Over the past several weeks in Israel hundreds of thousands have gathered in the streets to protest the government’s judicial reform plans. Those who oppose the judicial reforms argue that the judicial system is a check on the government's use of power. To diminish the power of the judicial system is seen as a threat to democracy itself. Specifically, the government's plan allows for the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of one (61 votes out of the 120 seat Knesset), gives the government a decisive say over who becomes a judge, removes the power of the Supreme Court to judge Knesset legislation, appointments or other government decisions on the grounds of “reasonability”, and allows for ministers not to follow the advice of their legal advisors (who are guided by the attorney general). The country’s top labor federation announced a general strike which closed Ben Gurion airport as well as other major parts of the economy. Reservists in the Israeli army refused to report for duty. If the plan for judicial reform does go through some have said that they will refuse to serve in the Israeli army. Former Defense Minister Benny Gantz accused Netanyahu of carrying out “a constitutional coup” and undermining “the most foundational values” in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
Proponents of judicial reform argue that there is an unhealthy imbalance of power between the government branches. Far from being a threat to democracy, these reforms will rebalance power and strengthen Israel’s democracy. The capacity for judges to select their own successors and with little to no limits on their authority sets them up to be, in the words of Ben Shapiro, a de facto dictatorship. Justice Minister Yariv Levin said that the Supreme Court’s “growing intervention… in cabinet decisions and Knesset legislation” had eroded public trust in the legal system leading to what he called “severe damage to democracy.” He further added, “We go to the polls, vote, elect, and time after time people we didn’t elect choose for us. Many sectors of the public look to the judicial system and do not find their voices heard.”
The tension over the past several months escalated significantly when Prime Minister Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (Likud) in the wake of a televised speech where Gallant urged the premier to stop the legislation. “I see the source of our strength eroding. The growing rift in our society is penetrating the IDF and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state. I will not lend my hand to this.” Following his dismissal, across the country massive throngs of protestors poured out into the streets, blocking a major highway in Tel Aviv, lighting bonfires on the road and breaking through the barriers near Netanyahu’s home calling for his resignation. On Monday night, with tensions mounting and a growing sense of being on the brink of a civil war, Netanyahu hit pause on the judicial reform plan to allow for “a real opportunity for real dialogue.” He further added that the country was on a “dangerous path” and that he would not allow the country to descend into civil war.
Certainly these have been some very dark times in Israel but there have also been moments of light and love and in effort to reach out across the divide and bridge the gap between brothers and sisters it behooves us to give space for the sweeter stories. Seeing the gatherings as an opportunity for Jews to do a Mitzvah, Lubavitcher shluchim took to the streets and set up Tefflin stands for those who wished to don Teffilin. On Thursday night, despite police urging to the contrary, protestors from Tel Aviv marched on the city of Bnei Brak. The left wing, anti judicial reform protestors held provocative signs that read “Rav Shach would be ashamed of you” and “Chareidi parasite - not at my expense.” Expecting a response of physical violence some of the protestors even wore helmets to protect themselves. Hundreds of police lined the streets awaiting what would surely be a violent clash. The response of the citizens of Bnei Brak was anything but violent. A large banner was strung up that said, refreshments and drinks for our brothers the Tel Avivians. As it was Thursday night in Bnei Brak, cholent was served to those that came to protest. Any feelings of aggression immediately subsided. Residents of Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak spoke with one another pleasantly as food was given out to the crowd. For many this was the first time that they had spoken to their brothers and sisters who live in ideologically opposing camps. In a now viral video, as Shalom Aleichem was being played loudly in the streets, one protestor wearing an Israeli flag and riding a motorcycle took off his helmet and began crying uncontrollably. Having not heard the song since he was a young child decades earlier, memories came flooding back and overwhelmed him. The video prompted many on social media to comment on the eternal brotherhood of all Jews despite our ideological differences.
In the interest of full transparency, I do not enjoy writing articles that discuss political or controversial issues. Meaningful Minute is a platform that has the opportunity to bring Jews closer together and these issues generally speaking drive people apart. But, I am blessed to have a very special brother, Avi Burg. Avi is a Jew who values achdus above all and in the midst of the protests he shared with me a sentiment from his neighbor Chananya Weisler. It was Chananya’s message that drove me to write this article despite my misgivings. Chananya shared with my brother that on Purim we willingly accepted the Torah that we had previously been coerced to accept at Har Sinai. Thousands of years ago on Pesach we were “forced” to become a nation, hopefully now is the time for us to willingly choose to be one nation. It was such a beautiful message I felt compelled to share it with a larger audience. Sadly, the stories above are not yet the norm. What would Klal Yisrael look like if we could greet those who do not share our worldview with a spirit of generosity? In song and dance and with a healthy dose of cholent? The Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “Imagine you could open your eyes to see only the good in every person, the positive in every circumstance and the opportunity in every challenge.” Every Jew is the precious child of the Master of the world. Even the darkest moments contain opportunities to reveal an infinite amount of light. There is much healing to be done in this country. Bridges between the right and the left must be built to ensure the integrity of the country. And we now have a tremendous opportunity to sweeten that which has been very bitter. If we truly reach out to each other as brothers and sisters, if we are really willing to listen to people with opposing views with an open heart seeing only the good in every person, then we can create meaningful and lasting change. I join Mr. Weisler in his prayers for our choosing to be one one nation. And as Pesach is the zman hageula, the time of redemption, perhaps if we will all pray Chananya’s prayer together we will merit to see the ultimate redemption speedily in our days.