Over 2,700 years ago Micah spoke prophetically of a sobering day coming upon the Jewish nation – a day when people would be at each other’s throats:
- Woe to me! . . . The godly person has perished from the land, and there is no upright person among mankind. All of them lie in wait for bloodshed. Each of them hunts the other with a net. As for evil, both hands do it well. The leader asks for a bribe, also the judge, and the great one speaks the capricious desire of his soul. So they plot it together. The best of them is like a thorn bush; the most upright like a thorn hedge . . . Your punishment is coming. Then their confusion will occur. Do not trust in a neighbor! Do not have confidence in a close friend. Guard your lips from her who lies in your arms. For son disavows father; daughter rises up against her mother; daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A person’s enemies are the people of his own household (Micah 7:1-6)
Israel has recently witnessed the rise of unusual political and social turmoil. Just three months ago, the elections of November 2022 brought a conservative government to power with a comfortable majority. Barely three months later, close to 300,000 protestors (a rather large turnout) have been marching in the streets, blocking highways and airport access, and even preventing the Prime Minister’s convoy from freely travelling in the country. Though this massive effort is being presented as a grass-roots popular movement, it is anything but that. It is a highly organized and subsidized effort, fronted by political talking heads on both the Left and the Center Left – the same politicians who were trounced in recent elections.
Two former Prime Ministers, two former IDF Chiefs of Staff and the Mayor of Tel Aviv have publicly called for massive civil disobedience, even threatening that the spilling of blood is needed. Isaiah’s words seem to have special relevance in our day: “No one pleads honestly. They trust in confusion and speak lies. They conceive trouble and give birth to disaster” (Isaiah 59:4).
Our February 22, 2023 newsletter looked at the historical background of some aspects of the current tensions. This present newsletter digs into the scenario in greater detail.
The changing of the guard
Over the past decade both the U.S.A. and Israel have seen political leaders win and then lose in a back-and-forth political ping-pong game against their opponents: Democrat Obama lost to Republican Trump who then lost to Biden. In Israel Likud Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu lost to Naftali Bennett/Ya’ir Lapid’s coalition, who then lost the November 2022 election to Bibi. Over the past three and a half years, Israel has experienced five elections. In each case the vote was close, with the body politic nearly evenly divided. In each election the opposing parties trumpeted a marked different vision. After each event the opposition was furious over how the winning coalition pressed its agenda forward. In all cases the opposing parties presented their political clashes in apocalyptic terms. And with each move in this country-wide chess game, unrest and dissatisfaction continue to grow on both sides of the aisle.
Big Brother and Big Media
The parties that lost the November 2022 election have super-wealthy industrialists as backers. Netanyahu’s coalition is also financed by mega-wealthy power-brokers. But unbeknown to media consumers outside of Israel, those whose ardent desire is to crush Bibi have been pursuing this game for many decades, and now they smell blood. The lion’s share of all media platforms are in their hands – and these have become arrows targeting Israel’s Prime Minister. Over the past twenty years a vicious campaign against Netanyahu has been prosecuted. Its targets continue to morph. The focus has shifted from time to time. At first attacks were made on Bibi’s conservative economic policies. Then the target was his support of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. After that poison-pen op-eds focused on his cooperation with ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox political parties. In the past five years attention zoomed in on possible charges of bribery and graft. Some of these charges seem to be contrived; others throw a spotlight on some of Bibi’s actions which may be legal but were not extremely wise. Other actions of Bibi may indeed be illegal. The most recent attacks focus on Bibi and his coalition as a threat to democracy – a concerted effort to demonize the Likud’s election promises to bring greater balance to Israel’s Supreme Court (more specifics on this later).
For the past three months, Israeli media have been beating the drums of fear and hatred, accusing Bibi’s coalition of trying to set up a fascist dictatorship and a theocratic tyranny. They have panicked many in the primarily secular enclaves of Tel Aviv and Haifa, ‘stampeding the sheep’ (as it were) with jingoistic slogans and threats repeated word-for-word at all the demonstrations. They have overseen the publishing of screaming fear-filled headlines proclaiming that the curtailing of Supreme Court powers will lead to Israel being treated as a pariah state; will cause Israel’s partners in the ‘Abraham Accords’ to jump ship; will move hi-tech investors (including Israeli investors) to boycott Israel; will jump-start the International Criminal Court to initiate large-scale arrests of Israeli ex-soldiers on vacation in Europe, etc. Not a few American Jewish groups which are left-of-center have amplified these signals, even to the point of urging Western countries to boycott Israeli diplomats and to sanction Israel-friendly activities.
- Those subsidizing and stirring up this political and social turmoil are causing damage to the state and people of Israel – all in order to overturn the results of an election which their ‘woke’ candidates did not win.
Lightning strikes twice
The majority of Israel’s media are sticking to their message, trumpeting that “The Likud’s overhaul of the judiciary is actually a coup and a fascist putsch.” Former IDF Generals, Prime Ministers and heads of the Israeli security services have been drafted to appear weekly, communicate this public narrative at mass rallies in Tel Aviv and Haifa, Beersheva and Jerusalem. But unfortunately there is precious little investigative journalism out there, accurately reporting on the many political and legal authorities who have been calling for foundational tweaking of Israel’s judiciary for approximately thirty years. These criticisms go back to the time when Aharon Barak (‘Barak’ means ‘lightning’ in Hebrew), then Israel’s Supreme Court President, deftly effected a ‘judicial revolution’ (he labeled it a ‘constitutional revolution’), vastly expanding the power of Israel’s Supreme Court while simultaneously weakening the authority of both executive and legislative bodies in the Knesset. Here is an assortment of quotes from international legal experts over the years regarding the legal and ethical problems established by Barak’s ‘judicial revolution:’
- Amnon Rubenstein, Israeli legal scholar, politician, Member of Knesset (1977–2002), was awarded the Israel Prize for Law (2006), at which time it was stated that he is “the founding father of Israeli constitutional law.” His critique of Aharon Barak’s ‘judicial revolution’ is sobering: “Thus a situation has arisen whereby the Supreme Court may convene and decide on every conceivable issue . . . This was a total revolution in the judicial thinking which characterized the Supreme Court of previous generations, and this has given it the reputation of the most activist court in the world, causing both admiration and criticism. In practice, in many respects the Supreme Court under Barak has become an alternate government.”
- Other Israeli high-profile critics of Barak’s judicial activism are: former President of the Supreme Court of Israel Moshe Landau, Professor of Comparative Civil Law and Jurisprudence (Tel Aviv University) Menahem Mautner, and Ruth Gavison (Professor of Law at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities).
- Richard Posner, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, criticized Aharon Barak’s decisions in 2007, stating that “only in Israel do judges confer the power of abstract review on themselves, without benefit of a constitutional or legislative provision.”
- Robert Bork, Professor at Yale Law School and Solicitor General of the United States from 1973 until 1977, stated in a 2007 review of Aharon Barak’s book ‘The Judge in a Democracy,’ that “Barak surely establishes a world record for judicial hubris . . . The Israeli [Supreme] Court, by its assertion of the power to control . . . may well be the branch most dangerous to the political rights of the nation.”
- Hillel Neuer, international lawyer, is Executive Director of UN Watch (a human rights NGO), and founding Chairman of Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. He holds a Master of Laws in comparative constitutional law from Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His appraisal of Barak’s 1992 morphing of Israel’s Supreme Court powers is soberly cautious: “Aharon Barak waves his ‘nonconventional’ weapon of judicial review which, together with a hefty conventional arsenal of wide-open standing and justiciability rules, threatens the Israeli public with an unprecedented centralization of power among a handful of like-minded judges. As [Supreme Court] President Barak himself has written, there is a zone where ‘the decision is made according to the personal worldview of the judge’ . . . Israelis may have good cause for concern in discovering that this subjective zone – and with it the politicization of the court – is likely to grow apace, an inevitable result of the Barak approach”
- In the Tulsa Law Review’s Fall 2011 Volume 47, Ariel Bendor and Zeev Segal conclude: “The drop in public esteem of the Supreme Court had much to do with Barak’s emphasis on judicial discretion. In the eyes of the public, the justices, who were not elected by the Israeli public, were using discretion and their personal ‘agenda’ to intervene in the defense and economic policies of the elected arms of government – the Knesset and the Cabinet.”
- Senior Editor of Azure Evelyn Gordon has summed up most of the issues in her masterful article, ‘Is It Legitimate to Criticize the Supreme Court? Aharon Barak’s Revolution.’
At present the Supreme Court has the authority to block the legislative power of the Knesset and even remove a Prime Minister from office. Netanyahu has recently been issued an ultimatum by the Supreme Court (less than two weeks are left to answer its summons) to explain why he should not be removed from continuing as Prime Minister.
Many kosher democracies exercise full parliamentary sovereignty
In the United Kingdom, one of the most influential parliamentary democracies in the world, parliament is supreme. According to the U.K. Parliament website: “Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle of the UK constitution. It makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law. Generally, the courts cannot overrule its legislation and no Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change. Parliamentary sovereignty is the most important part of the UK constitution.” The U.K.’s Supreme Court website states: “Unlike some Supreme Courts in other parts of the world, the UK Supreme Court does not have the power to ‘strike down’ legislation passed by the UK Parliament. It is the Court’s role to interpret the law and develop it where necessary, rather than formulate public policy.”
New Zealand’s constitutional system similarly states: “The Judiciary cannot interfere with decisions of Parliament (the Legislature), such as the decision to pass a law. However, the Judiciary can review the actions of the Executive to see whether they acted within the powers given to them by legislation. This is called judicial review.”
Canada’s Supreme Court was granted a limited version of ‘judicial review’ in 1982, when Parliament passed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 33 of that Charter includes an override, or ‘notwithstanding’ clause, which allows the federal parliament and even provincial legislatures to pass legislation overriding the Supreme Court’s judicial review for five-year periods. “It allows a government to pass a law that does something that the courts have said violates rights and is not justified,” said University of Ottawa associate law professor Michael Pal, according to a CTV report.
In an excellent and well-researched article ‘Is judicial reform a threat to Israeli democracy?’ Alex Safian (Associate Director and Research Director of CAMERA) states dryly: “Restoring a measure of parliamentary sovereignty to Israel’s Knesset – an absolute right it had for the first 44 years of the country’s existence – therefore hardly seems radical, unprecedented, or dangerous.”
One of Israel’s unique difficulties is that it does not yet have a constitution, something that was not originally hoped for by its Founding Fathers. In 1948 the Jewish state inherited both Turkish and British legal precedents, as well as a large corpus of rabbinic law to draw on. In order to sidestep potential blowups with its Orthodox coalition partners, it was decided to slowly legislate Basic Laws which would form an eventual basis for something similar to a constitution. This process has moved at a snail’s pace. But technically it is not accurate to describe Israel’s current challenges as a constitutional crisis, since Israel does not have a constitution. And the goal of reaching a consensus on these issues still seems very far away in light of Orthodox objections. Most rabbinic authorities see rabbinic law (or halacha) as the only valid legal constitution for the Jewish people.
Religious dictatorship in Anatevka
Many modern Jews look back with tenderness to Broadway and Hollywood’s idyllic dream of Fiddler on the Roof – to the shtetls of Ukraine, Poland and Russia where everything seemed so romantic – Jewish life at its most authentic. Yet many of the Jews fleeing to America, Canada, Britain, France, South Africa, Australia and Palestine (as it was then called by the Turks) quickly disengaged themselves from Orthodox lifestyles and beliefs as soon as they unpacked their suitcases. The Western world’s freedoms and secular options were opening up new vistas, new lifestyles and new choices. Decades later, it was some of their children and grandchildren who began to look wistfully back to ghetto times, when all Jews were Orthodox and part of the rabbinic communities of Eastern Europe.
Some of the first Jews who returned to farm and rebuild the Jewish homeland in Israel were Orthodox Hovevei Tziyon (‘lovers of Zion’), though the vast majority were socialists and non-traditionalists. Within these fledgling Jewish Orthodox communities, many hoped that the renascent Jewish state would slowly morph into a halachic state, following rabbinic law as the law of the Land. Such luminaries as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook saw secular Jewish pioneers as ‘Messiah’s donkeys’ – spiritually rough and primitive people who were helping to fulfil prophecy by cultivating the land, thus bringing in the first fruits of redemption. He envisioned, based on his interpretation of Ezekiel 37 (the dry bones vision), that these ‘Jewish pagans’ would gradually but ultimately turn their eyes to rabbinic Judaism and end up living halachic lives.
A stream of Orthodox rabbis and politicians began to dream and strategize, attempting to figure out how to enthrone rabbinic laws as legal requirements for all Jewish citizens. This ‘creeping halacha’ was the strategy of MAFDAL (the National Religious Party) as well as AGUDAT YISRAEL and other smaller streams. In modern times, Sephardic political parties like SHAS – the ‘Sephardic Guardians’ or ‘Sephardic Torah Guardians’ – have joined with Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, running as coalition partners while pressuring Leftist and Rightist governments to incorporate rabbinic traditions, kosher food laws, marriage, birth and death rites as all coming home to roost under strict Orthodox oversight.
Israel’s overwhelmingly secular majority initially humored these attempts, but often found themselves being forced to give rabbinic laws greater influence in their daily and weekend lives than they really wanted to. Gradually the Jewish citizens of Israel found themselves dividing into separate communities – secular (approximately 80%), Orthodox (17%) and ultra-Orthodox (3%). Neighborhoods tended to be divided accordingly. Secularism had won the day, though the future was uncertain.
The Jewish state of the late 1960’s and 1970’s saw the rise of home-grown hippies, Israeli rock music, and radical social activism. Along with the Free Soviet Jewry movement (imported from American Jewry), a new group of Orthodox radicals saw themselves as cutting-edge zealots, shock troops of the reviving but still somnambulant Jewish people. Notable among these leaders was Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League (later reorganized as KACH). Kahane’s JDL was classified as a terrorist group by both the U.S.A. and Israel, and Kahane’s teaching have been condemned as racist by all mainstream Jewish organizations. He and many of his followers moved to Israel and, in later years, former members of his movement established a political party known as Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) led today by Itamar Ben-Gvir.
The party is considered to be Religious Zionist, Kahanist, ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab, and far-right, and has also been described as racist, though the party disputes this. Ben Gvir’s party has affiliations with, and once shared offices with, the anti-assimilation (and anti-Messianic Jewish) group (also here and here) Lehava, whose Director-General Bentzi Gopstein was up to recently a member of the party.
A Greek tragedy in Jerusalem
A Greek tragedy is playing itself out in Israeli politics, one that is essential to understand for those who want to grasp the dynamics of current events. Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s longest tenured Prime Minister, having served in that office for 15 years. Sadly, he is not known for encouraging his up-and-coming aides, especially if he thinks that they may one day replace him. As a result, some of his top followers, having been humiliated or side-lined by him – or even thrown out on their ear in times past – have resolutely decided not to follow Bibi, but instead to start their own parties. Present heads of political parties like Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar have pressed forward with their own agendas, though this has split the Right-wing vote in Israel, weakening their electability. One of the blowbacks here is that Leftist coalitions have occasionally been able to secure shaky coalitions, leaving the Likud out in the cold. A majority of Israelis at the present time lean rightward and do not believe that negotiations with any Palestinians will end terrorism or bring peace. For them it is frustrating that they, the majority of the electorate, have been ‘voting right but getting left’ results. One outstanding example would be the paragon of anti-terrorism, Ariel Sharon who, under potentially damaging legal suspicion, broke away from the Likud and ended up overseeing a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. This supposedly cunning strategic move ended up leaving the jihadi Muslim Brotherhood terror organization HAMAS ruling the Gaza Strip, eventually turning it into a launching pad for years of rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.
In order to clinch a solid majority in the November 2022 elections, Netanyahu was not able to count on those former Likud leaders who were now collaborating with the Left. He chose instead to turn to the extreme right parties, adding their weight to his coalition. This granted Ben Gvir a legitimacy and a platform to build strength for his party’s own dark vision of the future.
Israelis on the Left as well as on the moderate Right are certainly uneasy about this new situation. In the meantime, groups like SHAS, AGUDAT YISRAEL and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party have wasted little time since the latest elections, turning up the pressure in their efforts to ‘make Israel rabbinic again.’ Various attempts have been made by these parties to forbid women from leading prayer at the Western Wall, to enforce ‘modesty’ dress for women at that site, to prevent secular Jews from eating leavened bread in hospitals during Passover, etc. A significant percentage of Israelis are concerned that the present coalition government will give in to these religious parties at the expense of civil liberties and a predominantly secular Jewish state. This fear and this theme is repeated at most of the mass demonstrations over the past 10 weeks.
Another source of trepidation that many Israelis express concerns the issue of corruption – specifically, the fact that SHAS Member of Knesset and former Vice Prime Minister Aryeh Deri has been twice convicted and once imprisoned on charges of bribery. Though Deri and SHAS ascribe these charges to racist Ashkenazi elites’ prejudices (and notwithstanding the reality and dynamics of such prejudices among some today), it is generally acknowledged that Deri was guilty of the charges brought against him. Considering that Deri has served as Minister of Internal Affairs and Minister of the Economy, flashing red lights should be going off and on regarding his ethical suitability to be a Minister in any Israeli government. But the fact that SHAS commands 11 Knesset seats as the fifth largest party plays a significant role in establishing stable parliamentary coalitions.
Deri’s specific issue must be considered in light of the long list of Israeli officials from all parties convicted of crimes or misdemeanors: one President, one Prime Minister, eleven Cabinet Ministers, seventeen Members of Knesset, two Chief Rabbis, five Mayors and one Deputy Mayor, a leading member of the Labor Party, and a Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff. Deri is in good company, it seems, and those who cast the first stone against him might want to consider what sins were committed on their own party’s watch.
- Both sides in this present political quandary are not free of blemishes. Believers must press in to discover the God of Israel’s specific perspectives on each of these issues, so that we can pray in accordance with His guidance.
How is democracy under siege?
Though perhaps 300,000 Israeli have been shouting ‘DE-MO-KRA-TIA!’ (democracy) at recent demonstrations, it is ironic that no such crowds gathered when the successive governments of Bibi Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Ya’ir Lapid removed a slew of basic civil rights from all Israelis during the recent lockdowns. The right of assembly, the right to leave one’s home and travel, the right not to be forced to receive injected substances (which technically do not meet the accepted definition of being vaccines, and which have failed to prevent both infection and transmission) – all these rights were removed from Israel’s citizens under the watch of both Right, Left and Center. Other democratic rights were violated – the right of informed consent for medical treatments (based on the post-WWII Nuremberg Code), the right to freely visit museums, restaurants, cinemas, concerts, swimming pools and fitness rooms, etc. – all these democratic rights were suspended. Yet for the most part, Israel’s citizens accepted these blatant violations of democracy with the courage of silent sheep, blindly believing that government authorities, medical authorities, and legal authorities were crushing democratic rights ‘only temporarily,’ and ‘for our own good.’
- The irony of these same dear people being stirred up into mass demonstrations, mass confusion and mass fear shows that democracy is indeed under siege, but not in the way most people are imagining.
Hatred without a cause
One of the deeply saddening manifestations in today’s Israeli society is the increased social tension, hatred and fear that people are displaying toward each other. Jews in the Promised Land are separating from each other, cursing each other, treating each other like enemies. Politicians especially, on both sides of the aisle, are treating their fellows with disdain, mockery, derision and contempt. The heated nature of exchanges on social media communications has spun out of control. For those who know something about Jewish history, these days are reminiscent of 70 A.D. (the year Herod’s Temple was destroyed) and the rabbinic principle of sinat hinam (‘hatred without a cause’).
In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin 55b-56a, there is a story about two people (Kamtza and Bar Kamtza) who had bitterness and hatred between them, for no good reason. Their ‘unfinished business’ (according a later sage, Rabbi Yochanan) was what led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the Jewish people’s Second Exile at the hand of Rome’s armies.
In Jewish tradition, the phrase ‘sinat hinam’ (baseless hatred) is powerful, and it carries a heavy weight. In times of bitter communal rivalry Jews have sometimes asked each other if their internecine rivalry is getting out of hand, and if one or both parties should stop the infighting and pull back from ‘bringing down the Temple.’ King David himself confessed that hatred without cause was something that he had experienced on many occasions: “Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head” (Psalm 69:4).
In Pirkei Avot 5:17 (the Talmudic Tractate known as ‘The Sayings of the Fathers’), there is a proverb discussing heated disagreements in Israel, whether between individuals or between groups of people: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven [ed. that is justified in God’s sight], will in the end endure. But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah [Numbers 16] and all his congregation.”
The furiously boiling Israeli social pot is in imminent danger of boiling over. Those wicked people who hope to profit from the stirring up of hatred and division in Israel will in due time have to answer directly to God for their role in catalyzing such wickedness. But now is the time to pray – for the healing of wounds, the melting of anger, the onset of repentance, and the establishment of righteousness and justice in the Land. Let us also remember that a day is coming when all such divisions in Israel will be removed by the God of Israel’s own hands:
- And say to them, ‘This is what YHVH Adonai says: “Behold, I am going to take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel, and one king will be king for all of them. And they will no longer be two nations, and no longer be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols, or with their detestable things, or with any of their offenses. But I will rescue them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. And they will be My people, and I will be their God (Ezekiel 37:21-23)
God is in the details
Messiah Yeshua once addressed His disciples and emphasized that His ministry on earth involved a divine separating – winnowing the harvest wheat and removing the flammable chaff (see Luke 3:17): “Do you think that I came to provide peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53).
The God of Israel is also the Lord of the Harvest (see Luke 10:2). He is actively at work in present-day Israel, offending the mind in order to reveal the heart (see Luke 2:33-35). Whether the Jewish people gather in mass demonstrations or in the Knesset, we know that “the eyes of YHVH roam throughout the earth, so that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His” (2 Chronicles 16:9).
How should we then pray?
- Pray for God to grant repentance, tender hearts and a passion for His truth, righteousness and justice to a divided Israel
- Pray for YHVH to stir up increased intercession among believers worldwide for these issues
- Pray for the raising up of Ezekiel’s prophetic Jewish army throughout the earth
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,
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