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Israel’s Great Crisis

Israel’s Great Crisis
By Tim Moore

As political turmoil swirls in Israel over the effort to rein in the unchecked power of the Israeli Supreme Court, it is hard for many Americans to grasp the origin of the conflict and the reason the drama is so contentious.

In the August 1st’s daily “Briefing” (an analysis of the news from a Christian worldview), Southern Baptist Seminary President Al Mohler offered one of the most insightful presentations on the unique Israeli situation. Israel’s government has functioned without a written constitution since its founding in 1948, and the Supreme Court is a self-appointed body that has granted unlimited power to itself — giving the unelected and unappointed justices wide-ranging authority that exceeds every other branch of government.

With progressives and liberals in this country advocating for judicial activism in support of their agenda, the effort to reestablish a balance of power in Israel offers a preview of the challenges that lie ahead for America.

The Supreme Court, the Prime Minister, the ‘Reasonable’ Standard, and Israel’s Future

There’s so much for us to talk about as this new season begins, but the gravity of the situation demands that we begin with the crisis in the nation of Israel. This is a crisis, a controversy, that has leapt onto the front pages of our newspapers and into the headlines regularly. It requires Christians to think deeply about what’s going on there because the lessons are not just for Israel, they are also for the United States. And they are not just for the Jewish nation, but they’re also for Christians as we seek to understand these things from a Christian worldview.

First of all, what is the crisis in Israel? Many estimate that it is the most dramatic constitutional crisis in the nation’s history, which is to say there are some who claim that this is actually an existential crisis for Israel, a crisis of the nation itself, and of Israeli society.

The presenting issue is a conflict between the majority in Israel’s parliament, which is called the Knesset, and the nation’s Supreme Court. But the larger conflict is between more conservative and more liberal, even progressivist forces there in Israel. The more liberal and secular forces are allied with the nation’s Supreme Court while the more conservative and the more religious parties are allied with the majority in parliament.

To no one’s surprise, the center of the controversy, indeed the main driver of it, is Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister. In this case, Benjamin Netanyahu is serving an unprecedented fourth term, leading the Likud Party along with a coalition of the parties known in Israel as the far right or the religious right — the party’s most associated with Orthodox forms of Judaism.

There’s more to the story as we shall see, and from a Christian worldview perspective, there’s a lot here we really need to see. It demands our attention. And as we’re looking at this, we need to recognize that one of the most basic problems that surfaces in this controversy goes all the way back to the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948. How did that happen? Well, for one thing, you had a resolution by the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II with the horrors of the Holocaust, establishing a Jewish state in what the British had called Palestine. But secondly, you also had the leaders, known as the Zionists, who forged the state of Israel from within. You had a declaration of independence. Both of those took place in 1948. Both the UN resolution and Israel’s Declaration of Independence required a national written constitution, but that constitution didn’t happen in 1948. It has never happened. Even to this day, Israel has no written constitution.

Now, let me just pause there for a moment: this is something that Christians need to think about for a moment. We need to consider the necessity of a written constitution. From a Christian worldview, we grasp the importance of a text. Now, for Christians, the most important text is the Bible. Yet, we also understand the utility of all written texts — of words, sentences, and paragraphs on a page — which serve as referents for how we organize ourselves as a society. Our Supreme Court, for example, has its controversies (to be sure), and it has its disagreements over how the Constitution is to be interpreted. Still, there is no question that the Constitution is a text. And by the way, the very fact that it is a written text is absolutely essential for understanding how conservatives basically regained control of the Supreme Court by means of an argument about how the text should be interpreted.

In Israel, however, there is no text. There is no constitution. Since the formation of the nation in 1948, there never has been. The lack of an Israeli constitution, furthermore, explains another dimension of this controversy. Christians understand that in the United States — in our American Constitutional order — one of the most important theological dimensions is the separation of powers. Now, Americans of a more secular mind might ask, “Why is that a theological issue?” Well, it is because the founders and the framers of our Constitution were very much aware of the reality of human sinfulness and of the grave danger of concentrating too much power in a limited set of human hands. That’s why our Constitution — a written document-requires three branches of government and a separation of powers between those three branches. Now, that doesn’t ensure the impossibility of tyranny, but it certainly makes that possibility very low compared to the absence of the separation of powers and the absence of a constitution.

But in the Israeli context, we do not see that kind of separation of powers. Indeed, what we saw take place after the formation of Israel in 1948, the brave young nation, in terms of its own self-consciousness, didn’t think it had time to argue over a written constitution. It had to defend itself against its enemies outside the nation and surrounding the nation from the very beginning. Indeed, the founding prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, didn’t want a written constitution because, given the necessity of forging a new nation with so many enemies surrounding it, he didn’t want to be limited as prime minister by a written constitution. Well, that made more sense perhaps in 1948 than it does now, but there have been other constitutional developments in Israel.

So how do we speak of a constitution? It’s not a written constitution, it’s just kind of an agreement. There is no text whatsoever. But over the last several decades, the two major political institutions in Israel, the parliament known as the Knesset and the Nation Supreme Court, have basically been in an argument. The Supreme Court was established early in the nation of Israel, and the court’s essential after all. But, the Supreme Court, on its own, just decided that it would adopt what was known as “the basic law,” giving the Court significant constitutional authority. There was no such parliamentary assent. The Supreme Court just decided a matter of decades ago that it would take the basic law of Israel and say, “We’re going to judge other laws, even other prime ministerial appointments, by that basic law. We’ll decide if they’re consistent; we’ll decide if they’re reasonable.”

That leads to the second big development. And in a Christian worldview perspective, this is really huge.

Under very progressive understandings of the court and of the law, the Supreme Court adopted what was known as the standard of reasonableness. Now, at first hearing that might sound reasonable. Here’s the problem: you have a court granting itself a power to decide if any action by parliament and the Prime Minister is, merely by the determination of a majority of justices on the Supreme Court, reasonable.

Now, if you have a parliamentary majority and a majority on the Supreme Court who are basically stand in political and philosophical agreement, that might not be a big problem.

For Israel, however, Parliament and the Supreme Court are not on the same page. Not at all. This takes us to an even deeper worldview issue. There’s a great divide in Israel. And, in one sense, there’s always been this divide. In another sense, the sides have switched and the divide is getting deeper.

Now, when you look at Western Europe and North America, the big story there is the secularization of the European and North American civilizations. As you look at Israel, you really have the opposite development. It’s not that the people living there have become more religious, it is that more religious Jewish people have been moving there and the more religious citizens there in Israel are the ones who have the far greater percentage of babies.

But, before tracking that further, I want us to step back to the formation of Israel itself and the Zionist movement that eventually resulted in the development of the nation state of Israel. The Israel that was established in 1948 was founded by secular, Jewish Zionists — very secular. Not only that, but they were very liberal, and a majority were actually socialists of one kind or another.

If you were to go back to the founding era of Israel, well, just consider the fact that the Soviet Union was an early supporter of Israel largely because of its commitment to socialism at the time. Now, when Harry Truman became the very first head of state to recognize Israel as a state in 1948, well, a swing in influence began towards the United States, but it was awkward from the beginning because the United States was far more conservative. And, for that matter, far more religious than Israel in terms of those who were establishing the nation.

Now, as you look at the history of Israel, you also recognize that the majority of those who established Israel in terms of its political leadership in 1948, they were forged in the crucible of Europe and they were known as Ashkenazi Jews. Given the fact that so many of them have a European background, they tended to be more politically liberal and more religiously secular than other Jewish traditions there in Israel, indeed, far more secular than the growing traditions there in Israel. And, as I said, the religious right, the Jewish right there in Israel, has been growing by virtually every means possible and has been growing at the expense of the more secular and liberal tradition there in Israel. It’s been growing because of immigration; it’s been growing because of the birth rates.

But, the liberals consider their last bastion — their last redoubt — to be the Supreme Court. By their estimation, as long as the Supreme Court can apply this reasonableness standard, the Court can basically invalidate any action by Israel’s prime minister or parliament. The Israeli left believes that this creates a firewall against religious conservatism and the more orthodox parties there in Israel. Furthermore, it’s not only the Israeli left that places its hopes in the Supreme Court, but the international friends of the Israeli left as well, which includes the left in the United States and in Europe.

Now, this gets down to issues such as settlements on the West Bank, but it also gets down to issues such as whether or not the nation would eventually recognize something like same sex marriage. You really are looking at a deep divide. And if anyone should be able to understand that divide, it should be Christians now living in the United States.

An Ark and a Covenant: The Relationship of American Evangelicals and the State of Israel

But this gets to another fascinating development in which evangelical Christians actually play a significant part. Historically, there has been a close relationship between the United States and Israel. To be sure, the strength of that relationship is being tested precisely because of the Democratic Party’s burgeoning alienation towards Israel. Indeed, we have a Democratic president with a Democratic foreign policy, and many of those who are in the establishment foreign policy world in the United States are quite concerned about a resurgent orthodox or far right parties in Israel gaining control. They also have seen the Israeli Supreme Court with this arbitrary reasonableness standard as something of a firewall.

If, however, you were to go back to the midpoint of the 20th century, President Harry Truman unilaterally extended US recognition to Israel at the very moment of Israel’s birth, and that was an enormous assist to Israel, and it sent a very clear signal globally. It was done basically over-and-against opposition from Truman’s own State Department. Nonetheless, as you looked at the relationship between the United States and Israel, all that began really to change in the 1970s. At the fountain head of that change was the then President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

But, you also have to deal with something else. As you look at the nation of Israel and you look at American politics, it was the Democratic party that in many ways was the pro-Israel party. It was liberals in the United States, or the more progressivists in the political world, who were pro-Israel. But all that really has begun to change. It began to change in the 1970s that accelerated in the 1980s, and this is where evangelical Christians come into the picture. Now, they didn’t just come into the picture at this time. They just came into the picture in a new and more powerful way.

Many evangelical Christians were supportive of Zionism, especially considering their belief in the Bible and all that God has promised and revealed. Evangelical support really accelerated with Bible conferences and in other forms of evangelical expression in the early 20th century. There are many evangelicals who saw the establishment of Israel in 1948 as the literal fulfillment of Scripture.

But the relationship between evangelicals and the state of Israel is even deeper than that because over time it was evangelicals who offered two things that had not really existed before. One of them was a stalwart argument against antisemitism that was translated into evangelical support for the state of Israel. That created a relationship between evangelicals and the Jewish people in Israel that had never existed in any other context. That was world-shaking and significant in itself.

You also had other developments. You had evangelical Christians agreeing with the Zionists about the rightfulness of the state of Israel. You also had evangelical Christians and Jewish archeologists there in the holy land who were working together in archeological expeditions with a common object: to show the truthfulness of Scripture and affirm, for the the Jewish people, their right to the territory and the nation.

In his book, Professor Walter Russell Mead makes very clear that the great transformation in the last generation has been from the fact that you had Democrats and more liberal figures in the United States who were the deep friends of Israel. Now, you have a very clear relationship between conservatives in the United States, and that means also the Republican Party and the state of Israel. You have very deep Republican relationships between Republican forces, intellectuals, think tanks in the United States, and the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel. You also have evangelical Christians who understand the theological impulse behind the religious resurgence there in Israel. Even as you’re talking about Christianity and Judaism, you’re obviously talking about a shared theological tradition and you are talking about a shared concern for what happens in the acids of modernity and an overwhelming culture of secularism.

Another point made by Walter Russell Mead is that when you look, for example, at mainline liberal Protestant denominations, they had often been very supportive of Israel. But just given the moral issues, given the foreign policy issues, given the transformation of the Democratic party in its relationship with Israel, you now have very clear criticism and almost open condemnation of Israel coming from the theological left.

You also have the fact that conservatives in the United States greatly respect the absolute determination of the state of Israel to protect itself. Evangelicals, furthermore, are happy to see developing relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbors. All of this speaks to the fact that the relationship with Israel is something very, very special and not just in terms of secular politics. And we also understand that the enemies of Israel turn out to be by-and-large the enemies not only of Europe and in particular of the United States of America, but of our allies around the world. This should not be a surprise.

Original Article

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