This was a horrific weekend in Israel. Seven people were killed at a Jerusalem synagogue on Shabbat in what Israel Police Chief, Yaakov Shabtai, called “one of the worst terror attacks in the past few years.” Following this attack, a father and son were seriously injured when a gunman shot them on a Jerusalem street. As a result of these attacks, Israel’s security forces are on their highest level of alert and Shabtai has stationed the elite Yamam Counterterrorism Unit in Jerusalem.
While these attacks alone are extremely troubling and require our attention, sadly, attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition to radically overhaul Israel’s judiciary do as well. They have led to enormous protests in Israel, run the risk of undermining the democratic process in the Jewish State, and jeopardize the safety and security of the Jewish State.
Netanyahu, who oversees a slim four-seat majority in the Knesset, a majority that was reached with less than 50 percent of the Israeli vote, is seeking judicial reforms that will give the Knesset the ability to overrule the verdicts of the Israeli Supreme Court with a one-vote parliamentary majority. This would be extremely dangerous in any government, but particularly alarming in Israel given that there is no written constitution and, therefore, no established separation of powers that are designed to protect the rights of those in the minority.
As Bret Stephens, a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, points out in a recent New York Times opinion piece, back in 2012, a prominent Israeli leader noted that “the difference between countries in which rights are only on paper and those in which there are actual rights — that difference is a strong, independent court…In places with no strong and independent court system, rights cannot be protected.” The Israeli leader who said this was, Benjamin Netanyahu, the man leading the charge to overhaul the Israeli court system.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has referred to Netanyahu’s attempts to reform the judiciary as “a constitutional coup,” one that threatens “the most foundational values” codified in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Gantz and many others have encouraged Israelis to take the streets – and many have. “This is not a civil uprising ,” Gantz said, “it is a civil duty.”
While current Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin suggest that Israel’s Supreme Court’s “growing intervention…in cabinet decisions and Knesset legislation” has undermined trust in the legal process and, in turn, resulted in “severe damage to democracy,” Stephens sees Netanyahu’s attempts to limit the power of the Israeli judiciary for what it is: a way to protect himself from the legal system that currently has the power to act on the bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges brought against the Israeli Prime Minister. Additionally, Stephens reminds us that many of the religious hardliners in Netanyahu’s coalition seek to gain permanent military service exemption for yeshiva students, exemptions that the court has rightly turned down.
Stephens explains that Netanyahu is embracing “illiberal democracy” which he says is characterized by “hyper-personalized, populist rule” that is enforced by “gutting institutional checks and balances.” It is, he warns “how democracies devolve into mobocracies. It’s why America’s founding fathers built our system the way they did.”
As a proud Zionist and a believer in a democratic Jewish State, I am watching what is going on in Israel very closely. I urge you to join me in paying close attention to Netanyahu, his government, and the voices of Israeli citizens. We must not stand idly by as the democratic process, a process that is integral to Judaism, is obliterated. Within Israel’s Declaration of Independence, it states that the government will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights.” Netanyahu must live up to this promise.
May Israel’s security forces keep her safe from those seeking to use terror to harm her citizens. And may the outcry of the Israeli people and those of us that stand with them protect the democratic process from Israeli politicians seeking to endanger Jewish State.