The Social Roots of Israel’s Judicial and Political Crisis

Inside of Israel's Supreme Court. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
In November 2022, a far-right coalition government came to power in Israel. Led by Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, this new government began pursuing what some have described as a quasi-authoritarian political agenda, which has sparked concern among Israelis and international observers alike. The articles in our “Focus Israel” series offer a wide range of insights, commentaries, and criticisms on what many consider to be a growing threat to the preservation of democracy in Israel. The New Fascism Syllabus‘ “Focus Israel” series is being coordinated and edited by Jennifer Evans, Brian J Griffith, and Sophie Wunderlich.

The Zionist movement and the State of Israel have always been characterized by internal contradictions and differences in everything related to their identity, goals, and strategy to achieve them. However, they were also distinguished by their ability to overcome internal crises and find diversified ways to bridge differences and pursue a path that enables them to invest their internal energies to move forward based on what is agreed upon by the political majority with the blessing of the economic, academic, and judicial elites. These days, Israel is experiencing a deep crisis after five electoral cycles in three and a half years and after deciding to grant a majority to an extremist right-wing government. The culminating tension between the ruling coalition and the growing oppositional forces demonstrates the rampant extremism and polarization that pervades Israeli society.

With all its so-called “judicial reform,” the current crisis in Israel has brought tens of thousands to the streets to protest. It has led many political, academic, economic, and judicial elites to speak in a critical language we have not heard before. Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut’s criticism of the proposed reform is an aberration of the norm by state officials versus the political class. This suggests that the crisis cannot be seen as a transient personal crisis or a simple institutional competition. The judicial reform plan forms part of the changes that will affect all components of the relationship between the judiciary, on the one hand, and the legislative and executive authority, on the other. It is causing a stir because it means a radical change in Israel’s constitutional system. This change would give semi-absolute power to the executive authority, especially its head. It would grant him complete control over all decision-making processes without oversight from any other authority in the state as long as he has a parliamentary majority. However, this crisis has certain aspects and causes that must be addressed to understand its severity and depth and whether the political and judicial elite can overcome it.

Unlike previous crises, the current crisis is more complex and cannot be explained with elitist and institutional terms. This is because it has deep social roots that cut deep into the composition of Jewish society. It is not just a conflict between the various state branches over authority and influence. This crisis permeates the ethnic identities within the Jewish community. Most of those who support judicial reform come from parties that enjoy the support of social groups of predominantly oriental descent. These groups feel that the historically dominant Ashkenazi elites have marginalized them. These groups are aligned with nationalist extremist ideological forces, primarily religious nationalists who support settlements and the oriental Orthodox (Haredim) supporters of the Shas party. These social groups have a historical resentment of the judiciary and its decisions, which they believe have a liberal Ashkenazi ethnic identity. This resentment, usually formulated in professional language concerning the appropriate balance between the judiciary and the Knesset, has taken an ethnic twist by filing accusations against Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, and later blocking the possibility of appointing Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas party, as a minister in the government. These social groups believe these decisions express political stances rather than judicial decisions based on general constitutional norms. This claim affects the judiciary’s decisions and the camp that supports it concerning the balance between Jewish and democratic components, and what this entails regarding settlement policies in the occupied territories and the status of religious institutions in determining the nature of the public sphere and personal rights and freedoms.

It is difficult to get into all the circumstances of this crisis. However, it goes without saying that, because of its social roots, it can be considered a precedent in its severity and would bring Israel into a new constitutional order on the one hand and a deep political and social rift that could slide into civil disobedience on the other. Therefore, we must question the similarities or differences between this crisis and the crises that preceded it in the Zionist movement or the Israeli state’s history. Is it a transient crisis that the political elites will be able to overcome in one way or another? Or is it a crisis that necessitates radical changes that affect the constitutional identity of the state? Bringing not only a new political system, but also a reality in which the liberal Ashkenazi sectors of society are less able to control their lifestyles, which would push them into confrontation or disengagement, forcing some of them to favor emigration.

In order to deal coherently with this crisis, it is advisable to put it in a broader context that helps to understand its depth and circumstances. Therefore, it is worthwhile to reconsider teleology, a term introduced in 1724 by the German philosopher Christian Wolff. With it, he meant a destination or intention for historical development, which the philosopher of history, Friedrich Hegel, turned into a fundamental focus of his philosophy. It was said that there are people in history who work to achieve or reveal an underlying logic in historical acts, events, and facts. This logic may be manifested through historical turning points that elevate historical development to higher levels. This terminology that history has a destination underlies many assumptions and is characterized by many dimensions that are difficult to address here. However, the basic premise is that history has a spiritual and rational logic and progresses through contradictions and rivalries between disparate historical forces.

Nevertheless, as the philosopher Theodore Adorno has pointed out, we are aware that historical progress is not necessarily positive and that there are twists and turns in historical development, such as ebbs and flows and ups and downs. However, they do not occur due to preconceived logic or serve a rational idea embedded in them. This not only makes advance predictions of history difficult, but also calls into question the dialectical hypothesis of the positivity of history. The dialectic of history can lead to a fall into a bottomless abyss. Unlike Hegel’s hypothesis, history cannot be confined to an Aristotelian middle logic that transforms equilibrium into an inevitability in history. Adorno argued that the contradictions of history could be unbalanced, irrational, and negative. Like what happened in other countries around the world, primarily in Germany, one of the most civilized countries in Europe in the early twentieth century. Despite his criticism, Adorno did not object to the existence of historical agents. These agents would play an important role in strengthening the historical debate to the point of breaking the equilibrium and thus falling into an abyss from which it is difficult to rise and advance to a better position.

This understanding of the dialectic of history losing its equilibrium due to the changing circumstances in which these balances arose, gives us a comfortable theoretical framework for a careful reading of what is happening in Israel today, which would benefit from this philosophical vision of history. The internal contradictions in Israeli society have reached a new stage, reflected in part in proposals to change the judicial system so that it is subjected to the full will of the executive authority. These proposals are part of a profound historical process. They are, therefore, not limited to being driven by a prime minister accused of corruption and breach of public trust. In this case, we are talking about a societal and elitist coup that is trying to establish a system that serves its interests and ideological vision in an institutional structure that no judicial power can overturn in the future. This is why what is happening in Israel is not normal judicial reform. Rather, it is a profound authoritarian coup led by extremist social groups that want to achieve influence in accordance with their status, vision, and interests. Thus, if they succeed, this would be a serious departure from the type of contradictions that the Zionist movement or the State of Israel have experienced in the past.

The first factor that would change the course of the familiar balances in the history of the state is the social changes taking place in Israeli society. Foremost is the rise in power of religiously and nationally conservative social groups, led by Mizrahi Jews, who support the Likud, Shas, and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) parties. In addition, there is an ongoing rapprochement between these groups and extremist nationalist forces of Ashkenazi origins, led by the Religious Zionist Party, as reflected in the last elections in November 2022. The importance of these social forces stems from the fact that many of them feel marginalized. They propagate that they have been manipulated and exploited by political elites, who are essentially Ashkenazi liberal nationalist groups that have held key positions in state institutions for decades, primarily in the security, political, economic, and judicial branches. Accordingly, the dominant influence of the liberal national elites was based on a closed, elitist consensus. Through it, national policies are implemented under a liberal cover with majority procedural mechanisms, as is standard practice in democratic regimes. The institutional procedures followed agreed mechanisms that enabled the competition between different elites, but simultaneously allowed the exploitation of peripheral societal groups for decades. The influential elites were able to dedicate social forces in their favor without compromising the institutional mechanisms of the system to achieve their objectives. These elites shared a national vision with foundations in the various societal sectors, primarily the economic and military sectors.

The ongoing transformations in society and the rise of political forces with oriental ethnic roots play into the hands of some political leaders, large part of which are from Ashkenazi origin, who seek to confront the institutional system, especially the judiciary. Hence, they have the ability to implement and achieve their political will without being held accountable. In this context, they mobilized the resentment felt by large sections of the ideological right across all its formations, especially Mizrahim, against the existing institutional system.

Despite the fact that the will of power of some leaders in the extreme right-wing parties is inconsistent, their hostility to the judiciary pulls them together to undermine the dominance of the liberal elites by blasting their institutional base. They accuse the judicial system of being inclined towards the liberal elites, who, accordingly, continue to occupy central positions in the public sector. This allows these elites to limit the right-wing political forces from implementing their majoritarian will and applying their political vision. It is argued that the liberal elites utilize constitutional principles at times and the common public good, national security, and Israel’s international interests at other times. This is why right-wing parties representing conservative sectors of society, primarily those of oriental descent, accuse the judicial institutions of standing in the way of the public’s democratic will, which has been reflected in the elections and public opinion for years.

This claim has gained momentum in recent years. In particular, after several election cycles in which liberal elites withheld confidence from the leader of the right-wing camp after indictments were filed against him. The right-wing camp sees this as an attempt to overcome its democratic will and use the language of the law to bring it down judicially. This claim reinforces the historical confrontation between the judiciary and Shas party leader, Aryeh Deri, who enjoys the blind trust of large segments of the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox. They accuse the judiciary of trying to eliminate their leader for being of Eastern origin.

Furthermore, they consider the Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban Deri from serving as a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth government, a confrontation that is not only personal, but also sectarian and ideological. According to them, this decision nullifies the democratic will of the majority. This majority elected the right-wing parties and granted them support to form a government with a different vision than those influential in the judicial institutions. Right-wing leaders of Mizrahi origins clearly stated that the judiciary serves the vision and political interests of the historically hegemonic Ashkenazi elites. Critics support their claim by utilizing the ethnic distribution of the Supreme Court’s judges, who are mostly Ashkenazi. They believe that this decision underscores the need for radical changes in the institutional and constitutional balance of power to implement the will of the elected majority, which, in their view, expresses the highest principle of democracy.

This social analysis brings us to a second central factor that must be addressed in order to understand the current crisis, which is valuational and ideological. As mentioned above, there is intellectual, social, and ideological pluralism in the Jewish community in Israel. Nevertheless, there has always been overlapping consensus on the rules of the game and the fundamental strategic objectives in almost all fields, with some margins for diversity and difference. This consensus is beginning to crack in everything related to the identity of the Jewish state, in particular concerning the subjection of the state to religious doctrine, the policies towards the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories, the nature of the Israeli public sphere, and the discrimination against the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community in the allocation of state resources. The prevalent claim is that there is a historical injustice against social groups with conservative and religious values in the social periphery, including in the distribution of state budgets.

The societal rift and disputes over the status and rights of different population groups have led to political rebellion among conservative groups with Mizrahi, Haredi, and religious-nationalist roots. These groups are close to each other with regard to their conservative religious orientation, their radical nationalist vision, and their lack of commitment to international human rights norms, which they believe have imposed obligations on Israel that are not in line with its interests. All the surveys and research underway in Israel show that the rise of these forces has strengthened the dominance of the radical religious nationalist vision in the Jewish community. It has created a new situation in which there is a growing polarization, not only at the procedural and institutional levels, but also at the social, economic and ideological levels. The rising social forces seek to utilize democratic procedures to promote violations of democratic values, especially principles of equality, institutionalized by the Supreme Court as a central principle of the Israeli constitutional identity. Therefore, they view the objection to the proposed legal changes in the reform plan as part of the objection to the right of the right-wing majority to implement its policies as they see fit.

Until now, the conservative social forces and their populist leaders remain committed to the democratic game with its procedural aspect in order to serve their interests and vision. At the forefront of this is the support of anti-liberal religious values, foremost of which is the undermining of universal individual and pluralistic rights and freedoms, especially of women and Arab citizens. Its main claim is that majority rule, which is the basic meaning of democracy, allows for the majority’s will to be translated into state policies in all areas, including constitutional transformations, necessary to prevent judicial scrutiny over majoritarian decisions. Any objection to that means non-compliance with the rules of democracy. This is how these forces turned magic on the magician. That is, they harnessed the democratic equation based on majority rule, using it to their advantage in the internal balance of power. Through it, they seek to turn constitutional policies that violate the fundamental rights of the Palestinian community and subject it to the rule of a tyrannical Jewish majority. This includes deepening the existing privileges for the Jewish community at the expense of the Palestinian community. In other words, the conservative and religious social forces play the majority card vis-à-vis all those who oppose them, including the liberal sectors within Jewish society, who are bashed for betraying basic Zionist values in the name of universal human rights.

A large majority of the current ruling coalition claims that democracy means subjugating all state institutions, including the Supreme Court, to the principle of the majority mandate. This means there is a fundamental contradiction between the political ideology of the nationalist right and the predominant constitutional institutions, which they are now attempting to subject to the popular will with populist characteristics. The nationalist right claims that if the judicial institutions do not accept their submission to the will of the majority, they will be replaced, removed, or voided of their significance and bypassed. This will be done by delegitimizing them, changing their composition, and transferring some of their powers to alternative institutions that perform the required function under an alternative legal cover. The direct attacks on the State Attorney General are a good example of the systematic effort to weaken the judicial system in order to undermine horizontal accountability, which is considered one of the central markers of democratic rule.

The current contradiction is inherently an existential sociological, and ideological conflict for both sides. It has implications for the future of the state, particularly as we are talking about mutually reinforcing societal cleavages reflected in the state’s official institutions. This means that the current crisis in Israel is not just judicial and elitist. It is a social, ideological, and institutional crisis about what the Jewish state is and how this identity fits in with maintaining its democratic procedures. These procedures have long helped the ruling elites achieve their policies through a clear separation between majority procedural decisions and achieving discriminatory objectives that are intrinsically anti-democratic. The attempts by the majority that won the parliamentary majority in the November 2022 elections to change the rules of the game is to exploit the same pattern of political thought. These changes would create an arrangement between state institutions allowing the executive and legislative authority to subject the judiciary to its will. Thus, they would consolidate the influence of the conservative social sectors in the corridors of power and limit any future possibility for power to return to the liberal elites. This means that we are talking about coup attempts not only against the judiciary, but also against Ashkenazi domination. While also pushing policies that would enhance Israeli control in the occupied territories in the West Bank on the one hand and strengthen the religious character of the Israeli public sphere on the other. Accordingly, the dominant right sets conditions for the liberal groups in the Jewish community to either join them or relinquish their influence in state institutions.

The conservative right-wing parliamentary majority has populist, authoritarian features reflected in the character of Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has succeeded in fanning the flames of internal Jewish racism to achieve his political will and escape prosecution for corruption and breach of trust. The irony of fate is reflected in the historical role that Netanyahu’s personality plays in exposing the contradictions of value equations and double standards in Israeli institutions, which, even if they speak in the language of rights, limit them to themselves or according to their terms. This has aroused the resentment of marginalized groups in the Jewish community, who see an opportunity to exploit the institutions to impose their will, implement their vision and support their interests.

The current conflict shows how democratic procedures that have been used for decades as a cover to achieve objectives aimed at achieving Jewish supremacy with a liberal hue or veil, but are essentially racist, are now being used to promote racism and national supremacy within the Jewish community in reverse. This transformation shows that the dialectic of history, although not necessarily reasonable and rational, produces facts that have succeeded in hiding themselves for a long time. Thus, it exposes the true face of identities embraced by groups based on an oppressive super racism that suppresses all who stand in its way, even if they were its ally yesterday. This is what we are witnessing now in Israel. The democratic veil enshrined by societal sectors of Ashkenazi origin and formulated in institutions, foremost of which is the Supreme Court, confirms identity hierarchies that target the Palestinian, but also subject those from Mizrahi origins to its civilizational and nationalist vision. This veil is disappearing because the nationalist right, supported by predominately Mizrahi groups, does not need it. On the contrary, they see it as an obstacle to achieving their national and religious ideological goals. They work hard to exploit the majority procedure to impose their will on all the rules of the game, including the influential elites’ disposition, revealing their true fangs. They try to impose themselves on a reality based on the negation of the other who does not accept their superiority. These show the self-alienation of a civilized, liberal nationalist religious identity as a possible model. It also exposes the faultiness in the possibility of combining a national-Jewish essence of the state and a genuine democratic system.

The coming days will witness how the conflict will be resolved. Although it is possible for different groups and sectors of society, foremost the security and economic leadership, to intervene to heal the rift, the Israeli reality will not return to its previous state. The mutual suspicion between the two camps is widening. Regardless of how things turn out, it is inevitable that this conflict will have dubious repercussions on ethnic relations in Jewish society, Jewish-Palestinian relations and the reality of the Arab citizens of the state. This raises the need to reflect deeply about what is the right strategy for the leadership of the dwindling peace camp and whether they are doing what is required to deal with the various possible scenarios.


Amal Jamal is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Political Communication at Tel Aviv University

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