My wife, Judy, and I made aliyah in May 2017. Our time is divided between Tel Aviv and the U.S., although more of my time is spent in Israel. During this time Israel has held five national elections.
From December 2009 until the first day of Chanukah in 2014, I was held hostage as a political prisoner of the Cuban government. I know from firsthand experience what it is like to lose one’s freedom to a government that has no boundaries, no checks and balances on its power and authority, and is unresponsive to the majority of its citizens.
Throughout modern Israel’s 75-year history, its government in no way resembled Cuba’s — that is, not until the beginning of 2023. Overhauls to Israel’s judiciary and basic structures impacting governmental balances of power were proposed in January 2023 by the leadership of the now ruling coalition government. These reforms would restrain the judiciary’s legal oversight over public policy and lawmaking.
If adopted, such reforms would grant the Knesset (parliament) the power to override Supreme Court rulings that deem legislation passed by the Knesset in violation of Israel’s Basic Laws by reintroducing the legislation and approving it by a majority of Knesset members. This would diminish the ability of courts to conduct judicial review of the Basic Laws that serve as a pro forma constitution, but not an actual constitution. Proposed reforms would also change the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee and the appointment of judges would effectively be given to the ruling coalition in the Knesset.
Other proposed reforms would diminish even further the relevance of civil courts in favor of rabbinic courts regarding civil, commercial and other matters. In other words, the foundation of Israel as a democracy is now at real risk.
The response from Israelis has been swift and unambiguously strong. Each week for more than the last three months, since the introduction of these and additional such “reforms,” a broad cross-section of Israelis throughout the country have peacefully demonstrated against the government’s efforts to push these reforms through. Literally hundreds of thousands of young people, old people, religious and secular, LBGTQI, Arab, Christian and everything in between are demonstrating in every city throughout Israel. All of this reminded me of mass demonstrations in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s and early 1970s. All of this revealed a ruach (spirit) to which I have not witnessed since. It’s not that I am nostalgic for those days — but to see that unity of purpose and commitment to cause was no less than enlightening. And, of course, Judy and I are participating.
When the prime minister summarily fired the defense minister (for doing his job), Israelis came out en masse to protest. A growing number of military reservists refused to show up for training, Israel’s largest labor union called a general strike, travelers at Ben-Gurion Airport could not leave on their flights because no flights were taking off, schools and universities closed, and even McDonald’s closed.
The actions of the ruling coalition are deplorable. Its leadership seems to be focused on avoiding conviction in the same courts that are the key targets of the proposed reforms. At least three coalition ministers have been indicted, two have been convicted, multiple times.
As an oleh (immigrant) I am feeling almost euphoric concerning the response of Israelis to all of this — including those demonstrators out there in support of the government, although their numbers are eclipsed by anti-government demonstrators.
I am troubled by what the current government is trying to get away with, but I am also gratified to see a very large cross-section of Israelis coalesce to stand up and speak with one voice.
Alan P. Gross serves on the board of the Jewish Electorate Institute dedicated to deepening understanding of Jewish American participation in democracy.