Israel’s Political System Is Broken
Moments after the polls closed on November 1, Israelis learned that the outcome of the fifth election in three years was decisive. Very. Even with slight tweaks in final numbers, the so-called “right-wing bloc” had a clear path to power, effectively obliterating the fractious opposition parties. The latter carried 48% of the popular vote, but they were fraught with infighting; unable even now to mount a strong, unified threat to the surging right.
I have maintained for months — in the run-up and the aftermath — that this election was the most important since the state was founded, as it would determine the future of Israel: a robust, liberal democracy? Or a variation on extremist-thug-meets-theocracy-lite? What has taken 75 years to build may be dismantled in a very short time. The motivation and background for this alarming development is explored and explained in the following report.
Israelis are very, very worried. Many are in a “wait and see” mode. But the “deals” being made by Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu in order to ensure that his coalition “works” are unconscionable. Repugnant. He is acceding to extortionate demands from his “partners,” who have rightly perceived his weakness and proven themselves adept at exploiting the moment.
There is an expression in Hebrew: עד כאן. The literal translation is “until here.” No further.
“No further” has become a rallying cry.
In the last few decades, many Israelis have very determinedly taken advantage of opportunities to obtain a second passport, usually in European countries where their families originated. “Just in case.” You never know. Why not.
Today they are seriously thinking of using them. As a way out.
In this nation comprised of exiles ingathered, the sense of imminent displacement is embedded deeply in the collective DNA. But that is not why so many are grabbing second nationalities.
People are fed up: With disproportionate ultra-Orthodox political power. With the ongoing Likud-led assault on democratic institutions. With the dual-tongue approach of the prime minister-elect: saying one thing to the foreign English language press and doing quite another in Israel. People are fed up with sending their children off to do military or national service and support a burgeoning Haredi population that steadfastly refuses to serve while demanding — and receiving — impossibly generous taxpayer-funded financial support — for housing. Dental care. Mundane family expenses. Transportation. Everything.
People are fed up with 12% of the population of Israel — the Haredi cohort — controlling who may marry or divorce, the “purity” of Jewishness, the legitimacy of less stringent denominations of Judaism, monopoly over all matters of religion and state — which hands them a very lucrative pot of money to use to reward friends. Like “supervisors” of kashrut standards in restaurants and hotels. Long known to be a cesspool of corruption. Yet the Haredim have been gifted a state-sanctioned monopoly over this and so much more.
Israelis are fed up with extreme religious nationalists like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich being given the tools and latitude to promote their often violent hate-mongering, now legitimized with the imprimatur of the state.
They are fed up with core state institutions — like the Israeli Supreme Court and law enforcement infrastructure, whatever their shortcomings — being vilified and undermined by elected officials. Reform in these areas is badly needed, but authoritarianism is not the way preferred by liberal democrats.
Many Israelis are deeply pained by what they see as being the destruction of Israel from within; the trampling of the principles of liberal democracy, by degree, as the country veers into an environment controlled by religious and cultural extremists who openly value Jewish religious law above all.
To some, it may seem sudden, this cluster of madness. But it has been building for decades; death by a thousand cuts which, suddenly, has become a mortal wound. Society has shifted, in teeny increments, along a continuum, and has awakened long past the tipping point.
Never before has there been such sustained gloom following an election. Never before have so many, so openly, talked of leaving. Relocating. And they are not doing so lightly. Nor are they easily stereotyped.
They are secular, traditional, Modern Orthodox. They are many and varied. They tend to be educated, mobile professionally and committed democrats. People are in a “wait and see” mode. But passivity is no longer a solution. Israel’s macro and micro economies cannot sustain the economic and broad political demands made by Haredim. They cannot and the people decidedly will not. Enough. עד כאן
Infighting has destroyed Jewish nationhood before and we cannot be complacent or arrogant enough to think that it will not repeat.
I write this as a former lawyer, diplomat, lifelong student of history and politics, secular Jewish woman living in Tel Aviv, columnist, writer, entrepreneur. I write this as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and descendant of so many who fled extreme persecution for more peaceful lives. And I write this to give voice to the sacrifice of those who built this magnificent country based on the ideals of equality and liberalism. More than anything, I write this with profound and boundless regret, sadness and rage.
Yes. It is that bad. And it is that serious.
Vivian Bercovici is the founder of stateoftelaviv.com, where a lengthier version of this op-ed appears. A former Canadian Ambassador to Israel, she resides in Tel Aviv. Follow her on Twitter at @stateoftlv, @vivianbercovici