Opinion: Canadians need not be bystanders on the subject of Israeli judicial reform

Protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's legislative changes on February 20, 2023. (Photo by Hanay/Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Orit Kamir is a legal scholar in Jerusalem; Prof. Ariel Katz is in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto; Prof. Audrey Macklin is in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto.

Should everyone outside Israel just be quiet about that country’s feared slide toward autocratic rule? That seems to be the opinion of two authors of an Aug. 2 column in the Globe and Mail (“Israelis can sort out their legal reform issues on their own”). Bystanding also seems to be the preferred position of many community organizations across the country. We are an Israeli in Israel, an lsraeli-Canadian, and a Canadian. We are all Jewish, and we could not disagree more with that view.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in a marathon protest that has lasted over seven months. To put that in comparative perspective, the turn-out to some demonstrations would be the equivalent of 2 million Canadians showing up.

Here in Canada, hundreds of Israelis living in Canada, along with their local supporters, have been demonstrating on a weekly basis in Toronto and Vancouver, together with others in over 65 cities in the United States, Europe, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, and New Zealand. 

The Israeli demonstrators vary in their location along the political spectrum, but share in common their profound opposition to a barrage of initiatives that will cripple judicial oversight of the legislature (Knesset) and the executive (prime minister and cabinet) in a country whose governance structure offers no other constraints on the exercise of political power.

Other laws will intensify discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, women, asylum seekers, and sexual minorities; greenlight de facto annexation of the West Bank and further the dispossession of its Palestinian inhabitants; and amplify the power of politicians who can only be described as Jewish supremacists.

The risk that such laws would be enacted is not merely remote speculation. The resolute determination to enact and enforce them is evident from the platforms of the various parties that comprise the current extremist governing coalition, from the coalition agreements between those parties, from the statement of their members and leaders, and from the bills that have been introduced, those already passed, and those which will soon be declared in force. 

Israeli citizens at the vanguard of these protests have been learning directly from the experience and insights of Hungarian and Polish activists, who unsuccessfully resisted the descent of their governments into authoritarian rule under cover of majoritarian process. One hard lesson that Hungarian and Polish interlocutors taught Israelis was that confining the struggle to inside the country was not enough. They would need to build awareness and to mobilize support from outside the country, from Israelis abroad, from Jewish communities—indeed, from anybody concerned about the present and future of democratic governance.  

Israeli demonstrators want all the help they can get, and they are asking for it openly. Who are a couple of Canadians writing in a major newspaper to tell hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators that they should not seek support from people outside Israel? Or to tell us, in Canada, that we should not respond?

Where do they find the chutzpah to tell hundreds of thousands of Israelis, from the centre-right to the left, that what they perceive as an imminent and mortal danger to the constitutional and democratic foundations of the state, and to the future of their country, is just a sign of healthy democratic debate?

How do leaders of the Jewish federations, who ordinarily do not miss an opportunity to declare how much they care about Israel, convince themselves that acting as bystanders is the correct moral position? If they agree with the protesters, they have an obligation to support them; if they disagree with them, they should have the courage to explain why.  

If attention to Israel seems disproportionate to the attention given to Poland under Mateusz Morawiecki, Hungary under Viktor Orban, India under Narendra Modi, or Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, surely the answer is that we should speak up more often and more loudly about the degeneration of democracy everywhere, not that we should shut up about Israel. The proposed legislative initiatives in Israel are doubtless complex and technical, just as they are in every country. Along with other legal scholars, we can and do play a role in explaining those laws in an accessible way. It is patronizing to presume that outsiders cannot learn enough about what those laws say, what they will do, and what’s at stake, and then form an opinion and express it. Because speaking up when democracy is under threat is also what democracy is about.