Israeli Democracy in Action

 In Holocaust Studies and Education

At this very moment, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are witnessing booming protests outside of Parliament. After many months of contentious debate and mass patriotic protests throughout the country, the ruling coalition government just passed the reasonableness bill [64 votes to 0], significantly curtailing the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court. After a three-month pause aimed at reaching consensus, this is the first of several proposed reforms that would dramatically shift the balance of power in Israel’s government. Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, worked tirelessly to moderate talks between all voices of the debate, but all attempts to achieve consensus were unsuccessful. 

The technicality of the law limits the Supreme Court’s ability to review the “reasonableness” of government decisions, particularly as it concerns ministerial decisions. A decision deemed “unreasonable” is the Court’s indication that lawmakers have ruled in an illogical or imbalanced manner. “Reasonableness” is the same legal standard used in Britain, Canada and Australia. In Israel, it is rooted in the principle of “derech eretz” or “way of the land” embedded in Jewish ethics, including equality and consideration for one another. 

Not unlike Britain, Israel has yet to ratify a formal written constitution. Instead, its legal system is centered on a set of Basic Laws, various statutes and other court precedents. Israel’s decades-old constitutional debate surrounds striking a balance between its Jewish character and its democratic values. 

Proponents of the judicial reform, mostly right-leaning and religious Israelis, argue that this legislative change simply makes Israel’s checks and balances operate like the rest of the western world, promoting democratic values. Arguments for the reform are based in altering a predominantly secular, Ashkenazi and centrist elite group that has shaped the Supreme court for decades.  

For the critics, many uniquely Israeli elements of Jewish life pose a risk to secular and liberal values. Since its establishment, Israel has witnessed the results of intertwining religion and state. Many express concern that it could ultimately betray the very essence of the Zionist dream.

This being said, the passage of this bill doesn’t mean that Israel has taken a sudden turn towards autocracy. It is, nonetheless, an indicator of deeply entrenched social divisions. My hope is that both sides of the debate can engage in discussions to realign priorities and reach compromise: A problem cannot be solved without making those who disagree a part of the solution.

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