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Dershowitz: ‘Judicial reform will not undercut democracy’

While he opposes most of the government's program, the renowned jurist rejects the main argument of its critics, who argue that it spells the end of Israel’s democracy.

Professor Alan Dershowitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 11, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Professor Alan Dershowitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 11, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

U.S. attorney and Harvard University emeritus law professor Alan Dershowitz said the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform program does not endanger Israel’s democracy and might even enhance it, speaking on Wednesday during an online debate with Professor Eugene Kontorovich.

The rare respectful discussion, given the fevered rhetoric surrounding the reform plan, took place via Zoom, and was produced and broadcast by J-AIR Radio in Australia.

While he opposes much of the judicial reform plan, Dershowitz rejected the main argument of its critics, who argue that it spells the end of Israel’s democracy. “This would not undercut democracy. In some respects, it would make Israel more democratic,” he said.

“If all of these reforms were enacted—and I oppose most, but not all of them—it would turn Israel into, God forbid, Canada or New Zealand or Australia, or many European countries. It would not turn it into Poland. It would not turn it into an autocratic country,” added Dershowitz.

Dershowitz, however, qualified his remarks, noting that while the reforms wouldn’t undermine Israel’s democracy, “a good democracy requires not only majority rule but minority rights, due process, freedom of speech, equal protection. And I think that a proposal to weaken substantially the judiciary would compromise those values. It would not compromise democracy.”

‘To serve as a check and balance’

Kontorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum and a proponent of judicial reform, took issue with Dershowitz’s assumption that Israel’s Supreme Court is a great defender of human rights, noting that the court has limited the freedom of the ultra-Orthodox “within their own spaces.

“The point is it’s not clear exactly what minority rights are or why a self-perpetuating court is a guarantee of it,” said Kontorovich, referring to the veto power the court’s justices have on the Judicial Selection Committee over the choice of their successors and other Israeli judges.

Nor has the court been particularly strong on free speech, as it shut down a right-wing radio station that had been granted a license to operate by the Knesset, and imposes gag orders on campaigning in the final days of an election campaign, “what in America would be the most highly protected speech. … Instead, the [Israeli] Supreme Court thinks it’s acceptable to impose gag orders on politicians,” he said.

Kontorovich said that one of the reasons the court system has become such a divisive issue in Israel, as compared to America, where even the recent ruling on abortion overturning Roe v. Wade did not lead to nationwide street protests, is that the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court changes over time whereas the Israeli Supreme Court is self-selecting, and therefore self-perpetuating, effectively setting its decisions in stone. “[Its] current doctrine is ‘what we do is permanent because we’re going to pick people who agree with us to continue in our positions, and we can even strike down constitutional amendments that disagree with us,’ ” he said.

Dershowitz conceded that the court’s veto over the appointment of judges should be eliminated, but he disagreed with turning over the selection of judges to politicians, which the reform plan seeks to do by giving a majority to the ruling coalition, not unlike in the United States. However, Dershowitz said that “the American system is probably one of the worst in the world for appointing justices.

“All I insist on is that the nominating commission that makes the nomination have a majority of non-politicians. I do not want Likud or Labor or any political party to dominate the election process,” he said. “All I care about is not turning the Supreme Court into a politicized institution where people are selected for their loyalty to the party.”

He continued, saying “I think because Israel doesn’t have a written constitution, it needs that kind of elitist check on temporary majorities. We want an elitist Supreme Court. We want a Supreme Court that doesn’t put its finger to the wind and decide what the public wants now. We want the Supreme Court to serve as a check and balance.”

Kontorovich disagreed with Dershowitz that the chief measure in judicial selection should be merit or “technical expertise,” as the policy positions of the candidates can’t be separated from the decision-making process given that nobody is free of ideology. “Nobody is objective and nobody is neutral,” he said.

“The concern in Israel is that you cannot pick a body of academics or experts who do not have significant ideological and philosophical homogeneity, which will result in a kind of self-replication,” he said, noting that the danger is especially acute in Israel where there are fewer universities, and professors tend to hire their own students. “So I think expertise is overvalued.”

Kontorovich also took issue with Dershowitz’s position that politicians shouldn’t have a majority role in picking judges. “The point is not that one government picks all the justices. Governments rotate. … We’ve seen that in the United States, just when one side despairs. … It changes up. … So I think the appointment process needs to be linked to politics.”

Dershowitz and Kontorovich agreed that the current uproar over judicial reforms is an extension of anti-Israel or anti-Netanyahu animus, and is not focused on the reform program itself. “The interest of the world community in this is completely, fundamentally misguided,” said Kontorovich, who chalks it up to the “international obsession” with Israel.

“There’s no reason for the E.U. high commissioner to be having a special hearing about the jurisdiction of the Israeli Supreme Court. He certainly did not have hearings when the court started asserting its extraordinary powers to strike down constitutional laws and to remove the prime minister,” noted Kontorovich. “These are things for Israelis to debate amongst themselves.”

Dershowitz said of the Israeli protesters: “They don’t like the result of the election. And as a result, they’re protesting and they have no idea what they’re protesting. People don’t protest judicial reform. And that’s where Eugene and I agree on a lot. … I don’t think the European Union [or] the Reform and America’s rabbis should be dealing with these issues. It’s a surrogate for, ‘We don’t like [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir and [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich. And if [the judicial reform bills] would be passed by anybody else, they wouldn’t be concerned about it.”

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