The Forthcoming “Court Override” Bill

By Ben Murane, NIFC Executive Director

When the recent Israeli elections were first announced, we knew they would be important. In hindsight, we see that they may have the most consequential results in Israel’s history.

Why? 

From the outset, sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew that if he won, he would be in a bind: he would lose his seat to the looming indictments against him, or pay handsomely for coalition partners that would help him escape it. To the center, the Blue and White Party was unlikely to grant such immunity under any conditions. To the right, the price for an immunity law would be further lessening of Israel’s democracy. 

From the same coalition partners that first drafted the Nation-State Law comes the next “court override” bill. Among them are religious-nationalist and ultra-orthodox sectors, who oppose secular limits on religious law. And several center-right parties oppose the liberal-leaning rulings of the Supreme Court. Over the past decade, these parties have proposed one version or another of a law that would undermine or eliminate an independent judiciary. 

Unlike Canada and the US, Israel lacks a constitution. Instead constitutional law rests in a series of “Basic Laws.” Constitutional law is purposefully hard to change; the Basic Laws are relatively easy to amend. Throughout the history of Israel’s Supreme Court, its justices have  known that unpopular rulings against popular laws could result in populist backlash.

Steadily over time, polarization has growth over the court’s role. According to the 2018 Israel Democracy Index study, one’s trust in the country’s democratic institutions closely correlates to one’s political beliefs: liberals support the Supreme Court, conservatives oppose it. On the Left and among Centrists, trust in the Supreme Court ranks at 88% and 76%. But on the Right, trust reaches only a lowly 50%. 

Polled specifically about introducing a court override clause, a worryingly low number of Israelis opposed it: only 56%. Even worse, the majority who oppose it are likely not voters of the incoming governing parties. 

Israel is not the only country where the courts are under attack: Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and Brazil have or are considering similar measures. Populism is growing around the world and many democratic countries are facing movements aimed at undermining a free press, an independent judiciary, and other checks and balances. 

Exactly this time last year Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella spoke bravely on the topic of threats to Israel’s courts from a podium at Hebrew University: 

“What is most alarming to me about this ongoing attempt to delegitimize the reputation of the judiciary is that it is being done in the name of patriotism. This, to me, seems somewhat perverse. Patriotism means upholding the values on which your country is based. Those values in Israel are Jewish and democratic. They include respect for human rights, tolerance, equality, and dignity. That is what being patriotic means. Yet in championing those values, the Israeli judiciary finds itself demonized by some for being independent from political expedience and immune to political will.

“Independent judges who are not politically compliant are not anti-democratic, they are doing their job; those critics, on the other hand, who think patriotism means doing only what politicians want are the biggest threat to Israel’s values, because they misconceive democracy as majoritarian rule.”

In all likelihood, the legislative debate over the next Court Override Bill will be tough. We do not yet know the details and we can hope that its first draft will be narrow and limited. The opposition parties can be trusted to object, but they are formally out of power. 

Like when the Nation-State Law passed, it will be up to Israeli society to raise their objections. Coalitions from every sector will need to mobilize out of self-interest: without the court, who will prevent the whims of whatever majority from stampeding the rights of others?  

At the international level of the NIF family of organizations, preparations have been underway to gird civil society for the struggle to come. Israel’s leading progressive organizations, funded by the NIF global family, will be hard-pressed in the coming year. Shatil, our operating arm, will again be a driving force of activating coalitions from north to south. And Israel’s supporters abroad like you will undoubtedly be called upon to raise your voice. 

The work of the New Israel Fund of Canada is crucial at this time — the advancement of Israel’s democracy is NIFC’s founding purpose. If you too are worried about Israel’s democracy, then we are your home to help save it. We must thank every contributor – and welcome every new supporter – at this very crucial time.

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From Naomi Chazan Fellow to Working Full Time for the New Israel Fund

By Jacob Shuster, Outgoing Naomi Chazan Fellow

Growing up, I had always been overwhelmed with the issues in Israel. My parents had extremely polarized views of the country and, torn in the middle, I became confused, disengaged and apathetic. Once I left Israel at the age of three, I didn’t ever consider returning.

Years later while in university, I began working on refugee advocacy and specifically, on the issue of African asylum seekers living in Israel. Through my involvement in this issue, I learned about the New Israel Fund, which advocates and supports the rights of the asylum seeker community in Israel. A fellow refugee advocate happened to mention New Israel Fund’s new program – the Naomi Chazan Fellowship – which offers young activists a chance to explore social issues in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Only a few months later, I was on my way to Tel Aviv as a member of this new program, joining a global cohort of activists from the United States, U.K and Australia.

The trip was eye-opening. In an incredibly short time, within a tiny place, our group was taken through what felt like different worlds. We visited unrecognized Bedouin villages and development towns in the Negev, we toured Hebron, and met with many Jewish and Palestinian civil society leaders and activists in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

What stood out to me immediately was the impact of these leaders, whose words and involvement on the ground have stuck with me until today. Anat Hoffman, founder of Women of the Wall, was a tremendous inspiration to me. Anat has been at the forefront of the decades-long fight for women’s right to equality at the Kotel. She has faced arrest and all kinds of abuse along the way. While many try to convince me that the Jewish diaspora has no role in Israel, Anat taught me that we not only have a right to raise our voices but actually have a duty to speak up.

Another inspiring activist I met was our tour guide in Hebron, Frima “Murphie” Bubis. Murphie is a former IDF soldier who leads tours in Hebron with Breaking the Silence. Murphie is consistently hounded by Jewish settlers who orchestrate harassment and physical violence against her as she attempts to take groups around Hebron. I witnessed their severe harassment first-hand and was stunned. Murphie showed me the unrelenting spirit of the Israelis who place a mirror up to their society and expose the moral price we all pay for the occupation.

Ultimately though it was meeting ordinary people throughout Israel and getting the uncensored narrative, which helped me understand the layers of challenges they face going about their daily lives.

Coming back to Canada, I had more questions than answers. However, this rich experience had provided me with valuable insights, which frequently came up in conversations with my family and friends. I felt like I had become a part of the conversation. Shortly after the trip, one of the other Canadian fellows and I curated and shared a photography exhibit from our study tour.

Just a few months later, a full-time position at New Israel Fund in the UK opened up. Just as I had jumped at the opportunity to be a Naomi Chazan Fellowship, I promptly applied for the job. It felt like a natural continuation of the exploration I had begun through my fellowship. It is clear that my values and vision of tolerance, diversity, religious pluralism and equality for Israel align with the New Israel Fund.

I’m writing to you now from the New Israel Fund headquarters in the UK. It’s been a busy month and a half between my move to Europe, adjusting to my new life, and working with the community here in the UK. I am involved with New Israel Fund events and fundraising on a daily basis. A highlight thus far has been a discussion about the Israeli elections with British politicians in the House of Lords. I also take part in weekly meetings with New Israel Fund project partners and leaders in the local community.

The fellowship has been life-changing for me. It continues to provide me incredible opportunities to engage with Israel’s issues and meet leaders in Canada, the UK and around the world who are making a real impact. Having seen the tangible differences the organization has made, and the passionate international community of activists, I am optimistic that not only is it possible to bring about positive change in Israel but that I can have a voice in it.

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Construction Firm Fined for Discrimination

In an unprecedented move, the Israel Land Administration (ILA) has fined Mishab Housing and Construction NIS 30,000 ($8,300 US) for discriminating against home buyers in the Galilee town of Maalot-Tarshiha. The fine follows legal intervention by NIFC-funded project The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

In 2016, Mishab won an ILA tender to build a new neighbourhood in Maalot-Tarshiha, a mixed Jewish-Arab city in northern Israel. The tender explicitly stated that the new neighbourhood was for both Jewish and Arab residents and that discrimination was prohibited. Yet complaints were made to ACRI that prospective Jewish buyers were repeatedly offered significant discounts on apartments while Arab buyers were always told that the special offers had ended.

When ACRI contacted Mishab and asked if there would be any Arabs in the new project, the marketing representative said it was for Zionists only.

ACRI first turned to an ILA body to stop this discrimination. The ILA refused to punish Mishab and only asked that language prohibiting discrimination be made clearer. ACRI appealed that decision to the Haifa Administrative Court, prompting the ILA to reverse course and issue the fine.

Gil Gan-Mor, head of ACRI‘s Social and Economic Rights Unit said, “We welcome that the ILA has acknowledged discrimination and imposed a fine. But the size of the fine shows that the ILA is not being determined enough in combating discrimination.”

He also promised that if Mishab continues discriminating that ACRI would seek to prevent it from bidding on government contracts.

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After the national-religious Jewish Home party put up campaign ads in Ramle that used racist imagery and warned of intermarriage between Jews and Arabs, one of our NIFC partners spoke out. Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), and Tag Meir condemned the racist campaign, and the Ramle municipality took down the ads.

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