Vaera 5783 – Judicial Reforms

Despite cold and wet weather, 80,000 Israelis turned out for a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, and thousands more, including two of my daughters, joined a protest outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

There are many things about the new government they could have been protesting. They could have been protesting proposed changes to the Law of Return, that could make Conservative and Reform converts ineligible for aliyah. They could have been protesting the appointment of homophobic ministers. A recording was recently released where Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said he can take active measures against Israel’s LGBTQ community because his voters “don’t give a damn” about gays. They could have been protesting appointing someone who favors expelling all Arabs as the Public Security Minister.

But they were protesting none of those things. They were protesting something far more basic: the new government’s attempts to overhaul the justice system in a way that would remove protections for minorities, that would render the Supreme Court superfluous in the face of 61 votes in the Knesset.

Why talk about this? Why should Jews in Canada care? Isn’t this just an internal Israeli matter?

I know support for Israel in our community is very strong, and I’m happy for that. I’m not criticizing the government of Israel because I think Israel is terrible. Israel is a wonderful, amazing place. I’m proud to be an Israeli citizen, even if I’m not proud of this new government, just as I’m proud to also be an American citizen, and I continued to proud of that, even though I was certainly not proud that we elected Donald Trump as president.

I’m talking about this today because Israel is not Disneyland for Jews. Israel is the Jewish homeland. Israel enjoys a central place in our prayers. Israel is the only place in the world where we can really put our Jewish values into practice, and the new government is taking measures that are absolutely against the values I believe everyone here shares as Conservative Jews and Canadians. Israel needs our prayers and attention now more than ever. 

Even though Israel does not have a formal constitution, the country is facing what many believe is a constitutional crisis.

There are two things at the center of current crisis: Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposed judicial reforms, and the Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify Shas leader Arye Deri from serving as a minister despite the government passing a law specifically intended to allow him to serve in that capacity despite three previous convictions for crimes including bribery, fraud, breach of trust, and tax offenses.

With a unicameral parliamentary form of government, Israel has very few checks and balances on the power of the executive branch – the only one is the Supreme Court.

The scariest proposed reform is called the “override clause,” which would make it possible for any majority vote of the Knesset, 61 votes, to overturn a high court ruling. Since every coalition has at least 61 members, it would effectively politicize the judicial process, doing away with the gatekeepers of the Supreme Court.

Many Anglophone Quebecers are unhappy with the way the notwithstanding clause has been used to impinge on the rights of the English speaking minority. Israel’s override clause would be the notwithstanding clause on steroids, making it possible for any government with a simple majority to take away the rights of any group of citizens, or to overrule a court ruling, for example, to allow the appointment of a multiply convicted felon to high office – or in principle to let a convicted criminal be let off the hook (such as if Netanyahu loses his court cases).

Another change that the government wants to make is to make the appointment of Supreme Court judges strictly political. In the current setup, Supreme Court judges are appointed by the President of Israel from names submitted by the Judicial Selection Committee, which includes three judges, two representatives of the Bar Association, and four representatives from the government. Recommendations need a seven-member majority. This means that extreme ideological candidates do not get appointed to the Supreme Court. Moderate, qualified jurists are appointed, which is, ideally, the type of person you want on the Supreme Court.

The proposed change would effectively render the appointment of judges completely political. Levin wants to expand the selection committee to eleven, with seven appointed by the government, and seven still being all that is needed to approve someone. Instead of balance, this will result in more highly ideological judges being appointed.

The Israeli system has actually been the envy of many other countries that struggle with a politicized system. In America, the system is completely political, which has led to the appointment of radical judges who overturned Roe v. Wade, making it possible for states to ban abortion.

Naftali Bennett, the right-wing former prime minister favors making some changes to the judicial system, but he says these changes go too far. He said, “It will harm the foundations of the State of Israel, its economy and its citizens and it may end up breaking the ties that bind us all together.”

Centrist former prime minister Yair Lapid put it bluntly: the current government is a “criminal gang that wants to escape justice.”

Famous US lawyer and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, a staunch supporter of Israel and previously a strong supporter of Netanyahu, said if he were in Israel, he would be joining the protests. He said,

It would be a terrible, terrible mistake for an override to be permitted by the Knesset in Israel. It would be a terrible mistake to weaken the independence of the Supreme Court. It would be a terrible mistake for politicians to be able to dictate who is on the Supreme Court or how the Supreme Court decides cases.

Dershowitz also said, 

It will make it much more difficult for people like me who try to defend Israel in the international court of public opinion to defend them effectively. It would be a tragedy to see the Supreme Court weakened.

Dershowitz also pointed out that it’s not democracy that is under attack and threatened. The reforms in principle strengthen the principle of majority rule. He said,

What is in danger are civil liberties, minority rights.  There is a direct conflict between pure democracy, where the Knesset rules… and the right of minorities and civil rights which the Supreme Court is designed to protect.

As a member of a non-Orthodox synagogue, you are one of the minorities that the Supreme Court protects. The current government has explicit plans that would harm the interests of non-Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, gays and lesbians, Arabs, and women. The current government is focused on what benefits Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox men, to the detriment of everyone else.

Last week we began reading the book of Exodus in the synagogue. This week’s Torah reading, Vaera, continues the Exodus story, the tale of our liberation from Egypt. Our ancestors in Egypt did not have a Supreme Court to protect them from the whims of a vicious and paranoid government. They were at Pharaoh’s mercy, and it took God’s personal intervention to bring justice to our oppressed ancestors.

The men in black hats and suits who are trying to dismantle Israel’s justice system should not be called “religious.” While I would normally hesitate to be so bold as to speak for God, I can say with certainty that God is far more concerned with justice and how you treat your fellow man than whether you only eat glatt kosher food or tear your toilet paper before Shabbat. The current government are like people that Isaiah railed against in his prophetic warning:

Hear the word of the Lord, you officials of Sodom! Give ear to God’s teaching, you people of Gomorrah!  

The things we can do from Canada are to support organizations that are serving communities that are being threatened by this extreme government. Organizations such as Masorti (Conservative) Judaism in Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights, Women of the Wall.

You can also let the Israeli government know how you feel, and that this issue is getting attention in the Diaspora. They do care what world Jewry thinks. You can email the Israeli consulate here in Montreal at   You won’t remember that, so you can email me after Shabbat and I’ll send it to you.

And when we pray for the state of Israel, let us know what we are praying for. Let us make an additional prayer now:

Ribono shel olam
Master of the universe
Turn the hearts of the leaders of Israel
from an evil path
Remind them our Torah protects the widow, the orphan, the stranger
Protecting minorities and the disadvantaged from oppression is a Torah value
Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, Humanist Jews
secular Jews
are all part of God’s people
Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists are also God’s children
May Israel remain a Jewish AND Democratic state
May we continue to build a nation that is a beacon of justice
In a troubled part of the world

AMEN

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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