When asked whether I am a citizen of both Israel and the U.S., my half-joking answer of the last few years has been: "Yes, I have the privilege of being a citizen of two countries with dysfunctional political systems." It usually elicited a good chuckle.
After spending about three months in the U.S. watching close-up the 2022 elections and their aftermath, while also watching the October Israeli election and its aftermath from afar, and while preparing to return to Jerusalem, I'm not sure my standard response is all that funny anymore.
Politics and government in both countries appear to be dysfunctional, extreme, polarized, and potentially violent. It is not democracy’s finest hour, to put it mildly.
In the U.S., Kevin McCarthy, desperate to be Speaker of the House, gave positions, voice, and unknown promises to some of the most extreme, election-denying, racist, downright nutty people imaginable.
From Christian Nationalist supporter, 9-11 questioner, election-denying Marjorie Taylor Greene, who thinks Jewish space lasers cause fires, to Holocaust-denier defender, election-denying, accused sex trafficker Matt Gaetz, to election-denying and former college wrestling coach accused of covering up sex abuse Jim Jordan, to election-denying, Holocaust-denier and white-supremacist Paul Gosar, to election-denying, gun-toting, and just plain old batty Lauren Boebert, to pretend Jew, fictional grandson of Holocaust survivors, pretend son of a 9/11 survivor, and pretend Baruch University volleyball star George Santos, McCarthy has got to be captive to the scariest, nuttiest bunch of characters to ever populate the U.S. Congress.
When in the course of McCarthy's humiliating, pandering quest for the votes needed to become Speaker, Gaetz nominated Jordan for the position, it had to be a first in Congressional history: An accused sex-trafficker nominating a former college coach accused of covering up sexual assault against athletes for one of the most powerful positions in the U.S. government, a position whose occupant would be President if something befell both the President and the Vice-President.
In a period of unbelievable lows in American politics, that nomination has to be a strong competitor for the lowest.
Israel appears no better off. Netanyahu is so desperate to be Prime Minister and to avoid going to prison for corruption, he has given positions to some of the most extreme and corrupt characters imaginable, has acceded to proposals that would severely jeopardize Israel’s democracy and long-term economic viability, and has carved up ministries and lines of authority with abandon, arguably jeopardizing the country’s security in the process.
His designated Health Minister and Interior Minister (yes, two!) Arye Deri needs a law passed so that he can serve because he was twice (yes, twice!) convicted for bribery and tax fraud in two (!) different periods as an office holder.
Itamar Ben-Gvir has a decades-long history of violent incidents and provocations to his name, a history that caused the IDF to reject him for service. A disciple of the violent and pro-expulsion Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane, Ben-Gvir long-decorated his living room with a picture of a man who slaughtered 29 Muslim worshipers.
So, of course, in the world of a Bibi Netanyahu only interested in his survival, Ben-Gvir is the perfect candidate for Minister of National Security. And he is apparently so qualified that the Border Police, responsible for often sensitive and vital work in the territories and previously under the Ministry of Defense, is now in the care of Ben-Gvir.
Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich, who proudly described himself as a “fascist homophobe,” is now the Finance Minister. Having served an abbreviated period in the IDF, he is deemed qualified to have authority for two essential organizations responsible for administering affairs in Judea and Samaria, aka the West Bank, authority previously with the Minister of Defense.
Noam Party leader Avi Moaz, who is homophobic in the extreme, who believes non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are illegitimate, and who believes that “foreign foundations and foreign countries that finance study programs in the Education Ministry have infiltrated the country,” was appointed a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and was made head of an office called “The Authority for National-Jewish Identity.” He was given a 100 million shekel budget. He was also given authority over the Education Ministry’s unit responsible for external programming at schools.
Some who try to defend the assault on Israel’s independent judiciary apparently think their case is strengthened by citing the American legal system. It’s a foolhardy defense. The first question that comes to mind: Is the American system working so well that someone would cite it as a model?
In any event, the U.S. has a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, a bicameral legislature, an executive branch separate from the legislative branch (often in the hands of the opposing party), and many other buffers and protections, many of which protect minority voices and minority populations.
Israel has none of these buffers and protections. Israel’s system was perhaps ideal for coalescing and consolidating a nation, for building it and protecting it in a very dangerous neighborhood. For the protection of minority and individual rights and unpopular views, Israel’s system arguably is lacking in essential ways.
The founders who designed the American system were afraid of the emotions, gullibility, and potential tyranny of the masses (as well as the corrupting of the president). They built in all kinds of safeguards (some very clever, some unjust) to put brakes on the masses. While the system could be cumbersome, sluggish, and frustrating, it achieved the founders’ objectives for over two centuries.
There is a decent argument that many of America's current governmental problems are due to the erosion of these safeguards over the years.
One of the major attacks on Israel’s judiciary is the proposal to allow a simple majority of 61 Knesset members to override a judicial decision, thereby effectively eliminating any real power of judicial review. One wonders if the advocates of this proposal, who seem to want to embrace what they perceive as the many limitations on the U.S. court system, know all that much about the court system and decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.
They find offensive the fact that an Israeli Supreme Court President declared that Israeli courts have the right to review and reject legislation passed by the Knesset. One wonders if they know that the principle of judicial review in the American system is found nowhere in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence, or in any other founding documents or laws. Do they know that it was created by none other than a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?
Do they know that in a decision decried as a huge overreach by opponents, five out of nine Supreme Court members made marriage equality a right throughout the country? The justice who wrote the majority decision, appointed by Ronald Reagan, was criticized for writing an opinion that was characterized as heavy on the beauty of love while light on the law.
Are they aware that five out of nine justices, for the first time in the history of the United States, recently repealed a right (a woman’s right to choose) that had been recognized for almost 50 years? Do they know that those five justices put into question the right to privacy long recognized by the Supreme Court, a right that is the foundation for many rights Americans now take for granted?
Do they know that in the year 2000, five justices completely abandoned their oft-stated belief in federalism and states’ rights and effectively decided the presidential election?
In short, the advocates may come to regret what they wish for if what they wish for is a court more like the United States Supreme Court.
It is understandable that much of the focus of concerned Israelis, the media, and American observers has been on the attack on the independent judiciary and the undermining of the rule of law. But the proposed changes go much further:
The changes go to the military chain of command, educational subsidies for schools that do not teach basic subjects, the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry, and the sharing of the defense and tax burden. They go to the heart and the character of the nation.
There is a reason broad swaths of society, from 140 winners of the Israel Defense Prize, to former Chiefs of Staff, to former judges and attorneys general, to hi-tech executives and respected law firms, to former Ministers in Netanyahu governments and former Likud leaders, to former Netanyahu appointees and confidantes, have voiced their opposition to the proposals. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have repeatedly taken to the streets in protest.
Netanyahu and his allies have attempted to brand everybody who opposes their agenda “leftists.” If everyone opposed to these changes were leftists, the leftist parties would not have done so dismally in the last election, Meretz and possibly Balad would have made the threshold for inclusion in the Knesset, and Israel would not be facing this threat to its soul.
Those pushing the changes assert that they have a mandate, that the nation is behind them. In the last election, out of a total of 4,794,593 votes cast, the current government’s coalition parties received 2,304,964 votes, or 92,393 more votes than the parties of the prior government. If Labor and Meretz had run on one slate so that Meretz did not fall below the minimum percent threshold for entering the Knesset, or if Balad had not split off from the largely Arab Joint List, Israel would not be in this crisis.
Clearly, the government has no broad-based mandate for these changes. It is little wonder it is trying to ram the legislation through in a hurry rather than give it the slow, calm, deliberative hearing such radical change warrants.
The Religious Zionists, including Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and Maoz’ Noam, received 10.83 percent of the vote. The Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Party United Torah Judaism together received 14.12 percent of the vote.
Netanyahu has basically given away the store, supported positions he stood against in the past, trashed his own legacy, and jeopardized Israel’s future for 24.95 percent of the vote.
Many Americans breathed a sigh of relief when the U.S. Senate stayed in Democratic hands, the House went Republican by a much slimmer margin than expected, and most of the election deniers, conspiracy advocating, racist and anti-Semitic, Christian Nationalist-supporting candidates for Senate and Governor were defeated in the recent midterm elections.
They should not take too much comfort. Many of these very extreme candidates lost by thin margins. In many states they received 45% or more of the vote, sometimes as high as 48%. A few more votes here, a more successful voter-suppression effort there, and the picture could have been much different. The crackpots and haters attracted millions of American voters.
Which is worse: Israel’s situation, where the combination of an indicted, desperate Prime Minister and a system that gives disproportionate power to about 25% of the voters results in a coalition whose proposed radical changes put the nation in jeopardy?
Or America’s situation, where the system put a check on the slide toward an illiberal, authoritarian government for now, but where millions of people, approaching 50% in some states, are willing to vote for racist, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic candidates, where but for a few thousand votes here and there, the inmates could have been running the asylum?
It is heartening to see so many Israelis from across society speak out in protest against proposals that would fundamentally change Israel and jeopardize its future. But do the political, legal, and legislative mechanisms exist that will translate their steadfast defense of the country into an effective block on the assault?
It is heartening that most of the most radical and hateful, authoritarian-leaning candidates in America’s last election were stymied but, given how close some of them came, would it take all that much for them to prevail in future elections?
I used to enjoy getting a laugh at the expense of the dysfunctional politics of both countries of which I am a citizen. But, at least for now, my worry about the future of both countries makes laughing at the absurdity of their politics difficult indeed. Most often I feel more like crying.
(Originally published in The Times of Israel)