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Israelis rally to retain democracy

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Israel doesn’t have a Constitution. Israel’s democratic values are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which clearly states, “The state of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles. It will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants. It will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel. It will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture. It will safeguard the holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the charter of the United Nations.”

These rights are protected by the Supreme Court, which acts as an important system of checks and balances to ensure that these values remain sacrosanct. Israel’s Supreme Court remains one of the most respected in the world; but this venerated institution is under threat.

Israel’s minister of justice, Yariv Levin, has unveiled his plan to reform the Supreme Court, a move supported by the coalition government, but it’s creating deep chasms in Israeli society.

Warning bells have been sounded from many, including members of the opposition and many concerned citizens. More than 1 000 former airforce officers wrote to Supreme Court President Esther Hayut asking that jurists stop the new government from razing democracy.

An unprecedented letter from former attorney generals and states attorneys, who have served since 1975, read, “We, who served as attorneys general or state attorneys from 1975 until recently, were shocked to hear Levin’s plan for changes to the judicial system. We’re convinced that this plan doesn’t herald the improvement of the system, but threatens to destroy it.

“The plan proposes change to the method for appointing judges, thus turning the Supreme Court from an independent institution that rules without fear and bias into a quasi-political body that will be suspected of using the law in a biased manner in favour of government. It significantly limits the authority of the court to exercise effective criticism of the government so that it doesn’t abuse its power. It allows a coalition majority to legalise any act of government, no matter how wrong and harmful it may be, by means of an override clause. It may impede the function of the ministries’ legal advisers as gatekeepers whose job it is to warn against illegal decisions,” the letter charged.

“The achievements of the Supreme Court, which advanced society and benefited every person, are now in serious peril,” the letter concluded. “That’s why we call on the government to withdraw from the published plan and prevent serious damage to the judicial system and the rule of law in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in accordance with the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence.”

Addressing the Israeli Association of Public Law on 13 January, Hayut said, “This is a plan to crush the justice system. It’s designed to deal a fatal blow to the independence of the judiciary and silence it. If it’s implemented, the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence will be remembered as the year in which the country’s democratic identity was dealt a fatal blow.”

Two people are likely to gain from proposed reforms that could protect or give immunity to elected politicians who have incurred or are facing legal issues, namely the new vice-prime minister and minister of health, Aryeh Deri, a convicted fraudster; and/or the newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing criminal prosecution.

On Saturday night, an estimated 100 000 Israelis rallied peacefully in Tel Aviv, braving the inclement weather. It wasn’t about election results, but rather a cross-section of Israeli society, including many from the centre right, expressing concern about what they see as a battle for Israel’s democracy.

This is a concern expressed by many diaspora communities as well. There’s genuine concern that the reforms could lead to a chasm between the diaspora and Israel. However, it must be noted that support for Israel shouldn’t be contingent on the government in power. That shouldn’t be the litmus test for support.

Does the Supreme Court need reforming? There are many who believe that it does and that any attempts to discuss proposed reforms should include members of the opposition party to reach a broad-based consensus.

Sweeping reforms that ignore the concerns of half the Israeli population are dangerous and irresponsible and don’t bode well for our democracy. Former Defence Minister Benny Gantz as well as other opposition leaders have warned the government that an across-the-board overhaul could potentially lead to civil war.

Israel is at a critical moment in its history. The following weeks will prove crucial for its diverse and robust democracy. We have to have a necessary conversation with ourselves as a country and a people about what kind of democracy we hope to have. A democratic dictatorship isn’t the answer.

  • Rolene Marks is a Middle East commentator often heard on radio and TV, and is the co-founder of Lay of the Land and the SA-Israel Policy Forum.

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  1. Reeva Forman

    Jan 20, 2023 at 7:37 am

    Excellent article. Thank you!
    Reeva Forman
    Chair Temple Israel Heritage Center
    Hillbrow Johannesburg

  2. ChoniDavidowitz

    Jan 20, 2023 at 11:03 am

    90% of decisions of the Supreme Court are not based on reliable Torah sources – they are actually anti-Torah.

  3. yitzchak

    Jan 22, 2023 at 1:54 pm

    Every reactionary politician opposes the Supreme Courts and the Judges whom they want to replace…
    South Africa (JSB…..)
    USA.( Trump putting in Judges of his chosing)
    Now Israel whom The present government regards as a thorn in its side.
    adolph hitler…etc

    Let’s all beware and which decisions are so anti-Torah? Mr CD?

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