Bret Stephens

Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wound

On Monday, the American Anthropological Association approved a resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions. It’s the sort of illiberal and curiously targeted gesture — the association has confirmed to The Times that it has no similar boycott against any other country’s academic institutions, not even Russia’s.

But why get worked up over the harms some feckless anthropologists are trying to inflict on the Jewish state when that state is doing so much worse to itself?

The group’s resolution coincided with the Israeli Knesset’s vote to approve contentious legislation limiting the power of the judiciary. This is a true disaster for Israel not because the bill is “anti-democratic” but because it risks depriving the country of its most potent weapon: the fierce loyalty of its most productive and civically engaged citizens.

With those citizens — the tech entrepreneurs, the air force reservists, the world-famous novelists, and doctors — Israel stands in a league with Switzerland and Singapore: a boutique nation, small and imperfect but widely associated with excellence in dozens of fields.

Without those citizens, Israel is in the club with Hungary and Serbia: a little country, insular and pettily corrupt and good mainly at nursing its grievances.

That’s why the particulars of the legislation matter less than the way it was carried out and the motives of those who championed it. For the most part, they represent Israel’s least productive and engaged citizens — ultra-Orthodox Jews who want military exemptions and welfare, settlers who want to be a law unto themselves, ideologues in think tanks — abusing their temporary majority to secure exemptions, entitlements, immunities and other privileges that mock the idea of equality under law.

That’s not to say that the idea of judicial reform is meritless, at least in the abstract. Israel has an unusually powerful judiciary that over several decades arrogated powers to itself that were never democratically given and that elsewhere are considered strictly political, such as adjudging the “reasonableness” of ministerial appointments and actions. The doctrine of “reasonableness” was the subject of Monday’s legislation.

At the same time, Israel has no written constitution clearly delineating, as America’s does, the separation of powers. And it has no meaningful institutional check on the executive and legislature other than the Supreme Court. It is the court that guarantees that human, civil, women’s and minority rights are respected and that parliamentary majorities can’t simply do as they please.

Under a more scrupulous prime minister than Benjamin Netanyahu, a grand compromise between the government and opposition might have been worked out, one that could have reined in the judiciary without gutting it, giving neither side total victory but preserving a broad social consensus. Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president, spent months with legal advisers fashioning proposals that would have done exactly that.

But the point of the legislation isn’t reform, much less consensus. It’s an exercise in raw political power carried out by legislators bent on trying to achieve legal impunity from a court that has tried to hold them to account. Israel wouldn’t be in this national meltdown if Netanyahu weren’t trying to wangle out of his criminal indictment by holding on to power in his coalition of the bigoted, the corrupt, the dependent, and the extreme.

A statesman sacrifices himself for his nation. A demagogue sacrifices his nation for himself.

The crisis in Israel is sometimes described as a battle of left against right, secular against religious, Ashkenazi against Mizrahi Jews. This is a vast overgeneralization: Netanyahu is a scion of the secular Ashkenazi elites, while many in the opposition, like former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, are religiously observant and right-wing.

What is true is that the new dividing line in Israel is no longer between liberals and conservatives. It’s between liberals and illiberals. It’s between those who believe that democracy encompasses a set of norms, values and habits that respect and enforce sharp limits on power and those who will use their majorities to do whatever they please in matters of politics so that they may eventually do whatever they please in matters of law.

Perhaps because of the long history of Jewish dispossession, many Israelis seem keenly attuned to the danger. A poll last week of 734 Israeli founders and C.E.O.s of start-ups and managing directors of venture capital firms found that more than two-thirds were taking steps to move their assets outside Israel in anticipation of the new law. There’s also been a reported surge in Israelis seeking second passports. Israel’s demographic challenges are well known, but there’s a challenge within the challenge: If the people who made Israel the Start-up Nation are heading for the exits, the long-term basis of Israel’s power will erode. Prayers won’t save Israel if it lacks a world-class economy to sustain a regionally dominant military.

Israelis have a penchant for hyperbole, and this week has brought a lot of lamentations about the “end of Israeli democracy.” That’s an unwarranted counsel of despair as well as an overstatement.

The New York Times