We are a group of American Jewish scholars, strong supporters of Israel, who have met together for many years in Israel and the United States to discuss classic Jewish texts and their implications for contemporary affairs. Though we disagree on many matters, we are united in our admiration for Israel’s longstanding commitment to judicial independence and the rule of law. We write because these cherished values—a point of pride to Jews in all nations—stand in peril.
We are committed to Israel and to liberal democracy. Now we fear that these two commitments are coming into conflict. If enacted, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s proposed judicial “reforms” threaten to undermine liberal democracy, weakening Israel internally and in its relations with the rest of the world, including the United States and Jews living in the diaspora.
In principle, a liberal democracy limits the power of majorities to invade the rights of individuals and minority groups. In practice, liberal democracies create institutions—separation of powers, multi-cameral legislatures, checks and balances, federalism, and constitutional courts, among others—to protect these rights against invasion.
In Israel, with a centralized government, unicameral legislation, and a parliamentary system dominated by majority coalitions, the Supreme Court stands almost alone as the guardian of rights. Undermining the Court’s independence, which Netanyahu’s measures would do, would move Israel toward the Hungarian model of illiberal democracy. To this we stand resolutely opposed.
Among other measures, we reject the new government’s plan to stack the judicial selection process, to require the support of at least 80% of the justices to declare a law passed by the Knesset unconstitutional, and to permit the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions by simple majority vote. We deplore the government’s rush to enact such important measures with little time for deliberation. We are dismayed by the majority’s disregard for dissenting views—and for the gaping social divisions its proposals have exposed and exacerbated.
Large changes should not be built on slender majorities, which is all that the Netanyahu government represents. And on this issue, not even that: many Israelis who voted for the coalition are troubled by the overreach that its proposals on the judiciary represent.
The Talmud reminds us that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred among Jews. Unless Netanyahu and his allies change course, they risk a similar disaster for Israel, which would be a catastrophe for Jews everywhere.
There is an alternative. Throughout Israel, citizens have taken to the streets to oppose the new government’s course. American Jews should add our voice to theirs, as should all Americans who care about Israel’s future.
We welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to pause the legislative process. We urge him to drop his divisive legislation and begin anew. There should be no changes that impair the capacity of the judiciary to protect the rights of individuals and minorities enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and preserved through decades of struggle up to the present day.
Steven B. Smith