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Israel’s proposed judicial reforms spark massive protests, prompting pause

Many leading American Jewish organizations (traditionally abstaining from engaging in Israeli politics) also voiced their deep concerns and urged the Israeli government to seek a compromise

Israelis protest in Jerusalem in support of the judicial reform program, March 27, 2023. Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90.
Israelis protest in Jerusalem in support of the judicial reform program, March 27, 2023. Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90.

Israel is in the midst of internal turmoil that has divided the country and led to one of the deepest political crises in its 75 years of existence. Ongoing protests against the government’s plans to change the selection process for its highest court, as well as other reforms that could alter the balance of power between politicians and the High Court, recently climaxed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu temporarily suspended his government’s legal changes to try to negotiate a compromise.

The crisis began with broad judicial reforms proposed by the recently elected religious-right government—considered to be the most right-wing in the country’s history. Opponents view some of the proposals as self-serving, as well as supporting extreme views of some of the new government’s ministers. Through it all, the demonstrators wrapped themselves in the Israeli flag while they peacefully marched through the streets of Israeli cities demonstrating the strength of its democracy and the patriotism of both sides.

Legal experts on both sides have long debated the need for reform. The wide-ranging proposals and the urgency driving the legislation angered many Israelis—whether in the opposition, academia and even the military. These moves sent a flood of Israelis to the streets in protest week after week. Supporters of the reforms participated in their own demonstrations.

The situation recently reached a tipping point when Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant spoke out publicly against the reform process. He sounded the alarm on the level of anxiety spreading through Israel’s military and asked for the deferral of the voting process and a return to the negotiating table. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired the minister for what he considered to be a politicization of the military. This step—viewed by many as a step too far—sent thousands more protesters to the street on all sides and reform opponents staged mass strikes.

After a day of protests across the country, Netanyahu announced that he would temporarily suspend the legislative process until the summer session of the Knesset, leaving the door open for new discussions between the ruling coalition and opposition parties. In his statement, Netanyahu reminded all Israelis that “we are not facing enemies but our brothers” in a call against splitting “the nation in two.” However, opponents think Netanyahu is making a political calculation because he affirmed that the reforms will still happen.

Israel’s government proposed these changes because it believes they will limit excessive power currently held by the judiciary, restore balance to Israel’s democracy, end the political left’s control of the legal system and bring governance more in line with other democracies. The Israeli justice minister and chief architect of the proposals thought the reforms would “strengthen the legal system, and restore the public’s trust in it.”

Israeli opposition parties, which span the political left and right, view the changes as an erosion of checks and balances between the judicial and executive branches; a threat to minority groups; an attempt to weaken democracy; and harmful to Israel’s economy and society. Former prime minister and current opposition leader Yair Lapid described the reforms as a “unilateral revolution against the system of government in Israel.” A think tank involved in drafting the judicial legislation called for negotiations between Israel’s political parties to form “a broad consensus regarding the required changes.”

Many leading American Jewish organizations (traditionally abstaining from engaging in Israeli politics) also voiced their deep concerns and urged the Israeli government to seek a compromise. Following Netanyahu’s national speech, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Conference of Presidents, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee released a joint statement welcoming the suspension of the reforms. They encouraged “all Knesset factions, coalition and opposition alike, to use this time to build a consensus that includes the broad support of Israeli civil society.”

Points to consider:

  1. Israelis are displaying democracy in action.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting in the streets symbolize free speech and the right to protest. In addition to the largely peaceful demonstrations, there have been smaller acts of civil disobedience as protestors blocked cars on roads and highways. The demonstrators represent Israel’s diversity: political left and right, religious and secular, young and old, protesting in cities from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israelis have the right to protest and speak out whether for or against the judicial changes.

  1. Israelis are united in their support of a democratic Jewish state.

A sea of Israeli flags were proudly waved by protestors in opposition to and support of the judicial changes at every rally. Israelis are united in their belief in a democratic Jewish state; they disagree on the perceived balance of power. While opponents of the judicial changes are adamant in their demands, their allegiance to the Jewish state is unwavering. Israelis supporting and opposing the judicial reforms have different political views but are aligned in their support for Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Israelis are not calling for the dissolution of Israel or burning flags in the street, as happens in many other countries. The protesters are passionate Zionists who want Israel to thrive.

  1. Many Middle Eastern Arabs want the same rights to speak and protest.

A former Palestinian Authority minister lamented the Palestinian’s lack of democracy, elections and judiciary; the P.A. president is in the 17th year of a four-year term. The former minister found it “strange” that many Palestinians hope for an Israeli civil war at a time when Palestinians lack unity. He called to “revive our democracy, including separation of powers, transparency, oversight, accountability and the elimination of the corruption.” Even a former member of a terrorist group commented positively on the Israeli right to protest that is absent from Arab states.

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