The Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms and unprecedented public reaction are a symptom and not the cause of the polarization corroding Israeli society. It is a wake-up call that can be ignored, or the catalyst for the radical change Israel needs.
Shavuot highlighted the importance of Jewish unity. It is time we reflect on challenges and search for a better way:
- A better way that builds bridges, heals wounds and gives people hope
- A new political system that delivers stability and security
- A new covenant between the state and all its citizens
- A new leadership with a mission to unite and not divide the country.
My perspective comes from combining a lifetime in UK Center-Left politics with a renewed strong commitment to the values and observance of Orthodox Judaism. I cannot be canceled easily by the Left or the Right.
The vast majority of Israeli Jews say they want to live in a Jewish and democratic state; a state with Jewish characteristics but run according to mainly secular law within a democracy.
This sounds clear-cut, yet it isn’t at all.
Who and how are these Jewish characteristics to be defined? Do they begin and end with restrictions on Shabbat and holidays? How about marriage, conversion and other things? How would any further imposition of religious laws erode the freedom of choice? Preventing people from exercising the freedom of choice potentially conflicts with Orthodox Jewish beliefs.
What are the rights of non-Jewish Israeli citizens?
Should the democratic framework continue to be a flawed electoral system? A system of elected dictatorships held hostage by minority interests, and an activist judiciary which has moved into a vacuum left by a system with inadequate checks and balances.
It is the duty of those who care about Israel’s future to seek a common ground on the issues that matter; a common ground that can unite the mainstream majority while consigning a minority of extremists to the margins.
This is not just a good thing to do. National unity is central to Israel’s security as she prepares to face an Iranian threat of unprecedented seriousness.
The key issues are:
- Defining a Jewish and democratic state
- The secular/religious/haredi divide
- The leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu
- Growing levels of inequality
- Relationship with the Palestinians.
Haredim are often presented as being unwilling to make a fair contribution through army service or economic activity; living off the state and seeking social benefits funded by the rest of the population.
Secular people are frequently viewed as ignorant, bad Jews with few moral values. Such characterizations on all sides are plainly wrong.
It is essential they are addressed through greater human interaction in safe spaces where dialogue can be robust but respectful, but there must be structural changes, too, including a new covenant between the state and all of its citizens defining rights and responsibilities.
Army service or equivalent community service for all young people should be non-negotiable. But this must be dependent on creating environments genuinely sensitive to people’s religious requirements.
Education funding should incentivize teaching English and math, whether in schools or yeshivas. All state-funded schools should have inspirational teachers to transmit the content and meaning of daily prayers, Torah and holidays.
The vilification of Torah study by some in the secular world is not consistent with the desire that Israel should be a Jewish as well as democratic state. Torah study is central to the DNA of Judaism and without this learning at different stages in our history, we would not have prevailed as a people.
However, Israel has finite resources. It is necessary to increase the number of citizens who are earning and paying taxes while reducing those dependent on state benefits.
Supporting Torah institutions
An honest debate is required about the amount of funding that should legitimately support Torah institutions producing the rabbis and teachers of the future while creating skills and higher education programs that can be combined with Torah study and lead to jobs and careers for the majority of the members of the haredi community.
A new independent body to bring transparency to the fair allocation of resources could be established to report on public spending across the board, covering sectoral, regional and spending on all minority communities.
These changes will only achieve their full impact if there is also a new electoral system that supports a more stable, accountable and professional government.
The details of a new system need to be debated and have the consent of the majority of the population. It would ideally increase the threshold required to get mandates, create a direct link between at least some MKs and local communities, and enshrine checks and balances on the executive.
Alongside such a new system, an independent Judiciary is essential but their role could be legitimately reformed.
Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are legitimately elected MKs, however, it is a source of national shame that they are government ministers.
Jewish racism is an abomination and their reckless irresponsibility on sensitive issues is totally inappropriate.
The growth in their public support in no way merits the influence they exercise over the direction of the government. It is further evidence of the need for radical change.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a dominant figure in Israeli politics for a generation. It is important to recognize, as a result of the recent elections, that he is the legitimate prime minister of the country.
I say this because it makes me uncomfortable when some on the Left attempt to deny or invalidate this. They appear not to see the irony of a Trump-like approach to democracy that proclaims its virtues providing it delivers the result you want.
So Netanyahu has the right to choose his government and lead the country. However, as a patriot, he also has a duty to consider whether the cause of national unity and therefore strength and security, is best served by a new generation of leadership. No one is indispensable, other leaders will emerge with new ideas and probably a greater chance of healing divisions and building a new constitutional settlement.
No one is above the law, but within the parameters of the law, a solution should be sought to the cases in the courts that both upholds justice and allows Netanyahu to leave office with dignity and freedom when the time comes. This will help to create the conditions for a new beginning.
Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians cannot be left as it is. The lack of any strategy is strengthening the extremists, who exploit a sense of hopelessness amongst ordinary Palestinians and preach violence as the only course.
Hamas and the Palestinian Authority
HAMAS IS allowed to run the Gaza Strip and terrorize both their own population and Israeli citizens on the border. Israeli military action is deployed only when absolutely necessary for security reasons, or to placate public opinion after yet another horrendous terrorist murder. Simultaneously, the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership are unable to point to any significant benefits from their security cooperation with Israel and opposition to the use of violence.
So the net result of the current strategy is a tolerance of Hamas and a message that opposing violence delivers nothing in return. As Abbas’ leadership reaches its final stages, if nothing changes, he will be replaced by a more extreme, radical leadership whose mandate will be to use all methods, including terrorism, to attack Israel.
Israel must urgently reconsider its strategy. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Israelis facing the constant threat of rockets and terrorist attacks have a right to be freed from the tyranny of Hamas. All Palestinians have the right to hope for a better future with greater freedom and enhanced life opportunities. This is consistent with Jewish values but also the most credible security policy.
A hard-headed, meaningful new process to deliver progress in relations with the PA will also help to provide the Saudi regime with the comfort they need to normalize relations with Israel. This normalization is strategically important in dealing with the Iranian threat.
Israel must also not underestimate the power of the global campaign to perniciously label Israel an apartheid state and argue for a one-state solution. This is dangerous and should not be ignored.
It is true that hard lessons must be learned from the historical peace processes in which Israel countenanced painful compromises with Yasser Arafat, who remained a terrorist until the day he died. However, the status quo is unsustainable and not in Israel’s interests. The current approach is weakening and not strengthening Israel’s security.
A new strategy should be developed with the United States, Israel’s Abraham Accords partner countries, and NATO and EU allies. The challenges are great and national unity is not a nice to have, it is central to Israel’s survival and security.
Unity should be built on mutual respect that doesn’t require anyone to compromise sincerely held beliefs but to believe the best and not the worst of their fellow citizens.
Unity must be nurtured by a new leadership with the integrity and courage to rebuild public trust and propose the big changes that are needed to Israel’s constitutional, settlement and democratic institutions.
The writer is a former UK MP for Bury South (1997-2019.) He served as a government minister (2001-2010), including a period as a UK minister for the Middle East. He is said to have become the first ever Jewish MP to wear a kippah in the House of Commons, after becoming religious.
This article is based on a speech delivered, this week, at the Young Israel of North Netanya synagogue.