The Israeli people are going to the polls. The Knesset dissolved itself Monday evening, and general elections are set for March 17. This third premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu was by far the most tumultuous – a ground war in Gaza and a missile war over the skies of Tel Aviv, a fractured friendship with the Oval Office, a growing barbarism from the implacable foes of the Jewish state. Only two years into its four-year mandate, the nineteenth Knesset unraveled with breathtaking speed.
The casus belli for the dissolution of the current Israeli government was a new Israeli Basic Law brought forward by the Prime Minister. This Basic Law has generated high-profile opposition not only in Israel, but also among American Jews. Israel’s current president, Reuven Rivlin, and his predecessor, Shimon Peres, both expressed their public disapproval. Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Chancellor David Ellenson of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College likewise weighed in against. So did Abraham Foxman of the ADL.
To secure passage, Netanyahu demanded that all members of his ruling coalition vote in favor. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid refused to accept coalition discipline, and announced their opposition. Netanyahu ordered them fired, and accused the pair of engaging in a “putsch” against him.
Now that the Knesset has been dissolved, the Basic Law is not immediately on the legislative agenda. Under the heading “Nation-State of the Jewish People,” it would have upset the balance of the dual principles that undergird modern Israel – that the country is simultaneously a Jewish homeland and a democratic state that treats all its citizens equally. Netanyahu’s Basic Law affirms the first principle full throat and diminishes the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. Nowhere does the word “equality” appear. Alarmingly, it makes Jewish law – which is to say halacha as interpreted by the Orthodox rabbinate – “a source of inspiration” for the Knesset.
In truth, this new Basic Law is an old idea that has been passed around like a hot potato among Knesset committees for more than three years. It is irrelevant to what’s on the minds of most Israelis – a faltering economy, an inconclusive war. So why did the prime minister push it forward?
The answer is that it was the opening salvo in the parliamentary elections that were its predictable result. Now, it is an emotionally charged political issue that will play a decisive role in the campaign rhetoric of the coming months.
In itself, the law represents a painful retreat from the judicial revolution of the Aharon Barak-led Israeli Supreme Court of the 1990s. That court brought Israel into the family of nations that incorporate the principles of universal human rights into their domestic laws. It compiled a judicial record that can make every Jew, in the Diaspora as well as in Israel, proud.
But judicial revolutions can be undone by other branches of government. As in the United States, there are politicians in Israel who decry “the human rights agenda.” As in the United States, there are voters in Israel who hearken to populist slogans.
We urge them, instead, to hearken to the stirring words of the Israeli Declaration of Independence:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
CAP: The Knesset building, home to Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem.