There’s a purportedly reasonable explanation for everything.
The detention and questioning of Peter Beinart, when he flew into Israel earlier this week to attend his niece’s bat mitzva, was a mistake — a case of overzealous Shin Bet officers getting carried away. Just like the recent questioning at airports and border crossings of several other Israel-critics, whose challenges to government policy fall well within the parameters of legitimate free speech.
The predawn arrival of cops at the Haifa home of Conservative Rabbi Dov Haiyun, to take him to the police station for questioning one day last month, was another regrettable but atypical incident — in which police foolishly heeded instructions from some jumped-up nobody in the local rabbinate who had issues with Haiyun’s officiating at weddings.
The controversy over the candidacy of Yair Golan as the next chief of staff, who faces opposition because he has had the temerity to warn of dangerous trends in Israeli society and to assert that soldiers should be prepared to take risks in order to protect Palestinian civilians, is a minor fracas that is unlikely to affect the appointments process. He probably wasn’t going to get the job anyway.
The battle over who will helm Israel’s police is nothing to be too concerned about. Even though Roni Alsheich had made it known he wanted to stay on, and even though it doesn’t look terribly good for Benjamin Netanyahu to be replacing the law enforcement chief whose officers are investigating him in a welter of corruption allegations, the prime minister has every right and plenty of precedent not to extend Alsheich’s term for a fourth year.
The abrupt abrogation last year of the solemnly negotiated Israel-Diaspora agreement on pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall was an unfortunate consequence of Israeli realpolitik. The prime minister genuinely wanted to implement the deal, but believed he would no longer be prime minister if he did so, since his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners would bring him down.
The same goes for attempts to loosen the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate’s iron grip on life-cycle events — its monopoly on the formalities of how one gets born, converted to Judaism, married, divorced and dead in this country. And for efforts to resist ultra-Orthodox pressure for more stringent implementation of laws on Sabbath observance. And for the endlessly thwarted bid to conscript or enforce national service for young ultra-Orthodox Israelis: Unfortunately, all resistance is stymied by the coalition leverage of ultra-Orthodox MKs, an entirely legitimate function of our political system.
As for the prime minister’s zigzag on extending surrogacy rights to single-sex couples, here, too, he simply didn’t have the votes he needed.
The arithmetic was different for the nation-state law. If a phrase noting Israel’s commitment to full equality for all its citizens had not been excised from the text, support in the Knesset for the legislation, with its overdue definition of Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people,” would have been overwhelming. But the argument was made that provisions for equality are already enshrined in existing legislation, albeit without the actual word “equality,” and notwithstanding the fact that this is the law that defines the very nature of Israel.
The justice minister warned of an “earthquake” were the Supreme Court to dare to intervene and strike down the nation-state law. Plainly, such talk was out of line, but the justices, formidable and independent, are unlikely to be deterred — even though the composition of the Supreme Court is gradually changing as the self-same justice minister seeks appointees she thinks are not unsympathetic to her worldview.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Taken one at a time, ostensibly acceptable rationalizations can be found for all the crises and controversies I’ve listed. Taken together, the picture is bleak.
As those crises and controversies accumulate, the explanations stretch and strain but cannot cover the concern that what we’re witnessing is our democracy under assault from within.
There are attempts to intimidate the judiciary. The media is both demonized and compromised. Financial corruption goes untreated and seeps into politics
Israeli democracy isn’t broken. The attorney general will investigate the rash of border detentions. Haifa police likely won’t go round collaring too many non-Orthodox rabbis in the near future.
Crowds of Israelis will continue to demonstrate against the nation-state law, against alleged corruption in high places, against economic inequality, against the failure to legislate surrogacy rights for single-sex parent families, against religious coercion. Their concerns may even be heeded; they are guaranteed the opportunity to change their leadership if not.
But Israeli democracy is being battered. There are attempts to intimidate the judiciary. The media is both demonized and compromised. Financial corruption goes untreated and seeps into politics.
As a result of the abiding ultra-Orthodox monopoly, of the scrapping of the Western Wall deal, and of the government’s evident indifference or worse to the concerns of non-Orthodox religious Jews, millions at home and abroad feel alienated from the “national home of the Jewish people” that the government went to such lengths to declare.
As a result of that nation-state law, Israeli minorities worry about their status and their rights, and they and their supporters are besmirched for saying so. Backers of Israel overseas, who play an important role in defending the country against its legions of haters worldwide, find themselves baffled, defensive, even alienated; it gets harder to argue against allegations of discrimination when the Druze community, Israel’s own most loyal minority, is leveling the charge.
The prime minister’s rapid about-face on an agreement that he had rightly said represented the “best possible” resolution of the fate of tens of thousands of African migrants, because of mild pressure from a part of his voter base that would not tolerate providing residential status for fewer than 20,000 refuge-seekers, further undermines support and empowers detractors.
Key hierarchies are being undermined and corroded, as exemplified by Netanyahu’s allegations of police bias against him. People in positions of power are exercising it without due heed for essential rights and freedoms. Internalizing what is now expected, some, in organizations such as the Shin Bet and police force, are trending to the overzealousness epitomized by the detention of the visiting journalist and the summons of the non-Orthodox rabbi.
Uniquely in the Middle East, we in Israel have enjoyed free speech, freedom of religion, a free press, equality before the law, an independent judiciary and more.
But in this Israeli summer of 2018, there’s a chill in the air. There’s a danger — and it’s not only from Damascus and Tehran, Hamas and Hezbollah.