Update & Response on Israel's Judicial Reforms

In response to the Knesset’s vote on the Reasonableness Law, Jewish Federations of North America issued the following statement, the evening of July 24, 2023:

The Jewish Federations of North America are deeply pained over the growing polarization we have witnessed in Israeli society as a result of the judicial reform process. We are also extremely disappointed that the leaders of the coalition moved ahead with a major element of the reforms without a process of consensus, despite the serious disagreements across Israeli society and the efforts of President Herzog to arrive at a compromise.

Our everlasting love for and commitment to the Jewish State and people of Israel transcend any policy or government action. It is clear that the work of building our Jewish State continues, and the Jewish Federation system renews and affirms its commitment to this work. We will continue to support the organizations and individuals who are helping to unite Israelis and to build the institutions of civil society that will allow the diverse populations of Israel and global Jewry to live together in peace and harmony and to resolve our differences respectfully.

We urge the coalition leaders to suspend any further unilateral changes to the judicial reforms, and urge all parties to return to negotiations under the auspices of President Herzog.

The following letter was sent to Israel's leaders, the morning of July 24, 2023:

MK Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of the State of Israel
MK Yair Lapid, Leader of the Opposition

Dear honorable leaders,

This week, on the eve of Tish'a Be'Av, when we remember the painful memory of the destruction of the first and  second temple, we are at a point of great polarization and discord in Israeli society which we must find a way to overcome.

We must make every effort for unity and Shalom Bayit – peace in our home. On the 75th year of our independence, we emphasize the need and commitment of each and every one of us to our shared destiny, for a unity which respects diversity, guaranteeing that the State of Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state.

For us to continue and enjoy the fruits our forefathers dreamed of and for which all of us have fought for years, we have both the right and the obligation to debate, express oneself and make an impact.

We must place the wellbeing of the entire Jewish people before us, moderating the discourse and the verbal radicalization and striving to reach agreements.

We, representatives of the National Institutions and World Jewry, partners in outlining the future of the Jewish people, wish to express the concern of the entire Jewish people and aspire to strengthen the foundations of our national home.

We urge you to make use of all the tools available to you in order to find the broadest common denominator, for the sake of Kiruv Levavot within Am Israel. 

Together, we will continue to be a beacon of hope, strength, and unity. 

"I GOD, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you A covenant people, a light of nations" (Isaiah, 42).

With the blessing of the unity of Am Israel,

Mark Wilf, Chair, Jewish Agency Board of Governors
Doron Almog, Chair, Jewish Agency Executive
Yaakov Hagoel, Chair, World Zionist Organization
Julie Platt, Chair, Jewish Federations of North America
Steven Lowy, Chair, World Board of Trustees, Keren Hayesod
Eric Fingerhut, President & CEO, Jewish Federations of North America
Sam Grundwerg, World Chair Keren Hayesod

Issued July 11, 2023 from the desk of Rebecca Caspi, Jewish Federations of North America Senior Vice President Israel and Overseas and Director General, Israel Office:

Today has seen very high tension in Israel, with perhaps the most significant developments since the new government was formed just over a half a year ago. The debate and protests over the issue of proposed judicial reforms intensified dramatically, with protest groups launching a “National Day of Resistance” as a first bill moves through the legislative process.

Last night, the controversial Reasonableness Standard Bill passed in a first reading in the Knesset (in a 64 to 56 vote). Today, it will be brought before the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, where it will be further debated in preparation for a second and third reading in two weeks, after which it would become law.

If passed, the bill would block Israel's courts from applying a "reasonableness standard" to decisions made by elected officials. This standard was established by the courts decades ago, and allows judges to strike down decisions made by the prime minister, ministers or other government officials if they believe the decision is beyond the scope of what “a responsible and reasonable authority would do.” (See more about the bill and its background here and here). 

Examples of this clause's use in the past include a case in which Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman decided to unilaterally end funding for day care centers for some parts of the Haredi sector in the middle of a school year (the Supreme Court overturned his decision) and more recently, the prime minister’s decision to appoint Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri as Interior Minister and Health Minister. (Deri has been previously convicted by the courts, and according to the Supreme Court, had pledged not to re-enter public life; a claim Deri denies. See more here). The actual cases in which the courts overturned government decisions have been few, averaging less than one a year in the past quarter century.

The proposed law has been softened from its original version. The new version, currently before the Knesset, still allows judges to strike down decisions by unelected government officials, but would prevent it from having oversight of decisions of ministers and the prime minister. Opponents of the proposed change see this as giving unbridled power to elected officials, without appropriate checks and balances.

Tens of thousands of Israelis began protesting early this morning. Dozens of major roads in the country have been blocked, including the main Jerusalem – Tel Aviv Highway, one of the country’s busiest and most important corridors and the alternate route into the city – 443 – along with the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. Police used water cannons and dragged demonstrators away from the Jerusalem – Tel Aviv Highway, and one protestor suffered a head injury from the high-pressured water. (See video footage here). Other protestors are attempting to disrupt activities at Israel’s only major international gateway, Ben Gurion Airport. In response, Energy Minister Israel Katz called for the arrest of a protest leader "for sedition and disruption of public order.” Police have detained at least 40 people for disruptions.

A crowd of several hundred people have also gathered outside the Histadrut Labor Federation Headquarters in Tel Aviv, demanding that Israel’s largest labor union declare a general strike. While the Histadrut, which has the power to shut down large sections of the economy, has not yet joined today’s protests, its leader, Arnon Bar-David, warned of possible action today.

Meanwhile, some 300 IDF reservists in cyberwarfare units have issued a letter saying they will not show up for reserve duty in protest against the proposed reforms.

As most of you know, shortly after the new government was sworn in just over six months ago, it announced proposals to launch a series of sweeping reforms to the way the country is governed. (For details, see Jewish Federations%u2019 Resource Page here). The past half year has seen much back and forth on the issue, with the protests increasing and decreasing in intensity, according to the government’s changing stance. Notwithstanding Prime Minister Netanyahu comments to English-language media that he intends only to move ahead with those aspects of the reforms where there is widespread consensus (see, for example, his interview with the Wall Street Journal here), members of his coalition have made contradictory statements, and the process of turning some proposals into law continues, spearheaded by Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog has been working hard to get all sides to agree to a compromise proposal, and to return to the negotiating table.  For now, however, those talk have been halted. Jewish Federations have repeatedly called on all sides to join the talks under the President’s auspices (see here).

We will continue to monitor developments, and report as needed. 


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