As a Canadian-American who lives part of the year in Jerusalem, I have been among the thousands showing up in wet and cold weather to demonstrate support for Israeli democracy.
For many years, I have been among the proud defenders of the Israeli judicial system and of the courageous judges who have sought to defend minority rights, limit the power of military and political authorities, and protect the international reputation of the country.
But I have also been listening to those who have written about the damage the empowered judiciary has caused to social solidarity and how it has weakened the legislative authority of the Knesset in matters of governance.
During my concluding year as Senior Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation, we invited Prof. Ruth Gavison, a critic of the extension of the legal principles of “justiciability” and “reasonableness” by the Supreme Court, to discuss the delicate balance of democratic rights of citizens, human rights of all residents and the desire to maintain a Jewish and Zionist state. We also asked Justice Dorit Beinisch, former President of the Court, to discuss with Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella the role of an elite and independent judiciary in the defence of a democracy.
As a rabbi, a trained legal mediator, and a concerned Jew, aware of these serious differences of opinion, I still showed up to demonstrate against the judicial reforms proposed by the new Netanyahu government.
As presented by the Justice Minister and the Chair of the Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee, the coalition’s proposals would (1) prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” (a principle common to British and American law) to judge legislation and government decisions; (2) restrict the authority of the Supreme Court (“judiciabilty”) to issues that are strictly matters of law; (3) enable the Knesset, by a simple majority (61 votes, not a super majority of 75 percent) to overrule decisions that struck-down legislation; (4) revise the judicial appointment process to give the government control over the selection of judges; and (5) allow ministers to select their own legal advisers, instead of civil service lawyers operating under the independent authority of the Justice Ministry.
Those in favour of these changes argue that they restore authority to the people and their democratically elected representatives. The proposals have been supported by Mizrahi leaders, Haredi rabbis, religious Zionist supporters, conservative thinkers, and others who feel that the gradual “constitutional revolution” was illegitimate.
Yet, in a country without a bi-cameral legislature, without the equivalent of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and where the prime minister has administrative and legislative authority, this would significantly increase the power of the governing coalition, severely affect the balance of power, and reduce the checks and balances that are critical to liberal democracy.
The plan of the government is to move ahead rapidly, before other political considerations might fray the coalition. The Talmudic teaching, “If you grab too much, you will hold nothing,” applies here. Major constitutional changes are best developed after significant debate, consideration of the implications, and careful consultation to achieve broad-based consensus.
That is why, on a winter night in January, I and other rabbis joined almost 200 Canadian Jews outside the Israeli Consulate in Toronto to express our concerns about the political appointment of convicted criminals, the proposed policies and laws of the new government, and the rapid timetable of the legislative process.
Just prior to Tu b’Shevat, I stood in the rain outside the residence of the President of Israel, with thousands of people—young and old, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, secular and traditional, friends and new acquaintances, less and more observant. After a memorial prayer for those killed the night before in a brutal attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, we listened to impassioned and thoughtful speeches about protecting the Israeli legal system and preserving a liberal democracy.
I was particularly impressed with the words of Yoav Dotan, a professor of law, and Nazier Magally, an Arab thought leader, who said that they wanted their children and grandchildren, public officials and students, to know that they stood for protecting a “shared home” in the State of Israel. A high school educator, stated that the goal of Zionism had been to establish a Jewish state; now the task is to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic country that protects the rights of its citizens and residents.
The speakers and those milling around were present to plant seeds of hope for the future of the State of Israel and the state of Israeli society. At the end of the evening, we sang Hatikvah: “We have not lost our hope.”
I returned to Jabotinsky Street last Saturday night. And again, the evening began with a silent memorial—for those killed in a car ramming erev Shabbat and for thousands of earthquake victims. The urgency of the political was deferred to acknowledge the immediacy of human tragedy.
Rabbi Yirmi Savitsky, an Orthodox Jewish educator, reminded those assembled that the concern for justice for minorities is based in the Biblical narrative of Abraham’s defence of Sodom and that Samuel warned about the aggregation of power to a rule; the judicial system should protect minorities, safeguard equality, and limit government.
On that Shabbat morning, in synagogue, we read about the people assembled “with one heart” to receive the revelation of Torah. On that Saturday night, I felt that we joined together to reassert our commitment to a covenant of justice and hope.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto.