Israel, often referred to as the region’s “only functioning democracy,” seems to be disintegrating in front of our eyes and the eyes of the rest of the world. The Israel-Palestine conflict became a torrential storm of bullets, bombs, and horror over the past four months, attracting global attention. While the country fractures from grief, its political unity is also under increased stress. In recent weeks, for the first time since October 7th, there are some headlines about Israeli politics and the future of its current governing coalition that is not principally about Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel and its military response. This is because, as the New YorkTimes reported on the first day of 2024, “The decision by Israel’s highest court on Monday to strike down a contentious law weakening the judiciary prompted strong reactions in a country whose fractious public had largely set political differences aside since the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7.” Those watching events in Israel from a distance are greeted with analysis and stories that remind us of the months of unprecedented street protests that had thousands of Israelis marching against the current governing coalition’s judicial reform plan.
Though it is too soon to tell what the ripple effects of this precedent-setting decision will be, the once-again quite large protests held on Saturday evenings are a clear reminder of scenes seen last summer, such as a sea of people pouring out into the streets and chaotic scenes of riot gear-clad mounted police. These images were being spread online in the wake of the passage of the judicial reform, a key provision of which has now been struck. If there is some hope for a counterbalance to the disintegration of democracy in Israel, it would only be because the attacks on the balance of power in the Israeli political system advanced by the current governing coalition before the war began are not allowed to stand. This Supreme Court decision might be a first step in that direction, and toward the emergence of a more genuinely democratic Israel when this war is brought to an end.
It is important to remember that this past July marks five years since Israel’s controversial Nation-State Law (NSL) was proposed. While the recent Supreme Court decision does not change anything about the legal status of the NSL, without a doubt had the court allowed the current governing coalition’s curtailment of Judicial Review to stand, every obstacle to the establishment of a government by and for Israel as a “nation not of all its citizens” would have been removed.
Regardless of this new development, the NSL has numerous negative implications for non-Jewish residents of Israel; this law also complicates the lives of Jewish citizens. Israel’s main governing body acts on ultra-Orthodox values, evident in the NSL, which has led to increasing restrictions for women and threatens the status of Reform Judaism worldwide. While it is generally understood that, since its founding in 1948, the modern State of Israel has been the nation–state of the Jewish people; for its first 70 years of existence, however, this was not explicitly written into law. The passage of the NSL changed this, sparking uncertainty regarding the status of ethnic minorities due to statements in the NSL that demote the Arabic language to “special status,” as well as disregarding the loyalty–and military service–of the Druze minority amongst other things. Over the past five years, this has caused increased tensions across the general population. Most consequentially, the law (which is very vague for such a basic statement of national identity and governance) suggests that any sitting government can implement unspecified reforms, disregarding the support of Israeli citizens for such changes. A most recent example is the new judicial reforms Netanyahu attempted and failed to implement throughout the country.
By striving to limit the role of the Supreme Court, the government is amassing more power than is appropriate for a balanced democracy, effectively minimizing Israeli lawmakers and citizens to confront unethical practices within the ruling coalition. The reforms fueled protests all of last year, with people streaming into the streets in the tens of thousands across Israel, raising their voices against the undemocratic consolidation of power. In addition to this, the judicial branch consists of the Rabbinical courts. These courts handle all manner of issues, one of which is marriage law. All legitimate Jewish marriages must be certified by the Rabbinical courts, meaning that many people must provide proof of Jewish identity. This also affects the legality of same-sex marriage, which is another cause for uproar amongst the nation’s population. Religion has seeped into the lives of Israeli residents, more than 20% of whom are not Jewish, and is restricting their freedoms.
With its program of legislation to limit the role of the courts, the current government is consciously shifting the balance of power in Israel. However, with its limited yet precedent-setting decision, the Court has preserved a space for minority rights despite the growing tendency toward ethnic and religious domination. The fact, though, that the decision was quite divided, with one key part garnering only an 8-7 majority among the voting justices, shows the increasing influence of “traditional” (Jewish) values, which are restricting citizens and blatantly demonstrating the lack of boundaries between the country’s branches of government. The Supreme Court’s vote was a narrow win for democracy, but with the NSL intact, there is no guarantee that civil liberties won’t come under attack again.
The accelerated merging of religion with all aspects of Israel’s government has implications not only for the citizens of the nation-state but for Jews across the world. Due to the global Jewish diaspora, new traditions and customs have been developed, and most of these are Reform Judaism’s characteristics. However, the NSL calls into question these customs’ legitimacy. Section 6.c of the NSL established that:
“The State shall act to preserve the cultural, historical, and religious heritage of the Jewish People among Jews of the Diaspora.”
Given its monopoly of power over Jewish religious practice in Israel, it is easy to see this section of the NSL as not only justifying the current Israeli government’s policy that Orthodox Judaism alone should be the standard of Jewish belief and practice not only in Israel but also its goal to preserve this understanding of Jewish identity among diaspora Jews, myself included. For our purposes, the crux of this statement is its implications for the status of women. Growing up in America as a female, with the majority of the Jewish population being reformed, I have been offered every opportunity that the men around me have been offered: I read from the Torah freely, study whenever and whatever I please, and pursue any activities that interest me. In Israel, it is uncommon for women to read from the Torah, and over the past five years, there has been an increase in gender segregation not only in regard to religious practice but also in higher education and the army. These restrictions on women result from increased ultra-orthodox influence within the government. The Reform branch of Judaism in Israel, which practices gender inclusivity, will be jeopardized in the coming years and the noose placed around its head will soon tighten around Reform branches worldwide as well. When traditional values are imposed onto all Israeli citizens, it creates exclusivity in terms of what it means to be a Jew and what actions are acceptable for active members of the religion and permissible for women.
The NSL is destabilizing the precarious balance between the religious and the secular-motivated democratic values of the Israeli government. By causing tensions amongst ethnic minorities and threatening the status of reform Jews and more liberal customs, this law, while vague in nature and namely symbolic, opens Israel up to internal rifts with profound consequences on its citizens and the Jewish people both within Israel and across the diaspora. It might be that striking down the judicial overhaul in Israel will support democratic processes in an already fractured society under tremendous pressure from within and without.
Natali Sarraf, an Israeli-American and senior at Bloomington High School South in Bloomington, IN.