Tuesday, December 27, 2011


On a sun-drenched day the week before Christmas, Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre was crowded with pilgrims from Nigeria taking turns kneeling and praying at the marker where sacred history has it that Jesus was crucified, entombed and resurrected. (Other Christians consider the place to be the nearby Garden Tomb.) Back in Nigeria, on Christmas Day a wave of murderous bombings by Muslim extremists hit several churches. Plainly, the faith is at once thriving and struggling as a new report on Global Christianity from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life makes clear.

Jews have more than a passing interest in the state of Christianity not only because of the religion's origins and its fraught relationship with Judaism but also because nowadays many believing Christians consider themselves friends of the Jewish people and Israel. Consider, for instance, that growing numbers of Hispanic Americans are embracing Israel-friendly evangelical Christianity. And that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans in the coming months to visit several African countries with substantial Christian populations.

Given trends in Muslim civilization, it certainly matters to Jews that there are more Christians than Muslims and that demographically Christianity makes up about the same portion of the global population today (32%) as it did a century ago. Almost 80 percent of Americans are of Christian heritage. Post-modern Europe has become the second largest bastion of Christianity. It cannot claim to have the most Catholics or Protestants though it remains home to the majority of Orthodox Christians (thanks to believers in Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Romania). The report does not address the continent's declining commitment to its heritage which led Prime Minister David Cameron to tell Britons not be afraid to assert their country's Christianity.

Around the world, half of all Christians are Catholic; Protestants, broadly defined, make up 37%; Orthodox Christians comprise 12%. Catholicism is strong in Brazil, Mexico, Philippines and United States (where about one in-four is Catholic). Italy ranks fifth.

As for Protestantism, the U.S. is home to the most Protestants followed by Nigeria and – somewhat surprisingly – China. Germany is evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics totaling about 70% of the population (five percent are Muslim). The percentage of Protestants is greater in the Congo than where Luther launched the Reformation in the 16th century. Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa appears robust.
While the CIA places the Christian population of Nigeria at 40%, Pew figures it at 50%.

The picture is quite different in the Middle East where Christianity was born – it is now home to less than 1% of believers. Put another way, just 4% of Middle Easterners today are Christian (mostly Catholic or Orthodox). The country with the largest percentage of the population that is Christian is Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon (38%).

Further afield, newly independent South Sudan is 60% Christian. In raw numbers, however, about half of all Christians in the Mideast reside in Egypt and the Sudan even if they comprise just 5% of those countries' respective populations. These figures contrast with CIA data which places the percentage of Coptic Christians in Egypt at 9%. Pew's numbers crunchers said Egypt's Christian population is actually less than half of that estimate and shrinking. The reason may not be hard to deduce: Egypt's Sunni Muslim majority has not been particularly tolerant of Christianity. With Hosni Mubarak's fall and the rise of Islamist parties the prospects for Christianity in an Islamist Egypt hardly leave room for optimism.

Intriguingly, the Pew study counts substantial numbers of Christians in Saudi Arabia: 1,200,000 or 4.4 percent of population. Left unsaid, however, is that these are mostly Filipino and Indian expatriates not Arabs. And they may not openly practice their faith. Curiously, the U.N. does not seem preoccupied by such state-sanctioned intolerance.

Pew reports that the number of Christians living in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority is 100,000 almost all Arabs. Those who speak for them such as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, tend to be PLO marionettes. This time of year, for instance, the Sunni-dominated PLO cynically promulgates the fairy tale that Christmas is a Palestinian holiday and that Jesus was a "Palestinian." Over in Hamas-run Gaza live just several thousand besieged Christians. Israeli authorities granted West Bank and Gaza Christians passage into Israel to visit family for the holidays and 400 separate permits to travel abroad from Ben-Gurion Airport.

As for Christians in Israel proper, Pew places their numbers at 150,000 (up from 34,000 when the state was founded but down 10,000 from the Central Bureau of Statistics 2008 figure). Eighty percent are Arabs and the remainder emigrants from the former Soviet Union. Israeli Christians naturally enjoy full freedom of worship.
By tradition, the Jerusalem municipality even distributes free Christmas trees to all comers. The Pew figures do not count thousands of foreign workers (Filipino and African caregivers; Romanian laborers) or foreign clerics assigned to the country.

Life is not always easy for Christian evangelicals, many of whom have been treated shabbily by officious bureaucrats at the Shas Party-controlled Ministry of Interior. The ostensible justification is (mostly) unfounded dread of missionary activity; actually, most Christian fundamentalists are in Israel as part of their personal spiritual journeys or expressly to build support for the Jewish state in the larger Christian world.

Making strange bedfellows, many liberal and ultra-Orthodox Jews – insecure in their different ways – have demonstrated an unseemly intolerance toward fervently believing Christians. Though from time immemorial Jews have been treated with contempt by the Christian world, it seems myopic and counterproductive to view 21st century Christianity (and its 2.18 billion adherents) as if it was continuing robot-like that benighted legacy. In fact, as fate would have it, Christian and Jewish civilizations at the present time have every reason to seek possibilities for collaboration.

Strangely enough, what's "good for the Jews" – and the Jewish state – is to see Christianity thriving.


Further Reading:

Marranos in Reverse? Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily.
Though ardent in their faith, Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel are usually discreet about sharing their beliefs.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Should Jews Have a Mormon Problem?

The religious values of presidents seldom satisfactorily explain their attitudes toward the Jews. Franklin Roosevelt's Episcopalian faith could not have reasonably foretold his hard-hearted policies during the Holocaust. Baptists both Harry S Truman and Jimmy Carter went their separate ways with Truman quick to grant Israel diplomatic recognition and Carter conspicuous in his anti-Israelism. Who knows to what extent President Barack Obama's affiliation with the United Church of Christ provides any insight into his administration's erratic often disquieting policies toward Jerusalem?

Still, it is hard to completely disregard the religious and moral values of the leading presidential candidates. The narrowing of the Republican nomination field to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich (with the latter's lead dwindling) has made barely a ripple in Israel. Israel's media dutifully covered Romney's complaint that Obama has been too quick to chasten the Jewish state and his pledge to make Israel his first foreign destination if elected. Likewise the flak Gingrich took for noting that Palestinian Arab identity was a comparatively recent historical phenomenon.

Israeli attitudes toward Obama have fluctuated. Preferences are sure to jell once the Republican nominee is determined. For now, Israelis know little about Gingrich's personal foibles, political baggage or his religious outlook. In any event, his spiritual journey from Lutheranism to Southern Baptist and now Catholicism has little resonance for Israelis. However, should Romney manage to capture the nomination, Israelis – like Americans before them – will probably find themselves getting a crash course on his Mormon faith.

They might begin at the strikingly handsome campus of the Jerusalem Center of Brigham Young University belonging to Mormons (formerly known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) situated on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Over the Christmas holiday the school is even more sedate than usual. The Sunday evening classical concerts and Thursday night jazz divertimentos that take place in the congenial auditorium -- which offers panoramic Jerusalem views -- are in hiatus until the New Year. Even during the regular semester, the well-bred Mormon students and staff do not draw much attention -- and that is the way everyone likes it.

Mormonism has not been spotlighted in a big way in Israel since 1985 when Brigham Young first sought to establish a presence and drew vociferous hostility from the ultra-Orthodox sector over the Mormons' earlier missionary activities in Israel. Ultimately, the facility, which had the support of the late mayor Teddy Kollek and then-prime minister Shimon Peres, opened to students in 1988 after Church authorities pledged in writing not to engage in missionary activities in Israel. There is every reason to believe that they have honored their commitment to "show Israeli Jews what the Church is about by example rather than by proselytizing."

Within a few decades of its founding by Joseph Smith in New York State, in 1841 the Church dispatched Apostle Orson Hyde to Jerusalem on a fact-finding tour. Only with the city's liberation in 1967, however, did the Church begin to routinely send believers to the Holy Land for religious studies. Nowadays, 160 students can be accommodated at the Jerusalem campus. (The school closed for six years during the second intifada due to safety concerns.)

Mormon theology is philo-Semitic. Metaphorically --if not literally --the faithful consider their Church to be part of the House of Israel and themselves spiritual descendants of the Israelite tribe of Ephraim who escaped Babylonian captivity by migrating (circa. 586 BCE) to North America. The Book of Mormon has them fleeing Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian conquest. Mormons believe their scripture was revealed to Smith by an angel and that it contains the writings of ancient prophets including Lehi whom God commanded to lead those Israelites to America. This civilization disappeared in 400 CE. Smith was assassinated when he was only 39 in 1844 while running a quixotic campaign for U.S. president.

Mormons attribute significance to the Jewish calendar. Not only was their founder born on the eighth day of Hanukkah other spiritual milestones parallel the Jewish festivals. Worship services are conducted according to the local work week. There are also dietary laws; eating meat is restricted; alcohol, tobacco, and coffee are prohibited. The cross does not commonly adorn a Mormon house of worship. And like Christian Zionists they believe that the Jewish return to the Land of Israel is a precursor to the second coming of the Christian messiah. Polygamy has been forbidden since 1890.

Mormonism is emphatically a missionary faith. Indeed, Romney was almost killed while a missionary in France in a bizarre traffic accident that involved a head-on collision with a vehicle driven by a Catholic priest. To this day, Mormons take – what will strike some Israelis as – an unnerving delight in converting American Jews. Moreover, in a rite that looks odd to outsiders and has drawn Jewish ire the Church formerly engaged in virtual baptisms of Jews murdered in the Shoah (to provide their souls with post-mortem salvation). To be fair, "Baptism for the Dead" is not limited to Jews and once Mormons learned of the depth of Jewish objections to this practice they agreed to stop it.

At the same time, to the consternation of Christian fundamentalists, Mormons see themselves as Christians though some of them identify Jesus with the God of the Hebrew Bible and hold a schismatic view of the trinity in which God (the Father), Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are held to be three distinct deities. Unlike Christianity or Judaism, Mormons believe that the canon remains open and that God still communicates directly with the righteous.

Not of this should present a problem for Jews comfortable with their Judaism. Theologically, Jews anyway tend to be libertarian about other faiths while politically, a third of Jewish voters were disposed already by September 2011to vote for Romney over Obama.

What might this mean for the pragmatic Romney? Utah State University historian Philip Barlow has argued that Romney's faith might inform but would not presage his Middle East policies. "His character was in part shaped by Mormonism, but one only needs to compare Romney, Jon Huntsman and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to note that Mormons are not made from cookie cutters."

Regarding Romney's profession of friendship to Israel, Barlow pointed out that, "Mormons' history, popular culture, and theology really do give them a sense of regard for Israel's role in history and world affairs, and a sense of" --from their perspective – "shared identity."

As a former governor Romney has no real foreign policy track record. How does he understand the Islamist threat to Western values? What are his thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's approach to a two state solution? Does he back President George Bush's 1967-plus approach to Israel's boundaries? This and much more remains to be revealed.

Other presidents have entered the White House with an innate sympathy for Israel only to see their policies towed in an opposite direction. The righteous live by their faith, but a statesman operating in the real world also needs to be guided by a conceptual framework. In the course of the unfolding presidential campaign, Americans – and Israelis observing from afar – may learn more about Romney's politics, values and the way he understands the world.


Monday, December 12, 2011


Apologia for Ben-Gurion

At the yahrzeit ceremony for David Ben-Gurion (1886 -1973) held earlier this month at Sde Boker and with Iran clearly on his mind, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked -- no fewer than eight times -- Ben-Gurion's faculty for making hard decisions. It's a theme that also permeates Ben-Gurion: A Political Life, a "conversation" – a "fusion of memory and history and multiple competing narratives" – between President Shimon Peres and advocacy journalist David Landau. Here we have truth in labeling. For this slim volume is neither reliable history nor dependable biography.

Peres's first consequential encounter with Ben-Gurion took place on the sidelines of the 1946 Zionist Congress. In a huff over Chaim Weizmann reticence to insist on the immediate fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration, Ben-Gurion was fixing to walk-out. Pere seizes his opportunity: "I had incredible chutzpah. Ben-Gurion hardly knew me, but I said, 'Yes, we'll go with you…'" From then on, Peres was Ben-Gurion's indispensable man.

Peres had made a smart bet. Even before the creation of the state and his subsequent long premiership, Ben-Gurion would come to control a powerful politico-military machine that encompassed the Histadrut Labor Federation, Jewish Agency government-in-waiting and Haganah.

Moreover, the two men were kindred spirits. The Old Man had arrived in Palestine in 1906. Young Peres came in 1934. Both were opinionated, conceited, single-mindedly ambitious and coldly pragmatic. Though not observant, they hearkened back to lineages of piety and learning. They ruthlessly battled foes within their own political camp though Ben-Gurion was arguably the more vindictive. Where Ben-Gurion was feared Peres was despised. Moshe Sharett, Israel's second prime minister found him revolting; Yitzhak Rabin untrustworthy; Yigal Yadin insolent, and Gold Meir found him an unwanted nuisance.

Guru and acolyte were both voracious readers and polymaths. Both ultimately rebranded themselves. Ben-Gurion shifted his socialist Mapai Party toward the center. Peres, defeated for Labor's leadership, aligned with Ariel Sharon in the formation of Kadima. Both were Big Idea men: Ben-Gurion wanted to fashion the ethos of renascent Israel along vaguely biblical principles; Peres, more ambitious still, sought to create an entirely "new Middle East." Both men knew how to turn a phrase. With the doors to Palestine slammed shut by Mandate Britain making escape from Hitler impossible, Ben-Gurion famously pledged: "We must help the British in their war as though there were no White Paper, and we must resist the White Paper as though there were no war." Peres's variation on a theme – as Hamas bombers detonated themselves on Israeli busses in the wake of the Oslo Accords – was: "We must fight terrorism as if there was no peace process, and we must continue the peace process" with Yasir Arafat "despite the acts of terrorism." Needless to say, neither man had much capacity for self-criticism.

It's not always obvious where Peres's voice trails off and Landau's takes over. Synthesizing some of the voluminous history available on Ben-Gurion, the authors move from BG's early (and brief) days laboring in Palestine's fields to his emergence as a socialist Zionist polemicist and politician focusing on his disputations with Weizmann and Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

Even as he consolidated his power, BG travelled widely spending time in England, America and Russia. There he became infatuated with Vladimir Lenin (though he would loath Stalin). He esteemed Lenin's "decisiveness" which made up for the fact that Leon Trotsky was the more intellectually gifted, he told Peres. There is no question that Ben-Gurion was often wise and decisive, for example, in accepting the flawed 1947 UN Partition Plan. With equal aplomb, he disregarded the 1949 General Assembly resolution that called for the internationalization of metropolitan Jerusalem (meaning Jewish west Jerusalem to Ein Karim and the Arab-occupied east from the Old City to Abu Dis and south to Bethlehem).

Ben-Gurion made the unpopular but economically responsible call to accept reparations from West Germany against Menachem Begin's fierce and principled opposition. He showed hesitation against preemptive military strikes. And he ordered the capture of Adolf Eichmann and disregarded resultant UN criticism. Perhaps his most long-lasting contribution to Israel's survival was that he gave Peres the green light to build Israel's nuclear capacity; though Peres implies that he mostly left Ben-Gurion in the dark about all that.

The more he concentrated power in his own hands, the more he accused his opponents of anti-democratic tendencies. As if channeling his own subconscious wishes, he slammed Jabotinsky as a fascist who had dictatorial ambitions. In practice, when the IDF supplanted the Haganah BG ensured that all command decisions would be in the hands of his loyalists not the politically suspect Yigal Yadin or Israel Galili. Years later, well out of office BG schemed to replace his party comrade Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in the lead up to the 1967 Six Day War. Those altogether outside his socialist orbit including Menachem Begin and his Irgun would be violently quashed. The sinking of the Irgun arms ship Altalena typified the Old Man's capacity to conflate his political needs with the national interest. Rather archly, the reader presumes, Peres tells Landau that Ben-Gurion did not engage in political patronage.

It's hard to know if Ben-Gurion abhorred Jabotinsky more than Weizmann. True, differences of principle separated these Zionist founders. Ben-Gurion had been enamored with class struggle and building an agrarian economy; Jabotinsky was a classical liberal who wanted to foster an urban middle class. Peres grants that the two men saw eye-to-eye on many social welfare issues. But Ben-Gurion scorned Jabotinsky's demand for the territorial integrity of Eretz Israel as much as Weizmann's hesitation to move boldly. He schemed with Weizmann against Jabotinsky then sidelined the elder statesman. He professed to "love" Weizmann and pledged "genuine friendship" to Jabotinsky. Peres takes him at his word. The Ben-Gurion-Jabotinsky dispute was cut short when Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in 1940 in upstate New York. As premier, Ben-Gurion mean spiritedly refused to allow Jabotinsky's remains to be reinterred in Israel. Among those, according to Peres, that Ben-Gurion also didn't hate "personally" was Menachem Begin. Odd then that he could not bring himself to utter Begin's name for most of the years they served together in the Knesset.

The most unsettling pages of this book are Peres's (and Landau's) paroxysms of partisanship in covering the Holocaust era. They would have the reader know that in 1933 – the year the Nazis came to power – Jabotinsky had pooh-poohed Hitler's Mein Kampf while the prophetic Ben-Gurion by 1934 had warned of the enormity of the threat to Europe's Jews. There is half-truth in that. The fuller truth, according to Jabotinsky scholar Yisrael Medad, is that already in August 1933; Jabotinsky's men on the World Zionist Organization were defeated and sabotaged by the Ben-Gurion clique in every attempt to force a "vigorous attitude on the German situation." The same year, Jabotinsky told the 18th Zionist Congress in Prague, "The present Congress is duty-bound to put the Jewish problem in Germany before the entire world…We are conducting a war with murderers. [We must] destroy, destroy, destroy, them – not only with the boycott…"but also politically.

At one point Landau to his credit challenges Peres on whether Ben-Gurion as leader of the Yishuv throughout the war had really done enough on behalf of European Jewry? Peres does not waver: We didn't know; there was nothing we could have done. As for the Jabotinsky loyalists operating in the U.S. during the war who tried to shake heaven and earth, Peres's cold-hearted assessment is: "What did they achieve? Nothing."

It is in their conversation about the pre-state Jewish underground that Peres and Landau achieve a moral nadir, disgracefully embracing what is essentially the Palestinian Arab narrative which blamed Begin's Irgun for a litany of "outrages" such as "deliberately killing civilians" in Deir Yassin and "helping to spark the Palestinian refugee crisis."

So it is a relief that toward the end of Ben-Gurion: A Political Life the authors turn to other matters including the intriguing claim that Ben-Gurion had wanted to reform Israel's electoral system away from proportional representation. There is also the historically tone deaf Peres taking "credit" for having been Ben-Gurion's emissary to the ultra-Orthodox world in institutionalizing IDF exemptions for yeshiva students.

Peres and Landau close by acknowledging that Ben-Gurion would under no circumstances agree to have Israel pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines. If anything, he favored extensive settlement in metropolitan Jerusalem and in Hebron. Maybe their point is that Ben-Gurion had no interest in ruling over the Palestinian Arabs; though Peres and Landau can't bring themselves to say so, neither does Netanyahu. His dilemma is that the same Arab rejectionism that made peace unreachable in Ben-Gurion's day continues to grip the contemporary Palestinian leadership.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Israel's High Court of Justice, Supreme Court and the Political System

Full Court Press

Israel Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch recently excoriated legislators critical of the judiciary as "robbed Cossacks" who were guilty of "incitement" and waging a "campaign of delegitimation" against the court. An unnamed associate close to the justice told reporters that Israel was heading down the same path as Germany in the 1930s.

What accounts for this tirade? Beinisch was reacting to a political backlash that has buffeted her institution that's been engineered mostly – but by no means exclusively – by Orthodox and populist right-wing politicians fed up with the court's left-wing judicial activism. In fact, however, the issues go beyond left and right, liberal and conservative, Orthodox and secular. The political system as structured is finding it difficult to deliver civil liberties and democratic values in a way that is perceived as legitimate by all sectors of society.

The immediate impetus for the controversies swirling around Beinisch relates to a slew of proposed legislative initiatives in the Knesset that – taken together – has unnerved many who are not considered garden-variety leftists.

The first involves how three soon-to-be open seats on the Supreme Court, including Beinisch's own when she retires in February, will be filled. Another would limit the legal standing of foreign pressure groups before the court; there is also a bill that would restrict the ability of European governments to bankroll proxy groups staffed by secular left-wingers and which EU countries have used to sway Israeli policies via the court; still another would rescind a relatively recent eligibility requirement that prevents a justice from being appointed president of the court unless he is within three years of the mandatory retirement age of 70. This backtracking seems tailored made for Justice Asher Grunis who is five weeks short of meeting the current requirement. Some on the right would be glad if Grunis, a proponent of judicial restraint became the court's next president.

Yet another bill would have dramatically increased the fines a mostly left-leaning media would have to pay for publishing patently false stories about a person or group. Like the existing libel law, compensation would be allowed even if damage isn’t proven.

Arguably the most important bill, however, in the view of veteran court observer Evelyn Gordon is one to let the Knesset Constitution Committee vet Supreme Court candidates, "like every other democracy in the world does."

More is involved here than a rightist push back against a perennially assertive leftist institution. At its most raw, this is a power play pitting irresponsible liberal elites against no less irresponsible illiberal counter-elites. It reflects a sense that Israelis are questioning the legitimacy – the worthiness – of their political system. It's been long in coming. As Israel has become less secular and more inward looking, especially since 1977 when the Labor Party lost its lock hold on the state, the court has evolved into the ultimate bastion not just of liberal values but for the exercise of left-wing political power.

The problem therefore is not that the court does not reflect the passions of the majority – that is how high courts in representative democracies are intended to function – but in the way the court has frittered away its political legitimacy. In short, the court has permitted its natural mandate the protection of democratic values, to be undermined by relentlessly enabling leftist interest groups to co-opt and, in the public's mind's eye, dominate its agenda.

Israel's 16-member Supreme Court (unlike Beinisch most justices are quite anonymous) typically operates in panels of three justices, primarily hearing appeals from the lower courts. More potently, sitting as the High Court of Justice (known as Bagatz) and operating as a court of first instance, not an appellate court, the justices exercise judicial review over Knesset and governmental authorities applying Israel's still-in-the-making "constitution." The court's ethos established by former Chief Justice Aharon Barak that "everything is justiciable" infuriates not only right-wingers and not only because the court generally leans Left. Judicial review is a worthwhile principle whose legitimacy is best protected when exercised with comparative restraint and when judges are not perceived as blatantly partisan. Neither is true in Israel.

In contrast to the US Supreme Court which hears fewer than 100 cases annually, Israel's High Court of Justice handles over a thousand petitions each year. There is essentially no need to establish legal standing in order to bring a case, a peculiarity exploited by EU-funded pressure groups that aim to thwart government policies. In this way, the court has lost any appearance of standing above the fray.
The court's critics complain that it is comprised mostly of like-minded types: politically, socially, academically and religiously. Gordon noted that one study found that minority opinions were handed down in only three percent of all Israeli Supreme Court cases from 1948-1994 compared to about 60% in the United States. Not only are the justices homogenous, they basically replicate themselves through a nine-member Judges Selection Committee that is chaired by the Minister of Justice (who in the current instance happens not to be a Knesset member) and is comprised of one cabinet member, three sitting justices (including President Beinisch), two Bar Association delegates and two Knesset members.

Indeed, yet another contentious bill under Knesset consideration would require Bar Association representatives to be chosen in a manner that would reflect rank-and-file sentiment instead of its top echelon. The current selection process has meant that candidates who do not neatly fit the mold – Prof. Ruth Gavison for instance – do not stand a chance of becoming justices on the grounds that they have an "agenda."

Liberals counter that in Israel's fractious society, where the Knesset frequently shirks its responsibilities on such matters as protecting religious pluralism, civil liberties, and providing a legal umbrella for the Palestinian Arabs in Judea and Samaria, the court has no choice but to fill the moral and legal vacuum. The court, they say, has become the last bastion for democratic values of tolerance and respect for minority rights. Pure majority rule, they say, could well result in a fundamentally intolerant outcome. And giving politicians a greater role in vetting justices put forth by the selection committee would destroy this albeit imperfect division of powers.

Furthermore, the court's defenders point out, on genuine national security issues the justices rarely intervene and when they do tend to back the government.

Where does all this leave classical liberals in the Jabotinsky mold who are unhappy with the court's overreaching and its codependent relationship with foreign funded leftist pressure groups? At least some of them would rather accept a flawed hyperactive court than a runaway populist Knesset.

The Likud's Dan Meridor, for instance, has stridently supported judicial prerogatives against political criticism of the judiciary which, he pointed out, originated not in Likud but during the tenure of Daniel Friedmann as Justice Minister in Ehud Olmert's Kadima government. Benny Begin, another member of the inner cabinet, referred to the Knesset majority's effort to hamstring the court as "political gluttony" and called on them to show restraint. And even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who allowed the issue to fester, ultimately announced that he sided with Meridor and Begin against opponents of the court within his own party and beyond.

Netanyahu made the right call. Israelis can't convincingly disparage pure democracy in the Arab world – as it catapults one Islamist party to power after another – as being inimical to authentic democratic values while carrying the banner of majority rule "no matter what" in Israel. Indeed, given the machinations of the Knesset, there is today no majority to block separate sidewalks and buses for men and women or prevent women from being marginalized in the IDF by religious obscurantists. It is questionable whether there would be a Knesset majority to stand behind Education Minister's Gideon Sa’ar's decision to forbid separate and unequal elementary schools for Ethiopians in Petah Tikva or to overturn the segregation of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox girls from their Hassidic classmates in Emmanuel. And the list goes on.

As in most democracies, tolerance, pluralism and respect for minority rights can't always be left to "the people" or, exclusively, to their elected officials.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, noted that "Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question." Similarly in Israel, the issue is not that the court is called upon to make tough and controversial decisions but that it is politically tone deaf in going about its work. If Israel's Supreme Court is to restore badly needed legitimacy --like its critics -- it too must abjure political gluttony. The country's judicial elites and their supporters need to internalize rather than delegitimize pervasive criticism.

Ultimately, however, Israel's High Court can only be safely revamped not salami-style by the Knesset but as part of an overall reform of the political system.


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