Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Can the state of Israel balance the need to carry out its functions as a state and preserve its Jewish character while at the same time limiting its involvement in matters better left to communities?

I'll divide the discussion into three parts. The first involves diminishing the power and influence of unaffiliateds, the outsized influence of whom on Israeli policy has outlasted its actual support. The second involves defining the boundary between effective social policy and excessive nanny state intervention. The third involves the boundary between useful state involvement in religion and harmful interference in matters better handled by communities.

Let's begin with entrenched powers. As we have seen, for secular nationalists, who constituted the bulk of the early Jewish pioneers in Israel, Israeli identity replaced Jewish identity. But statism is fundamentally different than commitment to a moral system. It leads inevitably to the faux moral system of unaffiliateds, which undermines patriotism and – in the name of universal fairness – seeks to push power upward to more global bodies.

For some, the striving for universal equality assumes a millennial urgency: they are convinced that equality, and the universal peace that surely must attend it, are within reach. Their faith leads them to judge Israel's manifold enemies too favorably. The inevitable frustration of unaffiliateds' faith leads them to judge those heretics who don't share their naïve views too harshly.

More moderate unaffiliateds don't necessarily harbor millennial faith. But, lacking sufficient alternative commitments that might provide them with an outside perch from which to judge the unaffiliated faith more realistically, they are suckers for the global unaffiliated narrative. This narrative demonizes those who make a credible attempt to balance fairness and virtue (most conspicuously, Israel and the U.S), idealizes "noble" savages while subtly belittling them as lacking free will, and aggrandizes international bodies that promote this narrative.

Fewer and fewer Israelis actually still identify with these views; from election to election, the number of elected representatives espousing the unaffiliateds' narrative diminishes. Nevertheless, the influence of their views on policy is unabated. What mechanisms account for this "stickiness" of power?

There are three influential bodies in Israel that see themselves as having interests opposed to those of Israel's elected representatives. These are the courts, the law enforcement agencies and the press. Individually and collectively, these bodies view themselves as "watchdogs" charged with protecting society from predators, prominent among whom are – in their view – politicians. Moreover, due to various inter-dependencies, these bodies are mutually reinforcing. The press whips up public sentiment that dictate law enforcement's targets and law enforcement agencies use leaks as leverage over the press. The courts educate the press in enlightened thought and the press provides ideological cover for the courts. Law enforcement provides indictments that allow the court to act and the courts reward congenial prosecutors with appointments to the bench.

Politicians and other public servants have good reason to be intimidated by the collective power of these three bodies. Collectively, they have persuaded the public that most politicians are corrupt and are in need of adult supervision. Of the last eight Justice Ministers, four (Ne'eman, Hanegbi, Sheetrit and Ramon) were either indicted or threatened with indictment while in that office. Daniel Friedmann was made the object of incessant ridicule and deemed guilty by association with presumably corrupt politicians. Only benign friends of the court – Beilin, Lapid and Livni – got a pass. If the threat of a public trial were not enough to keep public officials in line, ministers are hamstrung by legal advisors whom they did not appoint, whom they can't fire, who are answerable to the Attorney General and who can delay, essentially indefinitely, the implementation of any decision the minister makes.

But is there any inherent reason that judges, attorneys general and media makhers identify with the unaffiliateds' narrative? To a limited extent, the answer is yes. Unelected elites are naturally prone to an affinity for a narrative that includes a belief in the superiority of unelected elites over elected officials who presumably tend to populism. (In Israel, there is an additional factor: hundreds of millions of dollars spread around, through domestic proxies, by foreign governments and international agencies that promote the unaffiliateds' narrative.) But there are many countries where the courts and law enforcement agencies and the press are not monopolized by unaffiliateds, so we need a better explanation for unaffiliateds' sticking power.

What distinguishes Israel is less an inherent affinity for the unaffiliateds' narrative than a network of mechanisms by which unelected elites guarantee the perpetuation of whatever ideology they happen to subscribe to. In Israel, unlike in every other country in the world, sitting Supreme Court Justices are the dominant force in the committee for judicial appointments. This not only ensures that appointees are ideological clones of their predecessors, it ensures that anybody with judicial ambitions (including attorneys general, prosecutors and lower court judges who want to move up) will carefully toe the line set by those Justices. Furthermore, the Attorney General himself, who ostensibly serves the government, is actually selected by a panel headed by a retired Justice who is himself appointed by the Chief Justice. (Incredibly, the Supreme Court has even managed to get itself involved in appointments to the state-sponsored press. In 1999, when the relevant minister appointed a public council, charged with oversight of one of the public broadcast authorities, that did not reflect the Court's ideological preference, the Court invalidated the appointment on transparently absurd pretenses.)

In recent months alone, four senior appointments have been torpedoed through the combined efforts of the press, the attorney general and the courts, without any of the appointees ever actually standing trial. The public, having been fed a steady diet of horror stories about the corruption of public officials, is becoming convinced that these witch hunts serve its interests.

The outsized power and influence of unaffiliateds in Israeli society comes at the expense of communities committed to a Jewish moral system. Many of those who are influential within these communities are, consciously or unconsciously, guided by their justified belief that their professional ambitions might be thwarted if they don't promote the unaffiliateds' agenda within their own communities. (Oh, how I ache to name names, but I'd hate to lose friends.) If we wish for communities to regenerate and for the Jewish code and narrative to grow more organically, it will be necessary for the malign influence of the unaffiliateds among us to be reduced to its natural proportions. (There is no need for unaffiliateds to be under-represented; it would be a dramatic improvement if they were simply not over-represented.)

I don't want to get too deep into politics here, so I'll suffice with a brief laundry list of methods to restore some balance to our political system:

· Diminish the influence of sitting Justices on judicial appointments.

· Allow the government to choose the Attorney General without judicial oversight and allow ministers to freely choose legal advisors for their ministries (and to ignore their advice if they so choose).

· Change the electoral system just enough so that politicians are more frightened of the public than of the justice system. (First-past-the-post regional elections are overkill likely to cause more harm than good, but some small fixes that put individual candidates to the test might help.)

· Eliminate state-sponsored media and remove barriers to entry for privately-held media.

· Use full-disclosure regulations to limit foreign government influence on Israeli politics.

· Use legislative methods (including overrides, standing rules and statutory guidelines regarding judicial interpretation) that might limit judicial adventurism. (I doubt any of these will work, but it can't hurt to try.)

To be honest, I'm not convinced that these political tweaks really matter. Politics might not matter at all to the regeneration of communities. And even if it does, the consequences of political changes are hard to predict. Maybe the reality is that the more nakedly hostile the elites are to communities, the more attractive communities become. Ka'asher ya'anu otam, ken yirbeh ve-chen yifrotz.


Um, in my previous post I said this one would be the last. I lied. I've rambled on for too long and haven't gotten to the political aspects of religion and state. One more post coming. In the meantime, chag kasher ve-same'ach.


Anonymous Shachar Ha'amim said...

aw, come on. name a few names. maybe like, one rabbi and one religious professor just to whet our appetities.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

You won't even identify yourself and you expect me to identify people I was nasty about? Be-emet...

5:02 PM  
Anonymous joseph stalin said...

I hear what you're saying but why would I identify myself - especially on a pseudonymous blog.
that whole paragraph does potentially catch in its wake a large swatch of religious leaders, activists, academics, rabbis and others.
you could narrow it of course...

good series. I hope you package it in one document when you finish it.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous yoeli said...

this is so dumb

11:33 PM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

I also request that this series be repackaged in to a single document so I can hand it out to people. I consider this as important as Prof. Ernest Sternberg's article on the "Purification" ideology which I mentioned here in the past.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Bl"n, it will be done.

2:53 PM  
Anonymous Shalom Dover said...

When it's published, we'll all be able to say we read it in the original!
...although it does see somehow more appropriate to read this in a blog. With the universalist unaffiliateds leapfrogging the community-based affiliateds, and wielding power through statism, it seems right for people like Ben to utilize more prelapsarian media.
Shalom Dover
P.S. Hi Aaron! (I guess the first part of this piece to be published might be this comment - in GAN)!

12:04 AM  

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