Turning 75 should be cause for celebration—a major passage for a relatively young country. However, what should we do in the midst of an existential national crisis? There is just no way of sugarcoating it: Israel at 75 is in danger of becoming an undemocratic and religious fundamentalist Jewish state.

A year ago, writing about Israel at 74 would have been a very different story. The country had elected what was referred to as the “change government,” a coalition of disparate parties representing a spectrum of ideologies that proved to be too fragile to last. That government included for the first time in Israeli history an independent Arab Israeli party. The Abraham Accords were in full swing—a “warm” peace signifying acceptance within the Middle East that engaged people-to-people connections in a way Israel had not seen with Egypt and Jordan. Israel continued to thrive globally as the storied “startup nation” introducing medical and technological innovation on the world stage. Relations with its most important ally, the United States, were strong with President Biden’s sincere support for preserving the Israel/U.S. special relationship rooted not just in geopolitical necessity, but in deeply held shared democratic values.

Of course, problems abounded. The hope for a two-state solution with the Palestinians seemed elusive, while terrorism and settler violence were on the rise. Delegitimization of Israel remained a world-wide phenomenon and ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews were fraying among young people, particularly among progressives. In sum, Israel at 74 was a mixed bag, but there were many hopeful developments.

Yet today, on the verge of 75, Israel is in turmoil. The change government collapsed and Benjamin Netanyahu, the indicted and longest-serving former prime minister who spent a year exiled in the opposition, regained the top spot. However, this time, in order to do so, he was compelled to join forces with right-wing ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties calling for radical changes in Israeli society. The country, which has had many tribal and ideological divisions throughout its history, has now become a battleground, some even calling it civil war.

A comprehensive and complex judicial “reform” proposal that had received virtually no attention during the election campaign suddenly emerged as the top priority of the newly formed coalition. There are many aspects to the proposal but the result would be the total loss of a system of checks and balances, which is the cornerstone of liberal democracy. With a bare majority of 61 votes, the Knesset (Israeli parliament) would have the power to enact laws without any meaningful independent judicial oversight by its Supreme Court, as the court itself would be controlled by the coalition government, a blended executive and legislative branch in which there is no separation of powers.

Even though Israel has existed for 75 years without a formal constitution, the individual rights and freedoms that Americans are familiar with in the Bill of Rights are relied upon by the Israeli Supreme Court by reference to the foundational principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. These provide that the State of Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace…and will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race and sex….” It is, of course, essential for a liberal democracy like Israel to maintain a strong judiciary that upholds these principles, particularly in light of the lack of a strong system of checks and balances.

If you think this is merely a theoretical threat, think again. Just two weeks ago, the Knesset passed the “chametz law,” banning people from taking leavened food into hospitals during Passover. That type of law will be the tip of the iceberg if there is no meaningful judicial oversight. The rights of the Arab minority, women, LGBTQ people and others are in serious risk of being severely eroded by the extremist ideologues currently in power.

The proposed judicial overhaul has catalyzed the entire country in ways that are almost unimaginable. For the past four months, close to 20% of the population has taken to the streets all over the country in protest. The government’s proposed plan has already resulted in serious economic losses and security turmoil. Terror attacks and settler violence are unfortunately on the rise, and even Israel Defense Forces reservists have refused to serve a government where democracy is threatened. In theory, there are discussions going on between the coalition and opposition to try to reach a compromise; however, at the same time, the government has stated it has no intent to halt the legislation when the Knesset reconvenes in May.

So, is there a silver lining?

An optimist—which I happen to be—would say yes. The crisis has galvanized Israelis of varied backgrounds who have never before participated civically to activism of all sorts. They have taken to the streets and awakened to the reality that they cannot take their amazing country for granted. They understand they must fight for its very soul as a Jewish and democratic state—a Jewish state inclusive of Jews of all stripes and a democratic state protective of the rights of all its citizens, including its 20% Arab minority. While the tribal factions of Israeli society have intensified, could it be that out of this clash will emerge a stronger Israel that will bring the disparate groups closer together?

The throngs who have taken to the streets over the past four months are clearly making a difference: After all, as of this writing, the radical judicial overhaul train has been halted temporarily, which was no small matter. Many Israelis report a newly invigorated sense of hope—tikva—for their country’s future as they have stood shoulder to shoulder with so many thousands creating a reinvigorated sense of unity and solidarity. The challenge, of course, will be to find a way out of this national reckoning that lays a foundation for a future that builds on the aspirational principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

We tend to forget that, at 75, Israel is a young country, a work in progress that is still figuring out its purpose, and its mission: What does Israel stand for and who owns Israel? And is there a role for a new kind of Zionism? We are watching these definitional questions play out in real time. I can’t help thinking of the growing pains of the United States that, 85 years after its founding, fought a civil war over the unresolved issue of slavery. Israel also left unresolved issues on the table at its founding in 1948. Israel at 75 is a country that has survived and even thrived without a constitution, but has now hit a wall and must redefine what it means to be Jewish and democratic.

Don’t get me wrong: I myself am an ardent Zionist and will never give up on the State of Israel. I still believe its very existence is a miracle and its accomplishments in every sphere too numerous to even begin to acknowledge. And its diverse citizenry—Jews and Arabs, secular and religious—are among the most amazing and best people I know: kind, resourceful, direct, generous, creative, passionate, patriotic, improvisational, fun-loving and thoughtful. And Israel still ranks among the happiest countries on earth!

So, how does one celebrate 75 years in the midst of turmoil? My Israeli friend Shani Radman, currently a Wexner Israel Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, suggests the following: “This year’s Independence Day is a great opportunity to go back to the roots of the Jewish and democratic state. I suggest, alongside the parties, that you read and discuss the Declaration of Independence with your children and close ones so they understand our founding principles.”

At 75, the Jewish state is at an existential crossroads. And as “shareholders,” we Diaspora Jews are finally being approached by our Israeli brothers and sisters to play a role in shaping Israel’s future. So, yalla, let’s do it—celebrate on April 25-26, but realize that it’s not business as usual. Let’s raise our voices and support Israel’s aspirational quest to achieve its foundational principles of justice and equality for all its citizens. After all, what could be more Jewish than that?

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