How liberal democracy is losing ground in Israel

By Dow Marmur

Jerusalem (Sept. 13, 2017) – In view of recent decisions by Israel’s Supreme Court, citizens may have a point when they ask, “Who’s really running the country, the Knesset or the Supreme Court?” Two Court decisions published earlier this week come especially to mind: the Supreme Court’s opinion that (1) the government has no right to exempt Orthodox yeshiva students from military service, and (2) that there ought to be ways to enable restaurant to serve kosher food outside the supervision of the official Rabbinate.

The conscription issue has been with Israel as long as the state is in existence. Originally, it didn’t seem to matter much because there were relatively few ultra-Orthodox Jews in the country. But things have changed. Today, they constitute a sizeable part of the young population.

One of the arguments, frequently put forward by the Orthodox, is something along the lines that while the army only seeks to protect Jews, the yeshiva students protect Judaism and, therefore, are a greater security asset than the armed forces. In truth, however, though these men are studying there’s little evidence that they’re learning much. Even in terms of ultra-Orthodox scholarship, there seems to be very little significant output. For many, we surmise, subsidized yeshiva “studies” is a lazy way of making a living.

Those of us who support liberal democracy are grateful that the Court is doing its utmost to preserve Israel as envisaged by its founders.

Needless to say, those of us who support the liberal democracy on which the Jewish state was created – and which the present government is eroding – are delighted with the Supreme Court decisions and grateful that the Court is doing its utmost to preserve Israel as envisaged by its founders.

But there’re also those who say that only the Knesset is entitled to make decisions that affect matters of state. If it wishes to exempt yeshiva students from military service, and if it wants the Rabbinate to have a franchise on kashrut, it should be able to legislate accordingly.

The fear is that the Ultra-Orthodox will get their way because keeping the coalition – and thus himself – in power is more important to the prime minister than the well-being of the country and its citizens. I’ve written enough about it in the past not to belabor the point again.

Sadly, those who seek to maintain universal conscription, freedom to choose one’s kashrut authority and suchlike probably can’t muster a majority in the Knesset. Even if Avigdor Lieberman’s fiercely secular, but small, political party, though part of the coalition, won’t support the ultra-Orthodox demands, these will get through. And Lieberman may be too much in love with his present exalted position as Minister of Defense to even try to topple the coalition and thus lose his place in the sun.

In addition to blaming the degenerate Left, ultra-Orthodox spokesmen also identify Reform Jews as enemies of the people. Thus recently Shlomo Amar, former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and now chief rabbi of Jerusalem, announced that Reform Jews are worse than Holocaust deniers.

The prime minister seems reluctant to support us in order not to annoy his Orthodox coalition partners. His very occasional and very vague “liberal” pronouncements have usually been made in English for foreign consumption in the hope that they won’t reach the ultra-Orthodox Hebrew media.

Liberal democracy is losing ground; it behooves us not to lose hope and to remember Amos Oz’s dictum: I love Israel even when I can’t stand it.

Rabbi Dow Marmur is Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He lives in Jerusalem.

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