Today is Tisha B’Av. This is the month during which the Jewish people traditionally mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem—the symbol of Jewish sovereignty and the exile and diaspora that followed.
As hundreds of thousands of Israelis continue to take to the streets to protest the Israeli government’s attempt to eviscerate its own democracy, it’s important to remember how Jewish tradition teaches that a reason for the downfall of the Jewish kingdom was “sinat chinam” or baseless hatred.
And right now those of us who care about Israel’s future must recognize that the country remains in terrible danger because of the baseless hatred of this government towards those Israelis—and all of us around the world—who disagree with its authoritarian agenda. While citizens exercise their freedom of protest, sitting cabinet ministers describe them as anarchists and urge the police to punish them heavy-handedly. Reservists who refuse to serve are branded disloyal and traitorous. This coalition’s members have most notably described women’s rights, Reform and Conservative denominations, and LGBTQ individuals as abominations, heretics, and alien influences.
Usually, “sinat chinam” describes needless hatred between Jews, but in a modern Israeli state we must also include warrantless hatred directed at fellow citizens of any race or creed. In particular, Palestinian citizens have been constantly demonized and delegitimized over the past five elections. This government even tried—and failed thanks to the court’s “reasonableness doctrine”—to block Arab bereaved parents from something as humanely dignifying as attending the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Memorial Ceremony.
If we care about Israel, we must stand in support of those Israelis who are pushing back against the attempts to change their country into an ethno-religious autocracy. What Tisha B’Av calls for this year is not just reflection, but action.
That’s what we do at the New Israel Fund—we support those activists on the ground in Israel who demand democracy and are working for a better future for everyone.
The kinds of Israelis we fund are the Israelis who do the opposite, fighting for the safety and inclusion of every member of society. The kinds of pro-democracy Israelis who, let’s say, see that their freedom to live a religious life depends upon the same democratic protections over equality as their Palestinian, queer, Reform, and secular fellow citizens. That’s not a hypothetical group of people—that’s exactly the type of Israeli exemplified by our recent emergency funding to the new group “The Faithful Left.” (Read more about their work this Tisha B’Av in today’s Haaretz.)
The events of this week marked a victory of sinat chinam. On Monday, the first piece of the far-right judicial coup in Israel passed in the Knesset 64-0: the elimination of the “reasonableness” standard. The entire opposition boycotted the vote. Despite twenty-nine weeks of mass protest, strikes, marches, and acts of civil disobedience by hundreds of thousands of Israelis—and despite the warnings of Israel’s best friends in the world including Canada and the United States—Netanyahu’s settler-led government passed this key law.
Its goal is clear: to weaken the judiciary, the only real check on the government’s power. This standard is important. It is what has prevented Netanyahu from successfully appointing a man who was convicted of tax evasion, corruption, bribery and fraud—Aryeh Deri of Shas—as a minister in his government. When Netanyahu wanted to appoint him, the court said no, the appointment of a recent felon to such a position was “unreasonable.”
This is why Netanyahu wants to ax it. First, because he needs a stable coalition to stay in power. He wants to be able to appoint people like Deri, whether or not they have a criminal record of corruption, to his cabinet. And second, because Netanyahu himself is still on trial and he wants to be able to fire people like the Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara, who he fears is an independent and honest official, not beholden to him—and thus a threat. Netanyahus’ own Communications Minister Shomo Karhi has said on the record that the only thing standing between Netanyahu and firing her is the reasonableness clause.”
Passing this law weakens Israel’s democracy, economy, security, and global standing. It is difficult to overstate just how significant this moment is.
NIF’s CEO Daniel Sokatch explained it best: “The elimination of this standard would not end Israel’s checks and balances, but it would chip away at them. We know that democracy does not die overnight. It does not fade in an instant. It is whittled away as gatekeepers are replaced by ‘yes’ men and women. It is shrunken when the right to protest (and rights of protestors) are threatened, all while driving off a cliff into the abyss of apartheid.”
The New Israel Fund of Canada and our on-the-ground partners need you right now. Please consider making a gift right now to reaffirm your commitment to Israeli democracy today.
Amidst the darkness and uncertainty of this month of Av, I want to end on a note of hope from Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, from a piece he wrote for Haaretz recently. He wrote:
“I hope that the government of Israel stops its antidemocratic power-grab, heals the national wounds, puts down the flames of Hawara, and prevents a Third Destruction, whether material or spiritual. And if the government of Israel carries on with its dangerous policies, then it is the duty of all Jews, wherever they live, to resist this government in every nonviolent way we know.”
As we observe Tisha B’Av, we stand with those Israelis fighting hatred and prejudice. If we are to prevent a Third Destruction, then they need our support in every way. This holiday, that is how we best take action.