Israel’s Judicial Reform Shows Growing Left-Right Divide Among Jews

The Israeli government last week passed preliminary approval for the nation’s hotly contested judicial reforms. For the first time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a coalition unanimous in its decision to pursue reforms, including two articulate, determined partners in the figures of Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman, the current Minister of Justice and the head of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, respectively.

Predictably, the 63-47 vote to advance the proposed reforms immediately drew large numbers of left-leaning Israeli protestors into the streets. If the reforms reach final approval, they would allow for a simple legislative majority to reject Supreme Court decisions that do not reflect the will of the people, as represented by their elected officials. Considering that since the late 1970s, most Israelis have tended to vote for right-wing or center-right parties, the Israeli left is facing the threat of losing a major component of its continued stronghold over the country’s institutions.

This threat is also the reason these reforms have drawn much interest from other corners of the world, including, recently, from U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The success of the Israeli reforms could potentially have a cascade effect internationally, showing that a progressive justice system could, indeed, be reined in, and heralding a major blow for proponents of deep-state governance everywhere.

The global significance of the Israeli reforms also helps to underscore another important trend noticed by numerous commentators in recent years: that political liberalism and economic globalization undermine national and religious loyalties in the name of ideological affiliations. In almost every Western country, local and particular divisions are receding into the background, while the division between liberals and non-liberals (or “globalists” and “localists”) is rising to the fore.

The British journalist David Goodhart famously described this categorical divide as that between “Anywheres” and “Somewheres,” those defending the old-consensus elites, Davos, the Deep State, and so forth, on the one hand, and those who wish to defend their culture and ways of life from rule by technocrats, on the other. The Israeli public intellectual Gadi Taub has written on the subject from the Israeli perspective, dividing Israelis into what he called “Mobiles” and “Immobiles.”

But whatever terms are used to describe what is going on, the phenomenon helps to explain why liberals and conservatives everywhere tend to find more kinship with those who share their cultural and ideological convictions in other parts of the globe than with opposite-minded members of their own countries.

In the Jewish community, we tend to speak of the growing divide between Israeli and American Jews. According to the popular narrative, Israeli Jews are more communal, religious, and particularistic, while American Jews tend to be more individualistic, progressive, and universalist. And to a great extent, this remains true: 77 percent of Israeli Jews favored the re-election of Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. general elections, whereas the exact same percentage of American Jews favored his opponent, Joe Biden. This was not only because of Trump’s supposedly pro-Israel stance. Most Israelis responded positively to Trump’s message of national pride and defensible borders. But the real division among Jews nowadays is no longer between Israelis and Americans, at least not per se, but rather, like the rest of the world, between “globalists” and “localists.”

This became clear to me as I was reading “An open letter to Israel’s friends in North America,” published in early February by three non-Israeli-born Jews, two Americans and one Canadian: Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi, and Matti Friedman. Their letter came out as the debates and demonstrations regarding the proposed judicial reforms were beginning to intensify. Professing a deep “sense of anguish and anxiety for the future of our country,” the authors drew on a rhetoric—much familiar to those of us who lived in America during the Trump years—about the coming end of Israeli democracy. Resorting to the weary language of “democratic values and institutions,” they contended that “this is no ‘judicial reform,’ but a dramatic alteration that would bring Israel’s governing system closer not to the US and Canada but to Hungary and Turkey.”

One cannot help but feel there is something anachronistic about this letter, because it is written for an increasingly dwindling demographic. First, let us look at the authors themselves. As they note at the beginning of their letter, all three “moved to Israel from North America and raised [their] children [there].” Throughout their careers, they have served in what we may call intermediary positions between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of North America, mostly relaying to the latter how things look from the perspective of the former. In their writings and public engagements, they have frequently defended Israel against its critics, even—and perhaps primarily—those from the Jewish left.

One of the authors of this letter, Daniel Gordis, even wrote a book about the growing divide between Israeli and North American Jews. Accordingly, their target audience has traditionally been what we may call the North American Jewish “center,” those supportive of Israel while progressive on social and cultural issues in the United States and Canada. But how big is that demographic now? How influential is it? How many members younger than 40 or even 50 could it claim among its ranks?

There is one section in the authors’ letter that highlights this anachronism in particular: it is their invocation of Hungary as a metaphor for authoritarianism. Had the authors been acquainted with any of the numerous reports on Hungary to have appeared in the conservative media in America over the last few years—from Christopher Caldwell’s portrait of Viktor Orbán in the Claremont Review of Books, to Rod Dreher’s columns in The American Conservative and Tucker Carlson’s special interview with Orbán—they would have probably come away with a different, or at least more nuanced, impression of the country. Their apparent expectation that their audience would universally agree with their “Hungary equals despotism” formula, suggests to me they have not really kept up with how the political and geopolitical landscapes have shifted. Had they done so, the authors would possibly have had a different opinion not only on Hungary but maybe also on their target audience as well as on the meaning and nature of the present Israeli reforms.

As one reads the letter, it becomes increasingly evident that the authors are not really writing for the former broad-consensus coterie of “Israel’s friends” but exclusively to members of the liberal elite. This letter, therefore, does not come across as a passionate plea from the moderate center against political extremism, but rather as a call for support by Israeli “globalists” from their American counterparts in the resolution of a completely “local” affair.

I cannot say for certain to what extent the Jewish example may serve as a paradigm for the relation between other national communities and their North American diasporas. It may be a unique feature of the Jewish case that the realignment seems to cut across national boundaries. Be that as it may, it seems to me that the old labels of “American” and “Israeli”—and even “Jewish”—mean less and less, while the political groupings mean more and more. Politicians and pundits should therefore take into consideration that just as elites everywhere tend to gravitate towards and resemble each other more and more, conservative Israeli Jews will increasingly feel more comfortable with conservative Catholics or Presbyterians, in America and elsewhere.

In fact, they already do.

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