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Israel’s theocratic government imperils all things secular

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The current government in Israel, quite certainly the most theocratic in the country’s history, has launched a full-out onslaught on all things secular.

More than half of the seats in the ruling coalition belong to far-right parties that are driving the very unsecular official agenda. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forged a compact with the most regressive political formations on the country’s landscape, promising to do their bidding as long as they enable him to stay in power and escape prosecution for his alleged corruption.

The reactionary nature of the incoming coalition was felt on election night itself, since celebrants from some parties in the ruling coalition were almost all male — not surprising since these entities want to relegate women to the sidelines or worse. Israeli feminist groups have expressed concern that actively anti-women policies are in the offing.

Israel’s new governmental makeup is also extremely detrimental for the country’s non-Jewish populations, both within and outside Israel proper. The hardline Zionism that the coalition parties subscribe to views Israeli Arabs as a blight who should have been expelled at the country’s creation. As for the Palestinians, the less said about the current Israeli government’s attitude toward them, the better.

The controversy that is currently roiling Israeli society, however, is the government’s attempt to take away the judiciary’s independence by 1) letting the country’s Parliament override judicial decisions and 2) by altering the way that judges are appointed. Indeed, Israel has been split asunder. “The sweeping judicial reforms have triggered nationwide protests and soul-searching about whether two camps with very different views of what it means to be a Jewish democratic state can co-exist,” Reuters reports.

There are a few segments of Israeli society that are particularly cheering the regime on in its anti-judicial campaign.

“The government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary reflects how Israel has changed over the last three decades and highlights the rising influence of two groups that have long locked horns with the court: ultra-Orthodox Jews and West Bank settlers,” reports the New York Times. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews resent the court for opposing handouts and conscription exemptions for their community, while settlers see the court as an unwanted brake on their aims of exerting even more control over the West Bank.”

Just to clarify, the Israelis who have settled in the West Bank are most often adherents of a maximalist Zionism finding justification in religious texts for their claims to take over the Occupied Territories and displace the Palestinians.

Israel’s sharp rightward tack is imperiling its support among Jewish Americans, who have traditionally been strong backers of the state. “An Israeli government effort to weaken the country’s judiciary, which critics call a threat to the nation’s democratic foundations, is drawing unusually pointed protest from American Jewish leaders and organizations, including ones that generally avoid commenting on internal Israeli politics,” the New York Times reports. Even figures such as Anti-Defamation League ex-head Abraham Foxman have gone public with their criticism. He told the Jerusalem Post after the new government was formed that “if Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”

What has been disappointing so far has been the Biden administration’s stance, which has firmly been in the realm of the anodyne. “So far, there are no indications the Biden administration intends any substantive shift in its relationship with Israel’s government, beyond more frequent public calls for de-escalation in the West Bank and gentle reminders about the importance of democratic institutions,” reports NBC News. The United States plays a key role for Israel with billions in aid and veto at the United Nations to protect Israeli misconduct. So, for it to speak out would not be interference in another country’s domestic affairs; rather it would be holding responsible a key beneficiary of U.S. benevolence.

Netanyahu is part of a global cohort of leaders who, propelled by religious support, have engaged in a dismantling of democratic guardrails. This includes India’s Narendra Modi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, till recently Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and, a bit further back, our very own Donald Trump.

Religion is undermining democracy around the world. We at the Freedom From Religion Foundation feel compelled to speak out in defence of democratic and secular values — the very values that leaders such as Netanyahu are undermining.

“An independent judiciary is the cornerstone of any democracy,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “It is chilling to witness this theocratic power play.”

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