This has been a tumultuous week in Israel, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets around the country in opposition to legislation that was passed Monday by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to restrict the power of Israel’s supreme court, the High Court of Justice. This happened while our Birmingham JCC Maccabi Games team of teenage boys, led by LJCC staffers Katie Hausman Grace and Cody Bass, was in Israel. While the group managed to stay out of the fray, their being able to return home as scheduled on Wednesday was not a sure thing.
In the end, the team flew home as planned.
“There was talk of a nationwide strike that would most likely have shut down our airport,” Katie says. “These same demonstrations had done exactly that back in March already, so it really was a possibility again.”
The rising tension in Israel has its roots in the ruling coalition’s plan to take away the High Court’s ability to review the “reasonableness” of government decisions. Because Israel does not have a written constitution and the ruling legislative and executive branches are generally led by the same political coalition, the High Court’s ability to strike down government actions as being “unreasonable” is seen by many to be crucial to the country’s democratic process. Others see it as judicial overreach.
Other legislative measures concerning the court are pending.
The opposition to Monday’s legislative action expanded this week to include a number of shuttered businesses, striking physicians, and thousands of members of the Israel Defense Forces reserves threatening not to report for duty.
How did the mass demonstrations affect our B’ham group? “Lots of driving delays, an inability to get food delivered, and plans delayed,” explains Cody. “And a handful of times we had to get off the bus and walk because our bus couldn’t reach our hotel.” The situation never put the group in any danger.
Cody is sorry their group didn’t get to engage with any of the protesters. “Although there might have been disagreement about methods, most people we met seemed to sympathize with the demonstrators,” he says.
“All of the Israelis I interacted with for three weeks were heartbroken at the direction the country is headed,” says Katie. “They expressed fear for the future, and some even talked about wanting to leave.”
Cody and Katie used the protests as a learning moment for their group. “Hopefully our teens were able to take home some extra knowledge about the country they all got to explore,” Katie says. “Out of all the history on the trip through Israel,” adds Cody, “the current situation and the political turmoil seemed to be the most engaging for everyone.”
A glimmer of hope
Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on July 19 provided a glimmer of hope that Israel could rise above its current challenges.
“At this moment in my people’s history, gathering on Capitol Hill to celebrate 75 years of Israeli independence with our greatest partner and friend the United States of America, my soul is overflowing with pride and joy,” he said.
The president noted that it is possible to disagree without being divisive. He implored the Israeli public to resist the temptation of demonizing each other based on differing viewpoints, stressing that only through empathy and understanding can lasting solutions be found.
The president prompted applause by describing Israel as “a country which takes pride in its vibrant democracy, its protection of minorities, human rights, and civil liberties as laid down by its parliament… and safeguarded by its strong supreme court and independent judiciary.”
Sending a JCC Maccabi team to Israel is just one more demonstration of the Levite Jewish Community Center’s commitment to Israel and its people. Team members being able to see first-hand the tribulations of such a “vibrant democracy” will only strengthen those ties while opening young minds.