Unpacking Israeli History
We are scheduled to return to Israel this summer. In preparation for the trip, I am reading history and, when in the car, listening to this excellent podcast hosted by Noam Weissman. It is the most balanced presentation of Israeli history I have ever heard. It gives ample time to the Arab point of view when it comes to the founding of and current conditions in the Jewish state. I cannot recommend this podcast highly enough. Check it out.
In listening to the podcast, I am struck by some crucial similarities between the founding of Israel and the founding of the United States. Both were founded by immigrants to the area. Both met resistance from the indigenous people. Both overcame that resistance to build mighty nations of today. Both seem to stay in political turmoil most of the time.
The main difference is that the United States was founded by white guys mostly from Europe who were looking to advance themselves in life or were running from religious persecution to the New World.
Israel was also founded by white Europeans even as the largest group in the current Jewish homeland is the Mizrahi from former Arab and African nations. It is this latter group that is leading the current government. My understanding is that they have always felt like second class citizens among the European Jews of Israel and now have arrived at their moment in power.
But when the founding Jews of Israel first began what has come to be known as Zionism, they weren’t going to a new world. They were returning to their ancient homeland from which they had been exiled for 1800 years. The major driver of Zionism was the insightful realization on the part of some prescient European Jews that the good times in Europe were going to come to an end. These men of foresight saw this at the end of the 19th century. The history since then is complicated and bloody, but in essence the Jews were granted a small strip of land in Palestine by the UN in 1947 and finally declared their nationhood in 1948 knowing full well that they were going to war to see if they could keep what the UN had granted, but what was for them their homeland for over 3000 years.
It’s been a war ever since—1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1981, the First Intifada, the Second Intifada, and conflicts in Gaza and Southern Lebanon to this present day. The US has fought in many wars, too, but only the Civil War was on American soil. All the Israeli wars were in Palestine.
However, the crucial comparison with the US now is about internal politics.
The Founding Fathers of the United States had the wisdom to create a Constitution that has served us admirably for almost 250 years. Israel is not that fortunate and within the differences in the make-up of our governments lie the current state of chaos in Israel.
When we in the US have a problem with the Supreme Court, it is because one of the justices takes ridiculously expensive travel gifts from a billionaire and neglects to tell anyone.
When Israel has trouble with its Supreme Court, it can shake the country to its foundations. The proposal by the right-wing Netanyahu government (executive and legislative power in a unicameral body) is to bring the court system under the control of that body, the Knesset, making Bibi king. Bibi wants the Knesset to determine who will be on the Supreme Court, not the current system of a panel of judges and lawyers, and he wants the Knesset to be able to overturn any Supreme Court decision with a simple majority vote. That 64-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset would run everything. That’s not democracy. The rights of the minority must be protected. That is usually done by the courts.
As this blog has stated a few times, it is time for Israel to develop a constitution and a constitutional convention would be a great idea to kick off the government restructuring which most Israelis agree is needed.
Israel is no less divided than is the United States. About half of the US is red and half blue. The same in Israel. About half are for this government and about half are against the judicial proposals. We are in a time out in both nations, but not for long.
The Republican-led US House of Representatives has proposed a deal that would lift the debt ceiling, but make cuts to the budget with which the President cannot agree. Stalemate for now.
The Netanyahu-led right-wing government in Israel has put a hold on its proposed judicial changes with the hope that a compromise can be reached. It was the thousands of demonstrators in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that caused the pause. We shall see what comes next.
Both Israel and the United States are complex democracies where the business of politics is nuanced and Byzantine. No one is sure how President Biden and Speaker McCarthy can work out their differences, but like Bibi the House Speaker has a far-right contingent that refuses to compromise.
Will cooler heads prevail? Stay tuned. The story of the experiment of Israel at 75 and the story of the experiment of the United States at almost 250 continues.
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