Should Americans weary of the mess within their own country wish for an interesting distraction – Israel is always there.
Something festers in the East.
A Land of Non-Homogenized Milk and Honey
Despite its nationalistic image of Jewish homogeneity, Israel is a place riddled with contradictions. While the country is indeed 80% Jewish (the rest are mostly Muslim Arabs), the Jewish population is composed of various distinct groups, each with its own horizon of national aspirations.
The oldest group, my own clan so to speak, is that of Jews of European origins with roots preceding the country’s founding. The WASPs of Israel. This group is largely non-religious, previously affiliated with the historical Labor Movement (think Kibbutzim and so forth), and indeed hails from the larger-than-life founders of the country who conferred upon it all of its (rather confusing) institutions and created the modern state of Israel.
This group and its co-travelers probably amount to about 30-35% of the Jewish population. They include the entirety of the Israeli Left but also that “new class” of not-exactly-left mobile and professional types. The Tony Blair sorts who wish for everything to be like a European suburb with pride flags and parades for “human rights,” all expertly managed by technocrats.
Opposite of this group, as quite its inverse in almost every possible way, are the Ultra-Orthodox. These are Jews who are also mostly, but not only, of European origins, but who take Judaism very, very seriously. Rather than aspiring to make millions through the selling of start-up companies, these Jews listen to their rabbis and as an ideal, dedicate their lives to the study of Jewish law and scripture. These are the ones wearing dark suits and dark hats and so forth.
Also known as Haredis, the Ultra-Orthodox were once a minuscule and exotic minority in Israel, but thanks to hyper-procreation are now about 14% of the population.
In between the two ends, you have the more traditionalist (say, they’ll keep a Kosher diet but have no issue with driving during the Sabbath) Jews of Middle-Eastern origins who hail from those Jews kicked out of the Arab world and welcomed into Israel in the 1950s. Known as Mizrahis (Easterners), they probably amount to about 35% of the Jewish population, excluding the ones who co-travel with other groups. This group mostly votes for Netanyahu’s party, Likud (even though Netanyahu himself belongs demographically to the first, WASPish, group).
And then you also have Orthodox Jews who take Judaism fairly seriously but not AS seriously as the Ultra-Orthodox. Known as “National-Religious”, these form the backbone of the settler movement and represent the most hawkish and right-wing element in Israeli society (15% or so of the Jewish population).
Naturally, there are many exceptions, such as Netanyahu himself (a secular Jew of European origins who favors Likud), and then a few sub-groups (such as uber-secular semi-communist Middle Eastern Jews, super-hawkish “revisionist” Ashkenazis, etc.) but you get the rule of thumb.
The Ebbs and Flows of Power
The power dynamic between these groups has been ever-shifting and is above all else the prime-mover of Israeli history. Not unlike the constant tension between Rome’s Optimates and Populares, Israel’s modern history is a struggle for control over the state’s institutions – the old elites vs. the new ascendancy.
In the early days, the Euro-seculars were the dominant group both demographically and institutionally. They were the holders of all institutions of power – the private sector, the military, the bureaucracy, the legislative, the executive, the judiciary, the media, academia, etc.
My clannish loyalty and natural elitism would argue that back in the day, the dominance of this group was rather justified. First, they were the obvious (Jewish) majority. Second, they did indeed create the country. Third, while Israel has never been the uber-European German offshoot imagined by Herzl in his Judenstaat, back in the day it had indeed been quite a European place. Sure, Jews from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Germany were not exactly Anglo-American gentlemen types, but many back in the day would listen to classical music, could quote from the classics, and would generally feel themselves at home within the European orbit. Meaning, my sort of idea of a cultural elite.
But things began to change in the 1950s. I wrote about this before. Looking back, Israel had experienced its own series of “Great Replacements.” With the admission of new multitudes from the Middle East and later elsewhere, each immigration would tilt the demographic balance even further from the old Eastern-European elite.
Naturally, it had taken a few decades for the baffled newcomers to gain enough political confidence. So until the late 1970s, cultural, political, and economic hegemony had remained safely in the hands of the Israeli-WASPs.
In the 70s, however, the Judeo-WASPs began to lose elections. Ascendant Mizrahi, Haredi, and National-Religious Jews had become numerous and self-conscious enough to form their own coalitions and capture a majority of the vote. And so since then, the Judeo-WASPs have simply acknowledged their loss of power and went back to the Shire-kibbutz to live quietly for the rest of their lives.
Just kidding! Nobody just lets go of power.
The Entrenched Judiciary
Beginning in the 80s and even more so in the 90s, the old hegemony that has been losing votes has been busy entrenching itself within Israel’s unelected institutions – mainly the courts. Due to the peculiar way by which Israeli Supreme Court justices are chosen – through a committee where members of the Judiciary have veto power over all nominations – the Israeli High Court has been filling itself with clones of the same type – typically mumbling yet self-determined types who incessantly croak about “human rights.”
The clones have also been claiming more and more powers on behalf of the last institution under their control. Israel does not have a constitution, but beginning in the 90s the Supreme Court has assumed for itself the authority to strike down laws – based on powers never granted to it and with the backing of no constitutional framework.
The Court also increased, to the extreme, the use of nebulous and highly subjective forms of judicial review, such as “reasonableness,” “worthiness,” and the “principle of equality.”
With such tools of infinite subjectivity, the Court has practically placed itself as a super-branch of government – a ruler capable of stopping any government decision and any parliamentary law, while using nebulous considerations to fit the justices’ political leanings, and while self-nominating the same types again and again. One infamous Chief Justice, Aharon Barak, has even openly called the court a “family” of like minds.
This judicial anomaly results in all sorts of ridiculous cases where the mumbling oafs of the court assume managerial powers normally reserved for the executive and the military. For instance, recently both parliament and government passed laws to expel illegal immigrants from Sudan, yet the Court blocked such efforts as “unreasonable.” Or, about a decade ago, the military opted for one way by which to shield homes from rockets fired from Gaza, yet the Court assumed an expert military authority and commanded the military to use a different shielding method. Infamously, in 1992 the government ordered the banishment of terrorists caught in Israel to the no-man’s-land of Lebanon – the Court stopped the transport busses in their path, alerting in the meantime the unsuspecting Lebanese and spoiling the whole operation. Again, all of this without any constitution or tradition providing guidelines for judicial review.
In parallel, the government’s legal advisors – attached like barnacles to every ministry and to the government as a whole – have transformed from an advisory position into a weird and interminable half-godly office, capable of blocking government decisions with the same set of nebulous pseudo-legalistic jargon (but really, a very primitive jargon in the eyes of worthy outside experts) of “reasonableness.”
Naturally, the details are endless, but you now have the gist of it. I should also comment rather subjectively and self-critically: whereas the old elite, my own people, had been in the past mighty and worthy – including demigods in their ranks such as superb poets, political founders, and innovative composers – it is now the same silly assemblage of uncultured fakes so common amongst the West’s professional classes. A lot of Netflix, not much Shakespeare. Cultural attainment produced by these types is now mostly limited to “fringe” and “avant-garde” nonsense.
The Struggle Ahead
This entrenchment in the Judiciary has not been lost on Israel’s ascendant powers. These powers are now once again in government under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu. This time Netanyahu’s Justice Minister seems determined to reform the Judiciary: No more self-nomination, no more “reasonableness,” no more striking down laws without a properly established procedure, and no more weird and interminable legal advisors.
Game over then, the Judiciary and its supporters have accepted their fate and gone home.
Kidding again, of course not!
It is now a battle royale – Sulla and Marius-like – between the old establishment and Netanyahu’s coalition of ascendant powers. Sulla, the old establishment, is pulling all the tricks so common nowadays in the whipping up of public hysteria – crying about the end of “our democracy,” (as if democracy is a system by which an oligarchic court reigns supreme), throwing tantrums about the loss of checks and balances (as if checks and balances mean a self-nominating court), and mobilizing en masse the witless and cliche-susceptible who are always eager for an exciting new hashtag.
Most recently, in an interesting salvo, the court commanded Netanyahu to dismiss one of his ministers. The judicial reasoning was of course due to “extreme unreasonableness” as well as a convoluted and rather innovative argument of estoppel.
So it’s popcorn time. Who will win? Sulla or Marius? How ugly will it get? How far will each side be willing to go? There are no half-measures in these things, this is a true struggle for power between two forces that have been arrayed against each other for at least two decades.
Of course, a new mini-war in Lebanon may throw things into a funk, or at least a temporary halt. Also, Netanyahu, who’s undergoing trial by the very same Judiciary, may decide to cuck for the promise of saving his own neck through a favorable plea deal. Much is unexpected in war.
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