TEL AVIV — Hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed a proposed judicial overhaul that has prompted mass protests, the head of one of Israel’s most powerful unions made a small, seemingly off-topic remark as he announced a nationwide strike Monday.
“We are soldiers of the democratic state of Israel. Our country, and no one else’s,” hollered Arnon Bar-David, the union leader. “This is not the country of Kohelet — this is a country that belongs to all its citizens.”
The Kohelet Policy Forum is a libertarian-leaning think tank reportedly funded by at least one American billionaire that has emerged as the ideological architect of the proposed overhaul. The plan’s intellectual backers have routinely pointed to the American model of elected leaders nominating and confirming Supreme Court justices as their inspiration. By invoking the forum, Mr. Bar-David touched on a key aspect of Israel’s social and judicial crisis that has been too often overlooked: American influence.
While many observers have pointed to trends in Israel as harbingers for the United States, just as compelling an argument can be made that it is the other way around.
In many ways, the fight over the future of the judiciary marks the culmination of the Americanization of Israeli society. A segment of Israeli society has always admired the United States and has striven to reimagine itself in its image. Over the past few decades, though, it hasn’t been America’s grand traditions of democracy and multiculturalism that have infiltrated the psyche of many in the Jewish state but rather its less admirable attributes.
As in America, many on the Israeli right have stopped defining themselves based on policies and have resorted instead to nativism and resistance to democratic norms. The political wedge issues in Israel are no longer questions around Palestinian statehood but rather the independence of the courts, good governance and plain decency. It’s no surprise, then, that the heirs of Israel’s earlier generation of conservatives can no longer find their place in the ruling Likud party. They’ve become Israeli versions of so-called RINOs, or Republicans in name only.
Without the demarcation of the ideological rivalries of the past, Israel’s political map is now defined mostly along identity lines, with the ultra-Orthodox, nationalist settlers and working-class Mizrahi voters on one side (the “red” Israel) and the wealthier, mostly Ashkenazi, educated class of the coastal Tel Aviv and Haifa regions on the other (the “blue” Israel). Despite the socioeconomic gaps between them, the main points of contention tend to revolve around matters of decorum, tradition and grievances.
An example of Israel’s echoes of the United States can be found in the changes to the socialist kibbutz movement that helped shape the country’s identity and fueled its growth, which have been all but overrun by privatization and rabid capitalism that has contributed to the country having among the highest rates of inequality among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Israel’s collective and pioneering spirit has been ravaged by consumerism and commercialism.
Like America, Israel now finds itself hopelessly polarized along numerous societal fault lines: religious and secular, rural and urban, educated and not, traditional and progressive, hawks and doves. And, like the United States so often during the Trump years, those differences have spilled out into the streets. But for a small country in a tough neighborhood, one whose survival depends on an engaged citizenry and mandatory military service, the stakes in Israel are that much higher.
Make no mistake, Israeli politics has always been a blood sport. But only in recent years has this hyperpartisan discourse taken hold, one that transcends ideology and instead revolves around a wannabe strongman’s cult of personality.
Before Mr. Netanyahu attempted this power grab, Donald Trump tried it. Before Israel’s Channel 14 peddled some of its propaganda and misinformation, Fox News was doing the same.
There is a distinct taste of Americanism to this fresh conservative Israeli persona. Mr. Netanyahu, the country’s biggest panderer to identity politics, is Israel’s most American-style politician. He spent many years in the United States, and many of his pollsters and strategists, not to mention his inner circle, came straight from right-wing Republican campaigns. Much of the appeal he has cultivated over the past decade owes to the backing of the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom, the outlet of the late billionaire Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson. (Mr. Adelson’s widow, Miriam, has recently criticized the rush toward judicial reform.)
It’s in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank, though, where the American import has been most devastating. In Israel’s version of the Wild West, he who captures the hilltop is king, and “God’s will” overrules the laws of man. This brazen flouting of the state’s authority over the years has often been delivered with the accent of an American gunslinger.
Israeli militancy has always existed. But it was the immigration of the Brooklyn-born rabbi Meir Kahane in the 1970s that helped introduce an American-tinged racism to it. Arabs were no longer just adversaries to overcome in war; they were vile enemies who had to be expelled or killed.
Is it any wonder that Kahane’s earliest and most ardent followers were also American immigrants, like the Boston-born Baruch Marzel? That some of the most radical of the Hilltop Youth West Bank anarchists today consider the St. Louis-born rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh to be their spiritual leader?
Is it a coincidence that some of the most horrid acts of Jewish terrorism in Israel were carried out by the likes of the Florida-born Jack Teitel and the Brooklyn-born Baruch Goldstein?
Their heirs are now key players in the current government.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s ultranationalist minister of national security, once referred to the mass murderer Mr. Goldstein as a hero (but says he no longer thinks so) and until recently had a picture of him hanging in his home.
The far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who recently made news for saying that an Arab village should be “wiped out” and that there was no such thing as Palestinians, was reportedly once arrested on suspicion of being a part of a cell planning to use 700 liters of gasoline in his possession to blow up Tel Aviv’s main highway to protest Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. (He denies this claim.)
The primary motivation for these cabinet ministers in neutering the courts seems to be to remove any future obstacles to their West Bank aspirations and to make sure that withdrawals never happen again. For the ultra-Orthodox, the aim is to perpetuate their avoidance of military service and maintain their preferred status. And for Mr. Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, the goal is most likely to stay in power and stay out of jail (even though he denies such a motive).
Now this unholy alliance of zealots, cynics and charlatans is following the lead of Republicans in the United States by trying to turn the Supreme Court into an explicitly political body.
But the American federal system has a written constitution, 50 state governments, two independent legislative bodies and other checks and balances that simply don’t exist in Israel’s parliamentary system.
The Americanization of the Israeli judicial system at the hands of extremist leaders, even if they are elected, would rupture the essential trust and faith that Israelis have put into their system of governance and end the country’s long-held belief that good-faith actors in government have the best interests of all of Israel at heart.
If there is one positive American influence to point to these days, it is the awakening of a civil resistance movement that seems as impressive as that of any democracy since the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s.
But the larger issue boils down to this: Israel has enough problems of its own without also importing those of America.
Aron Heller (@aron_heller) is an Israel-based feature writer, columnist and broadcaster. He was a longtime Associated Press correspondent and journalism lecturer.
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