Why Israel's right wing is gunning for nation's Supreme Court

Democracy activists say reasoned critiques of controversial court decisions have given way to incitement. A security detail has been assigned to the justices.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israelis barricaded an entrance to a synagogue in a West Bank settlement during a protest against its planned demolishment on Nov. 4.

Israel’s government had long decreed that the Ayelet Hashachar synagogue, perched on a hilltop on the outskirts of this settlement north of Jerusalem, was built illegally on Palestinian land and should be demolished.

But last week, as young men waited in the barricaded chapel to repel Israeli police forces expected any day, protest banners hanging in the synagogue courtyard pointed to a nemesis greater than the government: the Israeli Supreme Court, which in October gave the government a Nov. 17 deadline to finally raze the structure.

“The High Court hates God,” one banner read.

The heated rhetoric against the justices highlights what for months has been a rising tide of opprobrium from nationalist activists, rabbis, and coalition politicians toward the court, seen as one of the last bastions of defense for civil rights in Israel. Even the justice minister is a strident critic.

The Supreme Court building in Jerusalem has been defaced with spray paint, its justices have been called accomplices to terrorism, and one rabbi instructed followers to harass the court members in the streets. For the first time a security detail has been assigned to protect the court’s associate justices.

Democracy activists say the debate over the court’s rulings has spilled over from a reasoned critique of the decisions to attacks that approach the inflamed rhetoric a generation ago that led to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Some believe the assault on the court is so heated that it risks eroding a main pillar of Israel’s democracy.

“Although voices of critique of the court are not new, the style, the degree of the intensity, and inciting nature of expressions of politicians – including politicians of the coalition – isn’t something we’ve heard before. This is an escalation,” says Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law professor at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“The problem is to what extent this climate impacts the independence of the court, and the image of independence: both are critical for the rule of law. The judges must feel they are independent and they can rule according to conscience and not out of fear. When the court comes under such attack, there are question marks about this.”

Coalition politicians have pushed for legislation allowing the parliament to reinstate laws struck down by the court. They’ve also called for a reform of the appointment process. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even suggested establishing a separate court for issues of national security.

The main flash points are rulings that roll back or curtail settlement expansion; invoke Israel’s so-called “Basic laws” on human dignity to overrule Israel’s defense establishment, or strike down parliamentary laws promoted by the coalition. The standoff over the Ayelet Hashachar synagogue has helped spur a spike in heated rhetoric.

The government says the single-floor structure was built illegally, but for years delayed carrying out its own demolition orders.

Synagogue supporters have plastered posters at road junctions calling the court a “hostile” opponent of the Jewish settlement. Prominent rabbis said razing the synagogue would be a “desecration” and told police to refuse the demolition orders. One rabbi even called on supporters to heckle the justices in order to “embitter their lives.”

Religious seminary students camping out in the synagogue last week held study sessions and night-time dances to boost morale. Synagogue advocates in the courtyard argued that the court discriminates against Jewish activists while being lenient with Palestinians who build illegally. They also argue that laws of Jewish religious law – “halacha” – should take prominence over the country’s secular legal system.

“It’s inconceivable that a Jewish court will destroy a synagogue. It isn’t legal,” says Rabbi Doron Rozilio last Monday amid the demonstrators at the synagogue. “God doesn’t permit it. The Torah doesn’t permit this. This is a Jewish state. You can’t go against the law of the holy one.”

Another activist at the synagogue faults the court for holding up home demolitions of Palestinians accused of terror attacks. “They help the enemy by giving legitimacy to carrying out attacks,” says Ariyeh Binyamin, a seminary student. His remarks echoed Moti Yogev, a pro-settler legislator who also said in July that the Supreme Court should be razed over decisions to tear down structures in the settlements.

The escalation began gathering momentum this year after the election victory of the conservative Likud party and its right-wing allies. Emboldened, coalition members have trained their sights on the court.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of the same party as Mr. Yogev, has argued that the court oversteps its authority in defiance of the will of the Israeli center-right parliamentary majority.

Other politicians accuse the court’s 15 justices – who are selected by committee rather than appointed by the chief executive like in the United States – of imposing liberal, secular, and pro-Palestinian values at the expense of national security and the country’s Jewish character.

“Netanyahu has a mandate from the people to rein in the Supreme Court,” says Yair Kartman, an activist at the synagogue. “The Supreme Court doesn’t promote a nationalist policy. It promotes a universalist policy, that emphasizes human rights. It doesn’t advance the national interests of the state of Israel. It promotes cosmopolitan, liberal, international interests.”

To be sure, advocates for Palestinians and human rights take a different view. They insist it almost always defers to security authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Following the appointment of more conservative justices in recent years, the court has handed down rulings curtailing speech rights and property rights.

Despite the heated attacks, the court remains the most trusted of Israel’s three branches of government.

A survey this year by the Israel Democracy Institute showed 62 percent of Israeli Jews and 63 percent of Israeli Arabs expressing faith in the Supreme Court. However, trust in the court plummets as religiosity rises, according to the survey.

“It’s short-sighted, anarchist, and nihilistic to attack the court,” says Amnon Rubinstein, a former education minister from the liberal Meretz Party and a law professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “You can attack a decision, but not the institution. It’s a very dangerous trend. To demolish this is to demolish the common denominator which unites Israeli society.”

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