By Lianne Kolirin
One of Britain’s two leading Jewish newspapers has splashed its latest edition with a blacked-out front cover, with a striking one-word headline: “Demockracy.”
Below the bold pun is an opinion piece unequivocal in its support for the widespread democracy protests in Israel that reached a peak on Monday, when Binyamin Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition passed legislation to limit some of the Supreme Court’s powers — a move widely regarded as a threat to democracy.
The law has been bitterly contested in Israel where police used water cannon against protesters blocking a road, amid rowdy protests by crowds outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
“This is not ‘reform’. It is revolution,” the Jewish News declares.
It describes the legal changes as “seismic”, adding that “they eviscerate the country’s independent judiciary, removing the one remaining check and balance to prevent unbridled government power”.
It continues: “This newspaper has always worn its blue and white with pride. Over the past 29 weeks, we have worn it in support of those waving their flags on the street or at the airport. We haven’t blocked roads or been water cannoned, but we have shouted. ‘Save Israeli Democracy’ sounds dramatic, but it is no understatement.”
The splash was, in part, inspired by a wraparound advert, paid for by the Israeli Hi-Tech Protest Movement, which covered several Israeli newspapers on Tuesday. Publications including Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronot were cloaked in black, with the words “A black day for Israeli Democracy” printed in small white text at the foot of the page.
Richard Ferrer, editor of Jewish News, said of the paper’s front page: “It was a tribute but with the word democracy perverted.”
He told the Religion Media Centre: “British Jews have always taken Israel for granted and seen the danger and the threat without and now finally I think they are seeing the threat within.”
The Jewish News’s splash is likely to provoke strong reactions in the British community, which has traditionally remained tight-lipped about the political situation in Israel. While the newspaper has been praised for its position by some, others on social media have hit out with comments such as “embarrassing”, “shame on you” and “a sinister front page”.
This is not the first time that the newspaper has been publicly outspoken on the issue. Before the Israeli elections last year, it published a front page asking “where’s the outrage?” about the possibility of extreme nationalists Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir entering government. After the election result it ran a picture of the same pair under the headline “Our worst fear”.
Recalling the response, Ferrer said: “For every pat on the back saying ‘I thank you for speaking out’, we got people saying ‘how dare you’ and even calling me a kapo [the term used for Jewish concentration camp inmates who collaborated with the Nazis].”
“We got some appalling abuse. I used to get abuse from Corbynites, now I’m getting it from Jews.”
He said many of the more conservative elements of the community felt that speaking out lent support to Israel’s enemies and threatened its very existence. “The Jewish News is coming from a position of moral honesty,” he told the RMC. “We see it and we call it. We don’t put a front page like this together lightly. When we do it, we do it because we are trying to be on the right side of history.”
Nevertheless, he said he understood where the newspaper’s detractors were coming from. “I don’t have Syria and Lebanon and Iran breathing down my neck and I don’t send my children to defend my home in the army. But given all of that, when we see the nation state of the Jewish people compromise its principles what are we meant to do? We can’t be silent.”
The front page comes after 100 British rabbis and community leaders published an open letter to the Israeli government to express their “deep concern for the future of Israel’s democracy”.
The signatories included Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue. In an email to the RMC, he explained why he and others decided to act.
“For many Jews who were reluctant to criticise Israel in the past, we have now reached a tipping point, not out of antagonism to Israel, but out of a love that has to speak out to protect what we love,” he said.
“We also feel we should be mature enough to distinguish between criticising the government of Israel and supporting the people of Israel. This is especially urgent when half the country is in despair at what its leadership is doing and they need to know we are supporting them.
“It is certainly true that the government of Israel was democratically elected, but the way the system of proportional representation works has meant that a coalition has been formed that few voters envisaged when they went to the polls. It may be legitimate, but it is very unwelcome to most Israelis.”
While the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis did not sign the letter, he today put out a statement in which he talked about the “great pain of unprecedented division” in Israel.
Earlier this week, the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council issued a joint statement expressing deep disappointment at the approval of the law and called on the government to “return urgently to dialogue and to prevent the deepening of a constitutional crisis”.
Sharon Shochat, leader of Defend Israeli Democracy UK, a branch of the Israeli protest movement, described this week’s development as “a pivotal moment in Israel’s history”.
She said: “The legislation brought forward by the Netanyahu government affects not only Israelis but also Jews worldwide. It has direct implications on them: some of the laws affect them directly. But more importantly, Israel was founded as a home for the Jewish people, and Jews worldwide are stakeholders.
“Jewish communities worldwide look to Israel, the only Jewish state, for inspiration and identity. If it becomes governed by extremists whose values are so opposed to their own without any democratic checks and balances, if that Jewish home is now under threat from within, then Jewish people everywhere not only should but must speak out.”