(January 23, 2023 / JNS) I read a police report Saturday evening that placed the number of protesters at that night’s Tel Aviv demonstration at 100,000. The pictures I saw on various WhatsApp groups, taken by friends who participated, were also impressive. In this day and age, when a scathing Facebook post is applauded as activism, I commend those who are willing to get off the couch and take a stand for what they believe in. As a child born during the Oslo process in the 1990s who was raised in a yishuv—or if you prefer the hijacked term: “settlement”—I remember those days well, albeit from a very different perspective.
The protest on Saturday was against judicial reforms proposed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin that aim to rein in the Israeli Supreme Court and make it more responsive to the legislature. Those on the right see this as a necessary move to rebalance the judicial and legislative branches of government. Those on the left see it as a blatant power grab by the ruling coalition. Though it’s up to each individual to decide which side is correct, I believe some of the arguments being made by the left are disingenuous to the point of hypocrisy.
At the protest on Saturday, one huge billboard sponsored by the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz stated, “We are here because democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box.” This asserts that the idea of “majority rule” is not absolute. In other words, just because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc won a clear victory in the last elections does not mean his government is free to govern with no oversight.
The billboard echoed the sentiment of the argument made by the President of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, in a speech several days ago, “Anyone who claims that the majority who elected their representatives to the Knesset were giving them a ‘blank check’ to do as they please takes the name of democracy in vain.”
Hayut and others also believe that, if not for the power and independence of the Supreme Court, there would be no one to protect and uphold basic civil rights in the face of an aggressive and heavy-handed government.
Yet as a child of Oslo, born and raised in the dark years of rampant terror in which parents lost friends and friends lost parents, in which the obituary sections drove home realities that were decades premature, I have to ask myself: Does the supreme court really fulfill these functions in the name of protecting democracy and civil liberties? If so, shouldn’t its decisions to rein in government policies be devoid of political bias?
In Oct. 1995, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government pushed the Oslo B agreement through the Knesset by a 61-59 majority. It did so by promising members of Knesset, from a right-wing party, positions in the government in exchange for their votes. Where were the calls for reining in majority rule back then?
At the time, the left was perfectly happy to win by the slimmest of majorities, however it was achieved. This was the case even though the ramifications of the vote were severe. They did not only threaten civil rights but the physical lives and safety of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Israelis.
Ten years later, I spent the summer of 2005 in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip. I witnessed firsthand what it was like for the people there when Ariel Sharon turned his back on everyone who voted for him and rammed the disengagement plan through, firing anyone in his government who dissented.
Yet for some reason, the Supreme Court, sans Justice Edmond Levy, decided that it was not its place to interfere. It stood by as the government sent soldiers to expel citizens from their homes, crushing any semblance of their civil liberties.
Sadly, we are still paying for this decision to this day, with Hamas now ruling the dunes where once our hothouses bloomed.
This two-faced approach proves that we should not blindly accept the rhetoric employed by the protestors. This controversy is not really about civil rights or the strength of Israel’s democracy. It’s about power. Political power and judicial power. It is about people who want influence over the future of the State of Israel even when the majority of the people chose not to elect them.
It’s hard to contain the feelings that bubble up when I hear friends on the left who supported Oslo and then the disengagement talk about how the Supreme Court is the defender of civil rights in this country. The Supreme Court proved otherwise when it abandoned the people of Gush Katif. They proved that their own politics supersede their supposed commitment to upholding the civil rights of all Israelis, making this argument against the reform null and void.
Matanya Harow is a strategy consultant for a leading global firm. He holds a BA in economics and international relations from the Hebrew University and is a member of the advisory board for Meet the Israelis.
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