A Debate About Judicial Reform
Hosted by World Mizrachi
On April 26th at the World Orthodox Israel Congress, World Mizrachi hosted a panel discussion on the proposed judicial reform in Israel. Featuring three prominent legal experts from Israel, the discussion was informative, as well as a model of civil discourse on this burning issue in Israeli society. Professor Moshe Koppel is the founder of Kohelet Policy Forum, Professor Yedidia Stern is the President of the Jewish People Policy Institute, and the discussion was moderated by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, founder of Shurat HaDin.
This is a summary of the discussion – to watch or listen to the full discussion, click here.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner: Good morning everyone, and welcome to this important discussion. Professor Koppel – the Kohelet Forum that you founded has been advocating for judicial reform, a policy the government has now followed. Why do we need judicial reform? What was wrong in the past 75 years of Israel that suddenly the legal system needs to change?
Prof. Moshe Koppel: Every democracy needs checks and balances between the different branches of government. The courts check the power of the legislature and executive to see that they are acting legally and constitutionally, but there is also a need for a check on the court’s power, especially as the other branches need to be re-elected, the courts do not. So what are the checks and balances on judges? In other countries there are many checks on judges. Not everything is justiciable, meaning there are areas such as foreign relations and war that the courts will not get involved in. The courts will not hear a case unless the person petitioning was personally affected by the government. The court will only strike down a law that is unconstitutional. The court has a list of rules it uses to judge administrative actions, it can’t just say ‘we don’t like that action.’ In almost every democratic country the courts are appointed by elected officials. All five of these limitations on the court do not exist in Israel, largely because they have been removed by the courts own decisions in the past few decades, so that is why there is now the need to reform the courts to check their power.
NDL: So, Professor Stern, it seems like there is the need for reform? If judges can just say things aren’t reasonable, maybe that is too much power and there is the need for a change?
Prof. Yedidia Stern: Yes, there is the need for a change, but removing the court’s independence is not the right change. When Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced his plans on January 4th, 2023, I turned to my wife and said this is going to be a bigger social protest than Oslo, the disengagement. What is so threatening to people like myself and half of the country with these proposals?
In Israel we do not have a constitution, the rules of the game. We do not agree about the future of this place, and vision of the future of Israel, but underlying that we do not have the rules of the game of how to conduct our disputes. Whoever is in power can change the rules and do as they want.
The only thing that can protect individuals from the government and legislature are the courts. Us in the room, primarily Religious Zionists – we are a minority in Israel. Who protects our rights? The Supreme Court is the only one who protects our rights.
NDL: So this makes sense, if the politicians can do what they want then no one can stop them, they can do whatever they want. The fear is Israel will turn into a halachic state. Women’s rights, LGBT rights, Arab rights, minority rights, all of these will be removed, will this remove the shield protecting them?
MK: You are assuming the conclusions – the question assumes that the Knesset wants to do horrible things and we need the courts to save us, but at the moment the courts have the final say on every issue, so the question should be flipped, and we should be asking who checks the power of the courts, who can do whatever they want?
Two years ago a question came in front of the court. Could a private college have classes for Charedim that were separated by gender? I went to Yeshiva University, where we had separate classes and I think everyone was OK. There even is a law in Israel that says separate education is allowed in higher education, but a feminist group petitioned the court against this college. The court ruled that because Israel has a law ensuring basic human dignity, and there is no dignity without equality, and there is no separate but equal, therefore it is forbidden to have separate gender classes except for very specific majors based on what the courts allows them. Understand what is being said here – the court is saying that even for religious reasons, you cannot have separate gender education. That means tomorrow the court could say you cannot have gender separation in a shul or a beit midrash. That is just one example – the court is violating the religious rights of Israelis, and at the moment there are no checks on the court’s power.
I also have a question for Yedidia – why do you assume that the unelected bureaucrats/judge/attorney general wants to do good but the elected Knesset/minister does not represent you, and wants to harm you? My assumption is that the person who got elected is more likely to serve the public good than an unelected bureaucrat appointed by political means.
NDL: Yedidia, you were my law professor at Bar-Ilan University. Already from when I started presenting my first cases to the Supreme Court, it seemed like the court put its opinion above anything that the other branches of government said, with no checks and balances?
YS: The question is how to balance the two branches. Moshe says the main threat is the judiciary, and I think the government is. Which do you think is the more powerful branch of government – who has the money? Who makes the policies? Who tells me how much I need to pay in taxes? Who sends my kids to war? The court is very active, and I agree it has overstepped. But tachlis, the government and legislature are more powerful, and the court is interpreting the law – maybe it needs to be less activist. But that doesn’t change the fact that the government/Knesset is a bigger threat, and so we have to find some middle ground rather than destroying the court’s power totally.
NDL: How can we come to some compromise?
YS: I think judges should have term limits of 12 years. Aharon Barak is a friend of mine, a patriot, a teacher of mine. But it is not good for us that he was a judge for 30 years, it’s not good in America either to have such long terms. I believe the Knesset should have an override on court decisions on issues of identity. Human rights should be entrusted to the court, not the majority in the Knesset. But where the decision hinges on the character of Israel, about the nature of Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature, like the issue of Charedim in the IDF, then the last word should be with the parliament.
NDL: Prof. Koppel, are you in favor of compromise?
MK: Since the judicial reform came out I have been speaking to my counterparts in other think tanks trying to work out compromises. So all I have been doing is looking for compromise, the question is what are the principles that are important. I am also convinced that Yedidia and I could come to a compromise in a few days, it’s also a question of what the political will of the politicians is.
YS: In the end we are not discussing political theory, but a very real situation in our country. In a course in a university I can very easily discuss how to share power, what is an ideal situation, but we have to discuss the Israeli reality. The perception at the moment in the country is that the courts are liberal, the Knesset and government are conservative, and we are battling who has the power. The reason people are so heated about this issue is not because of political theory, but the deep issues at the heart of our society. We are actually debating the nature of Israel’s future, the vision for Israel, the end goal of Zionism in our generation and our children’s generation. Let’s suppose Moshe and I sit down and we come up with a solution to the question of the courts. Do you think we solved the issue? We covered the lava coming from one place of the volcano, but the lava of disagreement will come out another way. What needs to be done is not to discuss how to balance the power in Israel, but especially for you as religious leaders, your job is much broader. We have major societal splits in Israel, which we must assume will be with us for the next quarter century/generation. We need to work out how we can live together despite the disputes. Divided we stand, but we stand together. That is the real issue at the heart of what is going on in Israel now.
NDL: Thank you very much for this fascinating discussion!