Paul van RielAn opponent of the reforms on his way to a demonstration in Amsterdam (photo from July 16, 2023)
NOS Nieuws•vandaag, 20:36
Last week, many Jewish Dutch people watched TV with horror. Many of them are very concerned about ‘their’ Israel. There, the first of a series of far-reaching reforms was passed by parliament, limiting the power of the Supreme Court.
“The polarization in Israel is a disease and it must stop quickly,” Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs told NOS. “I’m calling on the extremes on both sides to calm down and talk to each other again.”
He expresses a feeling that is widely felt in the Jewish community in the Netherlands. The NOS spoke with both supporters and opponents of the reforms, and these conversations often reveal a deep-rooted love for the country that plays a major role in the lives of many Jews, whether religious or non-religious. And now that country is in danger of being torn in two by very fundamental differences of opinion about the future and the direction the country should take.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting in Israel every week since the reforms were announced, with 160,000 in Tel Aviv alone on Saturday night.
Jewish state or state for Jews
The high-profile issue that some fear could even lead to civil war can be traced back essentially to what kind of country Israel should be. In short: is Israel a Jewish state, based in everything on religious traditions and laws, or a state of Jews with liberal fundamental rights for all citizens?
In 1947, when the state of Israel was founded, no agreement was reached on this, which is why, for example, no constitution was introduced. Proponents and opponents of the reform laws seem to agree that there should be a constitution that should protect the fundamental rights of citizens.
On Monday, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, voted in favor of a law that would make it impossible for the Supreme Court to overturn parliamentary decisions if they fail the so-called “reasonableness test.”
It is the first step in a series of announced reforms that the ultra-Orthodox and nationalist National Security Minister Ben-Gvir has referred to as “the salad that whets the appetite for the main meal”.
The starter and main course of the reforms include a law that provides that members of the Supreme Court are politically appointed by parliament. The dessert is a law that allows the Knesset to reverse Supreme Court rulings.
Supreme Court any countervailing power
It is precisely these last reforms that are of great concern to many Dutch Jews. Israel has no constitution and no Senate. The Supreme Court is the only countervailing power in the country, the only institution where minorities – from ultra-Orthodox to Palestinians and non-believers – can go.
Critics say the court, which is not elected, is too left-wing and reverses democratic decisions for political reasons. The Supreme Court has overturned a government law a total of 22 times since it was established in 1948.
If it is so polarized and the country threatens to be torn apart, then something has to be done.
CIDI-director Naomi Mestrum
In the Jewish community it is not customary to air dirty laundry. After all, there is already a lot of criticism of the state of Israel and people do not want to stir it up from their own circle. Nevertheless, a change seems to be underway in the Dutch Jewish community.
The attitude of the Israel Information and Documentation Center (CIDI), which is known as an advocate of Israel, is typical. In January, the CIDI already announced that they would follow the new government with an extra critical eye. And last Wednesday a press release followed, in which a position was taken against the recent decisions of the government.
“We waited a long time to form an opinion,” says director Naomi Mestrum. “As CIDI, we don’t really want to take a position, but we want to indicate what is happening. But we couldn’t do anything else now. If it polarizes so much and the country threatens to be torn apart, then something has to be done. A democratically elected government can also make mistakes. “
Arthur FriendNaomi Mestrum, Director of CIDI
The CIDI is afraid that the government and parliament will get too much power, which will upset the balance of power. The organization therefore calls for the reforms to be suspended “until social consensus is reached”.
According to Mestrum, the concerns are widely supported, also in more orthodox circles. “Of course there are people who think otherwise, the Jewish community is diverse, but this time it seems to be a minority.”
People from the Orthodox circle say that for the first time there is unity in the normally divided community. “I haven’t actually spoken to anyone who is for this,” says someone with a large network, who would like to remain anonymous.
Ronny Naftaniel, former director of the CIDI and later chairman of the Central Jewish Consultation, is deeply moved. “For me, Israel is the country I can always go to, as a refuge if things should go wrong here again. But will there still be room for me later, or can you only enter if you meet the orthodox religious regulations?”
‘This is democracy’
Yet there are also other sounds to be found. Herman Loonstein, lawyer and board member of the Orthodox Jewish school Cheider in Amstelveen, emphasizes that he only knows the situation from the media, but does not see much difference with the situation in the Netherlands. “This is democracy, the majority decides. We are now in the thick of the battle, I actually assume that the wind will die down after these laws are passed.”
Sidney Bialystock, who has been chairman of the Amsterdam Jewish Community for a week now, which consists of ‘pious and free’, is also a cautious proponent of limiting the power of the Supreme Court. “Power has shifted too much to the judiciary on certain points. So it is good that it is limited, but the order is actually wrong. Because then we need a constitution that lays down the basic rights of minorities .”
NOS Chief Rabbi Jacobs calls on NOS for calm and dialogue
What now? Everyone has the hope, sometimes against their better judgement, that the extremes in the deeply divided country will eventually find each other. In Israel, the joke is about a man who asks his neighbor if he can borrow his Israeli flag to protest against the government. “That’s good, but I want it back late tonight,” replies the neighbor. “I need him tomorrow to demonstrate in front of the government.”
Chief Rabbi Jacobs: “There must be room for everyone in Israel, regardless of whether they are religious or not. People are afraid that democracy is slipping away. I don’t think that will happen, I am convinced of that.”