The message on the Facebook post of this video from UnXeptable, who have been gathering weekly at Robson Square to protest the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms, reads: “Rain never stops Vancouver 🇨🇦 from supporting you in your struggle ❤️🇮🇱” (screenshot from Facebook.com/DefendIsraeliDemocracy)
Reverberations from the political tumult in Israel continue to rumble across the Diaspora, including here in British Columbia.
For 10 weekends in a row now, a few dozen Vancouver-area residents, many of them Israeli expats or Israeli-Canadians, have gathered in downtown Vancouver. On March 30, an “emergency meeting” took place at Or Shalom synagogue, titled Saving Israeli Democracy.
Daphna Kedem, one of the organizers of unXeptable, which is behind the rallies, told the group at Or Shalom that similar events are now taking place in more than 50 Diaspora communities.
“There is a point to going out in the street and saying we are here and we care and we want a lot of others to share what we feel,” she said, noting that between 20 and 50 people tend to show up at the weekly gathering at Robson Square.
“It would be great to be 200,” she said, adding that the masses of Israelis taking to the streets have forced a delay in the government’s proposals, but the fight is far from over.
The protests in Vancouver, in Israel and around the world centre on so-called “judicial reforms,” which would remove an existing multifaceted process of appointing Supreme Court justices and centralize it in the hands of the government executive, the cabinet. Among the reams of related proposals is a bill that would allow the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court decisions by majority vote.
Dr. Erez Aloni, an associate professor at the Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia, said the proposals are “not a legal reform” and that it is “not a joke” to call what the government of Binyamin Netanyahu is attempting to do “a revolution.” Aloni is one of some 200 signees to the “Statement by Canadian jurists on proposed transformation of Israel’s legal system,” which was issued Feb. 9.
“A democracy needs checks and balances and these checks and balances include checks and restrictions on the government so we can enforce laws against the government, so we make sure that the government doesn’t abuse its right, in particular against minorities,” he said. “In Israel, the only checks, the only restrictions on the government, on the executive, is the Supreme Court.”
The power of the cabinet, the lack of a second chamber of parliament, the strictness of party discipline, the absence of a presidential veto, and the lack of a written constitution all combine to put extraordinary reliance on the Supreme Court to rein in any potential overreach by elected officials, said Aloni.
The proposals, which would give the government effective veto power over Supreme Court appointments, is a dramatic step, he said.
“The coalition, the executive, is going to be almost solely responsible for selecting judges by themselves,” Aloni explained.
Not only would this impact the Supreme Court, he argued, but any lower court judge with aspirations of appointment to the highest judicial body would presumably consider political repercussions when handing down decisions.
In addition to the proposals to alter the judiciary, Aloni told the audience that the government is also threatening “independent public broadcasting, control of academia, immunity for IDF soldiers and police actions, increasing jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts and so forth.”
Video-recorded remarks from Achinoam Nini, the well-known Israeli singer commonly known as Noa, were aired at the meeting, with portentous background music.
“The situation is not good,” said Nini. “In fact, Israel is on the verge of the worst tragedy in her short history, worse than any war so far: the death of her democracy and a total system breakdown. The so-called judicial reform … is no such thing. It is rather an antidemocratic coup, a grab for limitless power by a democratically elected government composed of convicted criminals, messianic zealots, corrupt opportunists and ultranationalists, turning democracy against itself and against the citizens of Israel.”
Dr. Lisa Richlen of the David Abraham Centre for International and Regional Studies at Tel Aviv University spoke of the impacts the proposals would have on nongovernmental organizations, especially those she works with that serve non-Jews, non-citizens and asylum-seekers. She addressed the apparent absence of Arab citizens of Israel in the demonstrations.
“I want to make the point that, for them, they haven’t felt that it’s a democracy since even before this,” she said, adding that the apparent attack on minorities has struck a chord with mainstream Israelis.
“When you start with weaker social groups,” said Richlen, “what you have is what you see today, where the mainstream of Israeli society is starting to feel increasingly threatened.”
Dr. Itai Bavli of UBC’s School of Population and Public Health echoed Richlen’s concerns for the rights of those outside the Green Line. He also disputed the idea that opponents of the government’s proposals are overstating the threat to democracy.
“Democracy is disagreeing and I get it that you have political differences, that’s the idea of democracy,” he said. “But these people, they don’t want democracy.… We have to oppose, we have to fight against these forces and support democracy in Israel.”
Rabbi Hannah Dresner, spiritual leader of Or Shalom, spoke and David Berson emceed.
The gathering was only one of many discussions in Jewish communities worldwide, some more public than others, around events in Israel and their impacts inside and outside that country. A February poll commissioned by JSpaceCanada and the New Israel Fund of Canada showed that, while three-quarters of Canadian Jews are emotionally attached to Israel, 73% oppose the judicial reforms (jewishindependent.ca/opposition-to-policies).
“Tensions that had been brewing for months in Israel came to head earlier this week, with the prime minister ultimately postponing the judicial reforms until the next legislative session,” wrote Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken in his March 31 community email. “It is a very welcome decision, and, if our calculations are correct, it gives all parties until sometime in the summer to work out a compromise. A pause is not a halt and we implore the parties to come to the table with President [Isaac] Herzog, which is what we have advocated for since the start.”
The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella of 146 Jewish federations and more than 300 communities, released a brief open letter to Israel’s prime minister and opposition leader in February, stating, in part: “[W]e urge you to make clear that a majority of just 61 votes of the Knesset is not sufficient to override a decision of the Supreme Court. The essence of democracy is both majority rule and protection of minority rights. We recognize that any system of checks and balances will be different than those in our own countries, but such a dramatic change to the Israeli system of governance will have far-reaching consequences in North America, both within the Jewish community and in the broader society.”
On March 27, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy voice of Jewish federations in Canada, lauded the Israeli government’s decision to delay the judicial reform legislation and urged more consensus on any changes.
Shimon Koffler Fogel, president and chief executive officer of CIJA, issued a statement, which noted, “The government’s decision must be met with a good faith effort on the part of the opposition parties, engaging in a constructive dialogue and ensuring people feel part of the policy process. Israel was founded on the principle of inclusion and must reaffirm those values at every opportunity. While there may not be uniformity around every decision, Canadian Jews must express unity around the existence of Israel and her contributions to the world, and acknowledge healthy debate is part of a continually evolving and growing democracy.”