Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
March 27, 2023
Seven people died today in a school shooting in Nashville. Three of them were nine-year-olds. Three were staffers. One was the shooter. In the aftermath of the shooting, President Joe Biden once again urged Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons, to which today’s Republican lawmakers will never agree because gun ownership has become a key element of social identity for their supporters, who resent the idea that the legal system could regulate their ownership of firearms.
In the wake of the shooting, Representative Andrew Ogles (R-TN), who represents Nashville thanks to redistricting by the Republican legislature that cut up a Democratic district, said he was “utterly heartbroken” by the shooting and offered “thoughts and prayers to the families of those lost.”
In 2021, Ogles, his wife, and two of his three children held guns as they posed for a Christmas card with a caption that read: “The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference—they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.”
Meanwhile, protests continue in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to hamstring his country’s Supreme Court and put the legislature in charge of judicial review has sparked fierce opposition.
Netanyahu regained power last November while he was facing criminal charges of fraud, breach of trust, and bribery. His far-right coalition put together a government and elevated two critics of the Israeli judiciary, who promptly put forward a plan of “legal reforms.”
According to Amichai Cohen and Yuval Shany in Lawfare, supporters of those changes claim that unelected judges who are part of a “liberal deep state” have too much power, often using it to pursue criminal proceedings against senior politicians, prohibit Israeli settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank, or to refuse religious exemptions from military service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.
On January 4, 2023, Netanyahu’s minister of justice Yariv Levin proposed an overhaul of the judicial system that would put Netanyahu’s slim majority—just 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset—in complete control of the country’s laws, enabling the far-right majority to avoid any checks on its power (as well as enabling Netanyahu to evade the criminal trials he faces).
But Netanyahu did not campaign on remaking the judiciary; it is the far-right members of his coalition who have made it their signature issue. Protests against the measures began almost immediately as alarmed Israelis realized the move would destroy their democracy.
The protests continued until this Saturday, when Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant warned that the massive backlash against the judicial overhaul, including more and more military members who are boycotting their training missions, threatened the nation’s military readiness. He called for a halt to the attempt to force through the changes. Two members of the coalition backed Gallant and one appeared to be wavering, thus threatening Netanyahu’s majority. The next day, Netanyahu fired Gallant.
The firing sparked massive demonstrations and widespread strikes. At first, the far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition refused to stop their plans to overhaul the judiciary and called for their supporters to turn out to oppose the protesters, but Netanyahu apparently cut a deal with them. He has announced that the judicial reforms will be postponed while the two sides look for a compromise, and that he has agreed to the formation of a civil “national guard” the right will control. While Bethan McKernan of The Guardian called this move an empty gesture, Zach Beauchamp of Vox noted that the new paramilitary unit will be under the control of the extremist minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who in 2008 was convicted of supporting a terrorist organization and who used to keep a photograph of a mass murderer in his living room.
Still, as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, the halt is “pretty transparently a stalling tactic,” launched in the hope that the protests will die down and the package can go forward later, although, as Marshall points out, polls show that the so-called reforms are very unpopular.
The crisis in Israel threatens the country’s relationship with the United States. During the Trump administration, Netanyahu cozied up to Trump and his Republican allies, and Israel’s continued rightward shift has alarmed foreign observers. In early March, Israel’s finance minister Bezalel Smotrich called for the state to “erase” a Palestinian town, and he has called himself a “proud homophobe” and a “fascist.” In Israel, Netanyahu’s son tweeted that the U.S. State Department is behind the protests, hoping to overthrow Netanyahu, a sentiment to which Netanyahu himself has nodded.
When Smotrich visited Washington, D.C., earlier this month, White House officials declined to meet with him, and more than ninety Democratic lawmakers wrote to Biden asking him to use “all diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel’s current government from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions and undermining the potential for two states for two peoples.” According to Josh Lederman of NBC News, more than 300 rabbis last year said that members of Netanyahu’s coalition were not welcome to speak at their synagogues.
The threats to the Israeli judiciary threaten the nation’s economy, as billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month. “Companies and investors place enormous value on strong and independent judicial systems because courts help protect them — not only against crime and corruption but also government overreach. Just as important, they protect what their employees value most: individual rights and freedoms,” he wrote.
In case anyone missed the obvious comparison between what is happening in Israel and what might transpire in the U.S., Bloomberg continued: “In the United States, our founding fathers’ insistence on checks and balances to control the tyrannical tendencies of majorities was part of their genius. Our Constitution is not perfect—no law is—but its many checks and balances have been essential to protecting and advancing fundamental rights and maintaining national stability. It was only through those safeguards that the United States has managed to withstand extreme shocks to our democracy in recent years—including a disgraceful attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power—without a catastrophic fracturing.”