyal to the country’s liberal DNA. In fact, though, he has become a very different kind of leader, one who subverts the national interest to his own. A wise leader encourages unity among his people; Netanyahu is stoking hatred and schism.
Netanyahu has become a very different kind of leader, one who subverts the national interest to his own. A wise leader encourages unity among his people; Netanyahu is stoking hatred and schism
The North American Jewish community has steadfastly come to the aid of Israel at moments of crisis. Israel belongs first of all to its citizens, and they have the final word. But Israel also matters to the entire Jewish people. When an Israeli government strays beyond what your commitments to liberal democracy can abide, you have both the right and the responsibility to speak up.
Israeli leaders need to hear where you stand. North American Jews and their leaders must make clear to this government that if it continues on the path to transforming Israel into a country of which Diaspora Jews can no longer be proud, there will be no business as usual.
We and our families, along with many tens of thousands of other Israelis, are in the streets every week demanding the government end its war against our democratic values and institutions. We need your voice to help us preserve Israel as a state both Jewish and democratic.
With blessings from Jerusalem,
Yossi Klein Halevi
The signatories appear in a personal capacity and not in the name of the institutions with which they are affiliated.
Matti Friedman is a journalist, widely published op-ed contributor, and author, most recently, of “Who by Fire, Leonard Cohen in The Sinai.”
Daniel Gordis is a commentator and author. His upcoming book is, “Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams?”
Journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His latest book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” was a New York Times bestseller.
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