Jewish Community Reacts to Israeli Judicial Reform

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation at a protest against Israelʼs new judicial reforms (Courtesy of Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi)

Despite the massive, months-long protests against proposed reforms to Israel’s judicial system, the Knesset approved part of the plan to overhaul the country’s Supreme Court on Monday, July 24.

The proposed package of legislation — which would limit the court’s power to challenge decisions made by the Knesset and to select judges — has been met with backlash from both Israeli citizens and American Jewish people invested in Israeli politics.

Under the first part of the plan, which was passed last week, the Supreme Court cannot strike down laws it deems unreasonable. If they do, their decision can be easily overruled by the Knesset.

The portion of the plan that would change how judges are appointed has not yet been passed. If it did, it would give the responsibility of electing judges to the government.

Currently, the Judicial Selection Committee — which is comprised of three Supreme Court justices, two Knesset members, two cabinet ministers and two representatives of the Israeli Bar Association — has that power. Many fear that this proposed change would further politicize decisions made by the Supreme Court, which is meant to be largely apolitical.

Several American Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Council and the Jewish Federations of North America, have said that these reforms were pushed without proper consensus or willingness to compromise with people opposed to them.

“The new law was pushed through unilaterally by the governing coalition amid deepening divisions in Israeli society as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets,” the AJC said in an official statement.

Some are in favor of the new reforms. A Jerusalem Post op-ed written in February 2023 by Morton A. Klein and Elizabeth Berney, both of the Zionist Organization of America, argued that Israel’s Supreme Court has had too much unchecked power for too long, and that it has too much influence on military and political matters.

“Israel’s Supreme Court has usurped and arrogated to itself the power to flout, invalidate and rewrite laws and policies enacted by the people’s elected Knesset and government representatives simply because Justices subjectively viewed those democratically-enacted laws and policies as ‘unreasonable’ or ‘inappropriate,’” Klein and Berney wrote.

Eyal Bor, the director of Beth El Schools and The Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center For Life Long Learning, as well as a former resident of Israel, said that the passage of these judicial reforms is one of the most dire situations he has ever seen in the country.

“A friend sent me pictures of the front pages of several Israeli newspapers [on the day the reforms were passed], and they were all black with no text. The color black represents mourning,” Bor said. “The government may be able to get the votes it wants now, but it was all at the cost of the people’s hopes and happiness.”

Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning, took place two days after the reforms were passed. While Tisha B’Av is meant to mourn the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, it has been used as a memorial day for other tragedies such as the Holocaust.

Some have drawn parallels between Tisha B’Av and the passage of these judicial reforms, including Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi in her essay “Saving Israeli Democracy for the Sake of Our Shared Future: Tisha B’Av in Light of the Current Crisis in Israel.

“Before Jerusalem was destroyed, the Talmud and outside historians teach us that the Jews were divided and fighting among themselves,” Sabbath wrote. “Some were willing to risk it all in order not to let others remain in power. … Others fled to the desert and eventually committed mass suicide on Masada. … We were exiled from our homeland because we could not stand united.”

These judicial reforms are a point of contention not just for Israeli and American Jews, but for other Israeli minorities. Some members of Netanyahu’s government harbor strong anti-LGBTQ sentiments. Some Israeli members of the LGBTQ community worry that they will use these new reforms to force anti-LGBTQ laws.

“The Israeli LGBTQ community has been protesting these proposals for months because it is the Supreme Court that has helped to safeguard the civil rights of all Israelis, including the LGBTQ community,” said a fundraising appeal emailed after the vote from A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israel nonprofit that aims to connect the American and Israeli LGBTQ communities.

A U.N.-mandated report published on June 2 also theorized that these reforms could put increased pressure on Palestinian and Arab citizens. The U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry cited proposed legislation from Netanyahu’s government that suggested increasing taxation on pro-Palestinian NGOs, which could be a heavy blow to organizations advocating for a two-state solution. A lack of input from the Supreme Court would make such laws far easier to pass.

Bor, who saw protests against the judicial reforms while he was visiting Tel Aviv, noted that they were an inspiring experience that showed the Israeli community’s ability to band together.

“I saw an energy in the Israeli people that I never saw before. I saw people from all different parts of society, and I had never seen Israelis so involved in trying to make a change,” he recalled.

And many American Jewish organizations have stressed the importance of holding the Israeli government accountable, like they would their own government.

“If we can all hold Israel to its own standards, then I believe there can be a bright future,” Sabath wrote. “If we can also recommit to the importance of the relationship between Israelis and North American Jews, then I believe that our shared future will be strong and that together we can continue to have a positive impact on the world.”

Bor agreed, citing the strength of the Israeli people.

“We have seen many crises, and I hope that with God’s love for the Jewish faith, we will continue to be a thriving nation,” he said.

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