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On the need for pluralism and the dangers of demonization

The pro-democracy protest movement must recognize that thoughtful, decent, and moral people can disagree on policies

The entrance to the offices of the Kohelet Forum, the conservative think tank deeply involved in the judicial overhaul, blockaded by protesters, March 9, 2023. (Flash90)
The entrance to the offices of the Kohelet Forum, the conservative think tank deeply involved in the judicial overhaul, blockaded by protesters, March 9, 2023. (Flash90)

Twenty-four weeks into the Israeli debate about the proposed judicial reform plan that seeks to reshape the very nature and identity of the country, and amidst the most robust protest movement in Israel’s history, we are confronting two fears: Our first fear is that the larger judicial reform as initially proposed by this coalition will pass in whole or in part, endangering Israeli democracy and the vulnerable minorities who stand to suffer as a result of these changes. At stake is nothing less than the meaning of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and the power of its state institutions to preserve human rights and minority rights.

But our second fear is that some dangerous overreaches in aspects of the protest movement in Israel and America will cause irreparable damage to our society and to our people in the pursuit of justice. We fear for whether the State of Israel and the Jewish people can engage in these debates in ways that will not leave permanent scars; and whether the battle for democracy can be engaged in ways that are consistent with democratic values. Great debates can be a badge of honor to an evolving society, or they can take down the society in the process.

The judicial reform plan as proposed by this coalition government would undermine the systems of checks and balances necessary to protect Israel’s democratic identity. By curtailing the Supreme Court in a way unparalleled in any democracy in the world, any coalition majority could legislate at will, regardless of its implications for human and minority rights, religious freedom, and the rule of law.

The judicial reform, as proposed, would have brought Israel to the verge of a tyranny of the majority; and simultaneously, if paradoxically, would have dangerously empowered several minorities – ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalists – in serving their own tribal interests. Certain aspects of the proposed reform are a dead giveaway to this anti-democratic strategy, especially the narrow Knesset override clause; it was a power play to enable some to become Aadonei ha-Aretz, the sole masters of the land and the state of Israel.

Based on this analysis, the Shalom Hartman Institute has raised its voice consistently in principled opposition to this plan for judicial reform, and we as its senior leaders have personally participated in the demonstrations. Our institution believes in the integrity of Israel as a Jewish democratic state, committed to pluralism, minority rights, and human rights. Taking a stand against the judicial reform as proposed is a natural outcome of our commitment to these values.

Arthur has been subjected to a months-long campaign of online doxxing and regular harassment outside of his home and office.

At the same time, it is wrong to dismiss, demonize, or delegitimate all of those who advocate for some measure of judicial reform. Many of those who advocate for some measures of judicial reform do so precisely because they want to enhance Israel’s democratic institutions and norms and to protect human rights, considering the unparalleled powers that Israel’s Supreme Court currently possesses. Even former Chief Justice Aharon Barak – whose pivotal judicial activism reshaped Israeli constitutional law, and against whose legacy much of the judicial reform process is targeted – has said that he supports some measure of judicial reform in principle.

This nuance – between a reform, in pursuit of democracy, and the reform, as currently proposed – is missing from the public conversation. This is largely because this reform was introduced by the current coalition, a coalition led by some of Israel’s most extreme ideologues and fanatics. This in turn collapsed the issue of judicial reform with the extremism of the coalition and turned what could have been a reasonable debate into a real threat – that judicial reform, as proposed, would not improve democracy but bring about an anti-democratic constitutional revolution.

We not only believe in pluralism at the Shalom Hartman Institute, but we also lead a real community united by a commitment to democratic values even with differences of opinion about judicial reform in Israel. Our pluralism obligates us to strive to hear the best arguments of the other, and respect the fact that thoughtful, decent, and moral people can disagree on policies all the while sharing the same value aspirations.

Among our faculty, our fellows, our rabbinic networks, our extensive network of principals and teachers, the students and teachers in our school, and in our donor base, are those committed to judicial reform and those opposed. We are committed to the idea of a serious moral coalition that transcends traditional left/center/right divides and could even disagree about the mechanics of judicial reform, but that is united around a commitment to liberal Judaism and Zionism, to the rights of all human beings, and to the democratic principles of Israel as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. We have found that when you are open to listening, you can discover new allies across the partisan divides.

Our hyper-partisan environment makes it dangerously easy to collapse anyone who supports some measure of judicial reform with its worst representatives and to position all of them as anti-democratic and opposed to human rights, invalidating them as people and silencing their arguments. There is a pernicious myth among some pro-democracy advocates that no rules apply when fighting for democracy against tyranny. But mischaracterizing and misrepresenting the ideas of others and ad hominem delegitimization in the name of preserving democratic values is an oxymoron. Countless important theorists of democracy insist on the fundamental interrelationship between democracy and pluralism and argue for the kind of public debate that is vociferous on the issues without dehumanizing the other. Fighting for democracy requires abiding by democratic norms.

Dangerous stunt

One example of this kind of demonization that is close to home for us has been the campaign directed against Arthur Dantchik, our friend and a generous friend and supporter of the Shalom Hartman Institute. As a supporter of the Kohelet Forum, the think tank in Israel that proposed some of the judicial reform plans that were subsequently embraced, modified, and advanced by this coalition, Arthur has been subjected to a months-long campaign of online doxxing and regular harassment outside of his home and office. On one occasion protestors targeted him with full-page ads of his face – portrayed as an enemy of democracy and a threat to the State of Israel – in the Philadelphia Jewish newspaper. On another occasion, protestors outside his home (with a video of the event on Twitter) called Arthur the “invisible puppet-master,” destroying Israeli democracy from the shadows, echoing an accusation and antisemitic terminology that for several years now the right-wing has used against George Soros. It is harrowing and alarming to see this language emerge from the ostensibly pro-democracy camp.

The future of judicial reform in Israel will most likely materialize through some version of compromise.

All of this is taking place because of a chain of culpability that the protest movement has established – from politicians to the Kohelet Forum to its donors – that has never sought to inquire which aspects of the judicial reform, if any, Arthur Dantchik supports. When Arthur Dantchik was ‘exposed’ as a donor to the Shalom Hartman Institute, few sought to ask what it meant for him to support both Hartman and Kohelet; we understood this to mean that he genuinely supports a diversity of views in a way that promotes debate and disagreement in service of democracy.

This is a particular example that we are watching closely, but it is not the only overreach. It concerns us that politicians and public figures – not to speak of private citizens – are protested outside their homes in Israel, and it frightened us as leaders of a think tank to see the dangerous stunt in March when protestors broke into the offices of the Kohelet Forum with concrete and barbed wire. The division between the private sphere and the public square, and the importance of safeguarding nongovernmental civil society institutions, are essential elements in a healthy democracy.

We are particularly sensitive to the costs of this form of demonization precisely because we personally, and our Institute, and in fact many individuals and institutions in the anti-judicial reform camp, have experienced first-hand parallel attempts to mischaracterize our positions and delegitimize us. We have been blacklisted by political opponents, demonized, and called traitors in the public square. This preceded the protest movement in dangerous national campaigns of incitement against the Israeli left in both Israel and North America and now continues in Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli referring to the protestors as “worse than BDS supporters,” or Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Smotrich referring to the protest movements as traitorous or anarchic. For us to engage in parallel rhetoric, in the name of our commitment to democracy, would be to fall short of the rabbinic dictum – that that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. And perhaps, even worse: should campaigns like this succeed, we will have perhaps saved democracy by participating in its undoing.

Derekh Eretz

We recognize that critics of the Institute and of this call for civility – amidst a protest movement that we still support – may question our motivations in our coming to the defense of our friend Arthur Dantchik as an act of self-interest masquerading as morality. Those who truly believe this about us will not be convinced by what we have to say. We stand on our record as an organization that has argued for decades about the centrality of pluralism as a religious and social value for modern Jews, and for the belief that principled debates that avoid demonization and caricature are not only loftier but ultimately endure.

For the past decade, we have also insisted and built a track record on the practice of character witnessing amidst the barrage of character assassination that is prevalent in organized Jewish life, amplified by the possibilities inherent in social media. Both of us have stood up to bullies before on behalf of friends, colleagues, or individuals we only know by reputation – sometimes even disagreeing with the people we are defending – because we insist that there is a line that must be respected between principled criticism and unrelenting attack, and that there is an ethic of critique that must be abided for all of our collective long-term benefit.

The future of judicial reform in Israel will most likely materialize through some version of compromise. More importantly, the pro-reform and anti-reform camps will have to co-exist after this debate ends or is resolved, whether or not the earth has been scorched in the process. Even the Kohelet Forum has attenuated its position to oppose the override clause, and a wide majority of Israelis now support some more modest version of judicial reform through compromise and consensus – especially if led by a different and less extreme government. We need to find a new way to hear, respect and talk with each other – even now, as we stand on the opposite side of a protest – if we are to thrive as a democratic society.

Our tradition teaches that Derekh Eretz, common decency, precedes Torah. Our tradition also insists on the possibility that the commitment to truth and the commitment to peace can and should co-exist. It behooves us to remember that in our campaign for human rights and political decency, we do not lose sight of our obligation to that same decency. It is time to stop the demonization of the other and to fight for democracy through the democratic norms of peaceful protest, and open and honest debate. Israel and the Jewish people need it now more than ever.

The authors are the Presidents of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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