SA olim divided on reform, united on Israel
South African olim are devastated and exhilarated by the passing of the Reasonableness Bill this week, but all feel that much more passionate in the fight for Israel’s future.
The olim straddle the political spectrum and have protested for and against the judicial overhaul proposed by the current Israeli governing coalition.
“The passing of the bill hasn’t broken the spirit of either side,” says oleh and political researcher Joshua Hyde.
The Reasonableness Bill is the first major legislation in the government’s plan to reform the judiciary. It strips Israel’s Supreme Court of the power to declare government decisions unreasonable. The judicial overhaul has led to deep divisions in Israeli society, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets. Many South African olim have been among those crowds.
One olah, Caylee Cohen, says “there’s real fear about the legislation. Someone who doesn’t live here may not understand the real, palpable fear you hear from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, around Shabbat tables, and on the streets. It’s a fear not only about taking out a key pillar in the separation of powers, but also of how this extremist leadership is driving huge divides.
“The reference to Tisha B’Av has been made by both religious and secular,” she says. “It’s an ominous time: much of the damage has already been done whether it be to our economy, our plummeting exchange rate and stock exchange, or the huge rifts this has caused.”
But oleh Barak Salakoff feels that this is a positive turning point. “What’s going on is that the left, which rules the courts at present, controls the country. At present, Israel isn’t a democracy, it’s a totalitarian state run by the courts under these judges. At last, the judges will be looked at and better judges [are possible] – more to the centre and even some to the right, giving us the real democracy we lacked for years.”
Hyde points out that the protesters aren’t just protesting against judicial reform, but its ultimate result. “You don’t get hundreds of thousands protesting 29 weeks in a row just about the way judges are appointed. They understand that this is the first step down a radical path.”
He says the sectors of society pushing for reform don’t want the courts “standing in their way”. This includes the legal battles being fought by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas leader Aryeh Deri; haredi military draft evasion, labour nonparticipation, and welfare dependency; and the settlement movement wanting to annex the territories.
However, there’s an almost “iron-clad rule” that if drastic change is made to a political system for the benefit of a specific political programme, it almost always backfires, he says. He predicts this might happen in Israel, with the left now galvanising into a powerful force. “The protest movement is saying that this is just the beginning.”
Oleh Maurice Hirsch says he is a great proponent of judicial reform. “Regarding the reasonableness clause, decisions aren’t being struck down because the decision has no legal basis, it’s because two judges decided that it ‘doesn’t sit well with me, and therefore I’m going to strike it down’,” he says.
“The most dangerous thing [during this time] has been the calls to refuse to serve in the army, and statements from former heads of the country and security forces to say, ‘We’re not going to accept the democratic rule of the elected party. We’re going to try and overthrow the government and undermine the entire process’,” Hirsch says. “This is a country that has an army and not an army that has a country. The last elections were very clear.”
While oleh Paul Mirbach predicted the Reasonableness Bill would pass, “I [still] felt a deep sadness, unbearable loss, and incomprehension at the coalition’s callous indifference to the country literally being ripped apart,” he said.
He believes the process was conducted in a “brutal manner”, with high-handed management of the debate, not allowing the other side to express its reservations, abruptly cutting it off, and threatening to ram it through.
“Laws define a country, like the apartheid laws defined South Africa,” says Mirbach. “They are hard to reverse. As such, with the passage of this law, I can no longer call myself an Israeli with pride.”
However, oleh Isaac Rubin feels that “the judicial system badly needs reform. I welcome the vote, although I don’t think it’s enough. The political left should be honest that the protests are about losing the election. I feel insulted when they think that their opinion is more important than that of people like me, who voted right-wing. The judiciary should be impartial, which it isn’t.”
“Many would agree that there’s a need for reform,” Cohen says, “but this is a revolution, with total disregard for the damage caused along the way. Voices from across the political spectrum – heads of the Shin Bet, Mossad, leadership of the army, hospitals, universities, and rabbis have spoken against the current reform. People who are traditionally very much on the right have come out with sharp criticism – some of the most patriotic and idealistic people who have risked their lives for this country.
“On a rational level, I’m disillusioned,” she says. “However, I remain an idealist. The history of Israel is one of miracles, and I must continue to believe in miracles because the future of the Jewish people depends on it.”
Then there are those in the middle, who see both sides as making serious mistakes. Oleh Solly Kaplinski says, “There’s consensus that judicial reform is necessary, but the roll-out has been disastrous, with extremists on the right and left dictating the agenda. It feels like the country is teetering on the edge. How this plays out now is almost too scary to contemplate, while our enemies gloat in the wings. Who will take on the mantle of authentic leadership and win over a broken people?”
Indeed, those who want to see Israel destroyed are thrilled at the turmoil facing the country. The Media Review Network which describes itself as “a South African group working to expose Zionist apartheid” shared an article on Facebook about the possibility of Israel erupting into civil war and commented, “The Zionist cancer is imploding. This is excellent news for those who wish to see its speedy end and the birth of a liberated Palestine from the river to the sea.”
Locally, the Jewish Democratic Initiative (JDI) says, “The state that is emerging undermines the Declaration of Independence. If our values encompass pluralism, religious freedom, and civil rights, do we continue to succumb to a cognitive dissonance and not apply these principles where Israel is concerned? Our hope for the Jewish people is to move away from the current atmosphere of sin’at chinam (baseless hatred) towards ahavat chinam (baseless love) for our fellow Jew and human being. JDI calls on our South African Jewish community to make our voice heard in support of peace, [and] equality.”
South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin says that ultimately, “Israelis on both sides are proud patriots with legitimate concerns, a deep love for the Jewish state, and a commitment to its future. We hope that our brothers and sisters in Israel will be able to find a consensus that brings stability, heals divisions, and works towards nation-building. Israel will survive the current crisis.”