Yariv Levin, the Israeli justice minister and an architect of the judicial reform plans, pictured in January. (Photo/JTA-Olivier Fitoussi-Flash90)
Yariv Levin, the Israeli justice minister and an architect of the judicial reform plans, pictured in January. (Photo/JTA-Olivier Fitoussi-Flash90)

Israel passes first law weakening Supreme Court following months of civil strife

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JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s government has passed a law restricting the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws, the first piece of a proposed overhaul of the country’s judiciary that has led to massive street protests and a growing movement of civil disobedience.

The vote, which was boycotted by the opposition in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is a landmark moment in a conflict that has consumed Israel since the beginning of the year and drawn the attention and criticism of world leaders and a range of Diaspora Jewish organizations. It is the first measure of the right-wing government’s proposed judicial overhaul — which has aimed to sap the power and independence of the Supreme Court — to be enacted into law.

That proposed package of legislation has drawn hundreds of thousands of Israelis to weekly street protests, and has led more than 10,000 veterans to pledge to boycott their reserve duty. Proponents of the overhaul say it will curb an overly activist Supreme Court. Its critics say that weakening Israel’s judicial system will endanger its standing as a democracy and will put minority rights at risk.

Among the opponents of the overhaul is President Joe Biden, who has suggested that its passage could damage the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Israeli reserve soldiers, veterans and activists protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem against the Israeli government's planned judicial reforms, Feb. 10, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Yonatan Sindel-Flash90)
Israeli reserve soldiers, veterans and activists protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem against the Israeli government’s planned judicial reforms, Feb. 10, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Yonatan Sindel-Flash90)

The law that was passed Monday bars the Supreme Court from striking down government decisions it deems unreasonable. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubled down on passing the law despite the growing protest.

“This is an extraordinary moment,” Justice Minister Yariv Levin, one of the architects of the overhaul, said in a speech following the law’s passage. “We have taken s first step in the historic, important process of fixing the judicial system and returning the authority that has been taken from the government and the Knesset over the course of long years.”

As the law was being voted on, thousands of protesters converged on the Knesset grounds, with some pitching tents in a nearby park. Netanyahu’s opponents in parliament vowed to keep fighting despite the legislative defeat Monday.

“Believe in yourselves,” Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition, wrote on Twitter to protesters. “Believe in your clear and strong voice. Believe that the future belongs to whoever never gives up.”

Reaction among American Jewish organizations was swift. The centrist American Jewish Committee expressed “profound disappointment” over the passage of the legislation, saying in a statement that it was “gravely concerned about the long-term impact of continued unilateral efforts” to change Israel’s judicial system.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.