Wednesday, Jan 25, 2023

My Take On The News

The Battle Begins

The battle cry has been sounded; the executive and legislative branches of the Israeli government are going to war against its third branch, the Supreme Court.

Last Wednesday afternoon, the newly appointed justice minister, Yariv Levin, announced that he would present his plan for judicial reform in the Yerushalayim Auditorium in the Knesset building that evening. It would be hard to say that anyone was surprised by the plan, which Levin has been talking about for the past 20 years. In fact, his first address when he was elected to the Knesset was on the very same topic. The only thing that surprised anyone (but not everyone) was the timing: It came as the Supreme Court was about to begin discussing the petitions against Aryeh Deri’s appointment to two ministerial positions in the new government (see below for more details on that). Yair Lapid accused Levin of “placing a [metaphoric] gun on the table” in an effort to intimidate the justices of the Supreme Court; Levin himself, on the other hand, insists that the timing was purely coincidental.

In a nutshell, the main components of the reform are: canceling the “reasonability clause,” which allows the Supreme Court to overturn government decisions that it deems unreasonable; instituting an override clause that would allow the Knesset to pass laws immune to judicial review; canceling the policy of electing the chief justice of the Supreme Court based on seniority; changing the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee so that the two representatives of the Israel Bar Association will be replaced by political figures; and altering the standing of legal advisors in the government.

Yariv Levin explained in his speech, “We go to the polls and vote but then, time and again, people whom we did not elect make decisions for us. Entire communities look at the judicial system and do not hear their voices there. This is not democracy. I have been dealing with this issue for over 20 years already; I have warned about the dangers of judicial intervention and I have formulated proposals for reform. Unfortunately, the dangers that I have warned about have become real, and the time has therefore come to act. Today, I am introducing the first stage of the reform of governance, whose goal is to strengthen democracy, to rehabilitate the power of the government, and to restore faith in the judicial system and balance between the three branches of the government.”

Regarding the changes in the Judicial Appointments Committee, Levin said, “The judges choose themselves behind closed doors and without any protocols. Instead of this, two public representatives chosen by the justice minister will serve on the committee in place of the biased representatives of the Israel Bar Association, and there will be complete transparency preserved through public discussions in the Knesset Law, Constitution, and Justice Committee.” As for the override clause, Levin said, “No longer will the court hold hearings on the Basic Laws. There will be no more disqualification of Knesset laws without the authority to do so. Instead, the court will act within the Basic Laws and will not be above them. Only the full panel of judges of the Supreme Court will be able to strike down laws, and only with a special majority. A balanced override clause will be legislated, requiring a majority vote of 61 MKs. Nevertheless, in the event that the court unanimously strikes down a law, the same Knesset will not be able to override its decision.”

An Unreasonable Expectation

It can certainly be said that much of the country was listening to Yariv Levin last Wednesday. Every media channel in the country carried a live broadcast of his entire speech. Levin deliberately chose to make his announcement at 8:00 in the evening to receive the country’s full attention; however, it is interesting that none of the stations cut him off in the middle of his speech.

Another of Levin’s reforms, as I mentioned, was the cancellation of the so-called “reasonability clause,” which he denounced with arguments that seemed utterly unimpeachable. “There will be no more disqualifications of entirely legal decisions of the government on the pretext that a judge finds them unreasonable,” Levin explained. “Instead, the reasonability clause will be canceled, and the power to make decisions will be returned to the elected government. As the former deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court, Professor Menachem Elron, put it—in ironic fashion, I might add, and you might have to struggle to follow this, because it is a bit of a convoluted statement—it is absolutely unreasonable to reasonably expect that the court will examine the reasonability of such things. Or, to put it my way, there is no such thing as a reasonability clause.”

The last aspect of the reform that Levin presented was his intent to reduce the influence of legal advisors in the government. “The government will no longer be subordinate to an unelected group of people,” he declared. “Legal advisors are exactly what their title implies: advisors and not decision-makers. When they represent the state, they must represent the government and not the prosecution. As former Chief Justice Moshe Landau once said, ‘Our job [as justices of the Supreme Court] is much humbler. It is to be faithful interpreters of the law and of the will of the public as expressed by the Knesset.’”

It is unclear if Netanyahu is personally in favor of the all-out war that his political ally is fomenting in the government, but this judicial reform package was Yariv Levin’s prerequisite for agreeing to take the post of justice minister, and Netanyahu certainly knew what to expect. Earlier in that same evening, Netanyahu commented in a different venue that the country should expect “a wave of reforms that will guarantee the proper balance between the three branches of government.”

Ever since Levin went public with his plans, there has been a nationwide uproar. Many of the top stories in all the country’s newspapers and other media outlets have dealt with this issue. Legal experts, pundits, and politicians alike haven’t stopped talking about it. Of course, fierce condemnation of the measures was heard from Aharon Barak, the onetime president of the Supreme Court who spearheaded the initiative to expand the court’s authority with mottos such as “hakol shafit” (everything is subject to judicial review) and “m’lo kol haaretz mishpat” (the entire land should be filled with judgment). Barak is the man who is generally accused of destroying the balance between the three branches of government by severely inflating the Supreme Court’s power. This past motzoei Shabbos, he arranged for a series of interviews in numerous media outlets, giving himself a platform to fire back at Levin. But let us move on to other topics for now; this issue deserves an entire article of its own, and perhaps I will write one next week.

Why Do the Judges Get to Decide What Is Reasonable?

Another event that was probably watched by many was the Supreme Court hearing on Thursday morning on the subject of Aryeh Deri’s appointment to a ministerial post. In an unusual move, the court allowed the proceedings to be broadcast live to the public. The petitions were heard by a panel of eleven justices headed by Chief Justice Esther Chayut.

It was always a foregone conclusion that whenever Aryeh Deri received a ministerial post, the Supreme Court would be petitioned to block it. At first, the argument was that Deri should be disqualified from holding office, as a convicted felon who spent time in prison. This argument probably wouldn’t hold water today, since the identical claim was made before Deri’s previous appointment in a Netanyahu-led government, and the court rejected the petitions at that time. This time, however, another wrinkle has been added: Deri has since been convicted of tax offenses again, and he allegedly promised to leave political life in the context of his plea agreement. The petitioners therefore claim that he is violating his commitment by the very act of taking office as a minister.

Now, why are they wrong? Simply because the entire criminal investigation into Deri was itself a crime! Everyone has always agreed that if any ordinary citizen had been in his place, the police would never have opened an investigation at all; the entire issue would have been dealt with by an assessment officer in the Tax Authority. This type of case generally ends with the payment of an administrative fine. The attorney general of the previous government commented at the time that the police were making a mountain out of something that didn’t even qualify as a molehill. As for the fact that Deri promised to leave political life, he has already explained that his commitment related only to politics for then and that he never promised to refrain from being part of a subsequent government.

One of the main pretexts that the court could use to disqualify Deri is the test of reasonability. There have already been several instances when the justices of the Supreme Court acknowledged that a particular government decision or appointment was fully legal; however, they argued that it was not “reasonable,” and they used that determination as a pretext to strike it down. This idea is yet another invention of onetime Chief Justice Aharon Barak. But the most significant question is: Who gets to decide what is considered reasonable? Why should this determination be within the purview of the judges and no one else? For instance, if the government believes that Deri’s appointment is reasonable, then why should the judges be entitled to decide that it is not? Why are they the arbiters of reasonability, especially considering that the concept itself was an invention of the courts? That, incidentally, is the reason that Yariv Levin wants to abolish the reasonability clause altogether.

Another issue that the court might decide is the question of whether Deri is guilty of a crime of moral turpitude. An individual who has been found guilty of a crime of turpitude is disqualified from serving as a minister for seven years. Anyone who has been handed an actual prison sentence is automatically assigned a label of turpitude; in Deri’s case, the question is whether a suspended sentence carries the same stigma. In other words, the law states that a crime punished with a prison sentence is an act of moral turpitude, but it is not clear whether this includes a suspended prison sentence. If it does, then Deri would indeed be disqualified from serving as a minister at this time. In order to remove all doubt, the Knesset passed a law last week clarifying that a suspended prison sentence is not considered a sign of moral turpitude. This law was intended to counteract this argument against Deri before it could be made. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court might decide that the law itself is unconstitutional, thus paving the way for the judges to boot Deri out of office.

As I mentioned, there has been much speculation that it was no coincidence that Yariv Levin presented his plan for judicial reform on the night before the court was scheduled to hear the petitions against Deri. It was construed as a deliberate veiled threat: “If you disqualify Deri, I will fight you with all my strength. If you don’t disqualify him, I will take it slow and limit the scope of my reforms.”

For the time being, the court hasn’t yet made its decision. After six hours of speeches in favor of Deri and against him, the court adjourned, with the justices promising to render their verdict at a later time.

The People Want Deri

During the hearing in the Supreme Court, the petitioners—an assortment of left-wing groups and their ilk—made their case against Deri, and speeches in response were delivered by the Knesset’s attorneys as well as lawyers speaking on behalf of Netanyahu and Deri. In a brazen breach of judicial ethics that only underscores the importance of Levin’s reform, the attorney general announced that she supports the petitions against Deri’s appointment.

Of course, the discussions in the court were fascinating. The judges rejected several arguments raised by the lawyers representing Deri and Netanyahu, and they even commented that they consider themselves authorized to overrule the Basic Laws if they believe that there were some flaws in the legislative process. Some of the judges also stressed that the public support that Deri received at the ballot box was not relevant to the criminal proceedings against him.

But that last point deserves a bit more explanation. Deri’s attorneys argued passionately that since he received the support of hundreds of thousands of citizens in the election, even though the entire country was aware that he would be appointed as a minister if he won, the unmistakable will of the people needed to be taken into account. The justices, however, rejected this contention, arguing that if Deri’s appointment itself is illegal, then the desire of the people should carry no weight.

The petitioners also claimed that the law limiting moral turpitude to a crime punished with an actual prison sentence was personal in nature (in other words, it was drafted specifically to benefit Deri), which would be a good reason for the judges to strike it down. Netanyahu’s lawyers responded that this was incorrect, and that the law was passed as a matter of principle. Michoel Ravilo, a lawyer representing Netanyahu, argued that there was no evidence that the law validating Deri’s appointment was passed for his benefit alone. He also argued that it was necessary to give weight to the other considerations that the prime minister took into account, such as the need for stability in the government. “The prime minister has other considerations concerning national security as well,” he added, “which is no less important.”

Addressing the issue of reasonability, Ravilo also pointed out that it was not a secret before the government was formed that the chairman of the Shas party would join a government led by Netanyahu. He argued that this effectively meant that 2.3 million voters had declared their desire for Deri to be a minister in the government. Moreover, the Shas party itself received 400,000 votes. “Can anyone claim that it is unreasonable to heed the desires of such a large portion of the voting public?” he demanded rhetorically.

Another Police Beating

While Yariv Levin’s judicial reform and the Supreme Court case concerning Aryeh Deri were undoubtedly the two main issues of the past week, there are many more topics that deserve to be discussed as well. Here is a brief overview of some of the more significant news stories of this week.

First, there have been more new revelations in the criminal case against Binyomin Netanyahu. Time and again, it has been shown that the police used unacceptable means to collect evidence against him, threatening and intimidating witnesses to testify against the prime minister and imposing intolerable pressure on them. By now, we have all grown used to hearing such things about the police; no one doubts that they failed to maintain any objectivity in their efforts to build a case against Netanyahu.

Another phenomenon that received attention is the unbridled audacity of the Palestinians living in Israel. Two police stations located in Arab areas came under attack this week from young Arab rioters, who attacked the stations with homemade explosives. Both buildings were torched, resulting in heavy property damage. Aside from the horrific nature of the crime itself, the sheer brazenness of the arsonists’ actions was shocking.

Then there was another incident that seems to have become part of a distressing trend: A 35-year-old mentally deficient man was beaten by two police officers. The victim was traveling on a bus when he was accused of following a fellow passenger. The police arrived, and the man became disruptive. Of course, that was only to be expected; he was extremely frightened and shouted, “I learn in Alei Siach!” He asked for his counselor to be called, but the police began beating him viciously. They continued beating him even when he was taken to the police station for questioning. A complaint was filed against the officers with the Department of Internal Police Investigations, and I intend to follow up on the developments. But this was yet another instance in which the police have shown their complete lack of understanding of mental disabilities. Similar incidents have happened in the past, and the public was promised that the police would undergo special training to increase their sensitivity to such situations. Unfortunately, the problem does not seem to have abated.

Sanctioning the Palestinian Authority

This week, the Israeli government decided to implement a series of measures to punish the Palestinian Authority for its constant appeals to the UN against Israel, which only serve to fan the flames of hostility toward Israel in every possible venue.

After the decision was made in the political-security cabinet, the government released the following statement: “The political-security cabinet has approved a number of steps to be taken against the Palestinian Authority following its appeal to the ICJ last week. The Ministerial Committee on National Security Affairs (i.e., the political-security cabinet) convened for its first session with the goal of responding to the Palestinians’ decision to launch a diplomatic and judicial offensive against the State of Israel. The current government will not sit idly by in the face of the PLO’s war against it, and will respond in any way necessary. The cabinet approved a number of measures to be taken against the PA following its appeal to the ICJ last week: First, about 139 million shekels of Palestinian Authority funds will be diverted to the victims of terror, in fulfillment of the court ruling calling for compensation for the families of victims murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Second, funding to the PA will be cut immediately, commensurate with the payments made to terrorists and their families in 2022 in accordance with the security report. Third, all Palestinian construction plans in Area C will be frozen, following illegal takeover attempts by the PLO, in violation of international agreements. Fourth, VIP benefits will be canceled for those leading the diplomatic and judicial fight against Israel. Fifth, action will be taken against organizations in Yehuda and Shomron that promote terror or any other hostile activity, including diplomatic or judicial actions against Israel under the guise of humanitarianism.”

I have several comments to make about this. First, Mr. Sander Gerber of New York made this suggestion—for Israel to freeze the PA’s funds in order to compensate the victims of terror. (Gerber also wants the victims of terror to have the ability to sue the Palestinian Authority in court, but that is another matter.)

Second, it is worth noting that today, after several senior figures in the Palestinian Authority visited Israel to celebrate the release of a terrorist murderer after forty years in prison, the Minister of Defense announced that the entry permits issued to those officials were to be revoked.

It was also reported that several other proposals were made in the political-security cabinet concerning withholding the funds of the Palestinian Authority (which come from taxes that Israel collects at the border crossings and then transfers to the PA) but Netanyahu vetoed those ideas. Perhaps he decided to keep a few more weapons in his arsenal for the future.

Finally, the president of the Palestinian Authority was outraged, as could be expected. He has already announced that Israel’s punitive measures will not prevent the PA in any way from continuing to solicit the world’s support against the “occupation.”

The Incitement Must Be Answered

The virulent incitement against the chareidi community is continuing. It seems that Haaretz and The Marker have taken this upon themselves as some sort of major project. Day after day, huge headlines appear in the newspapers lambasting the chareidi community. The chareidi public isn’t exposed to the secular financial newspapers and they tend to ignore the chiloni press altogether, but it is possible that the average chiloni who isn’t hostile to religion might be swayed by this barrage of venom. Anyone who reads these newspapers is liable to believe that the chareidim are malevolently bleeding the country dry.

The nonstop defamation began even before the coalition was formed. When Netanyahu announced that the requirement for schools to teach the Liba core curriculum in exchange for government funding would have to be dropped, The Marker’s reaction was an outraged headline printed in huge letters: “Local Authorities to Be Forced to Fund Hundreds of Schools Without Liba and Thousands of Preschools.” The obvious response to this is: So what? Let them fund the schools! Aren’t these children just as deserving of government funding as any other child in the country? Why should they care how much mathematics the children study? Furthermore, even the chareidi schools that offer the core curriculum still do not receive the same level of funding as secular schools. What is their excuse for that?

About a week later, another inflammatory headline appeared: “Chareidi Student to Receive 22,000 NIS Yearly, While a Chiloni Gets Only 18,000.” This has already been demonstrated to be a completely false statistic, but it served its purpose of casting the chareidi community in an extremely negative light. Just imagine how the average irreligious reader would react to such a report. The next day, another slanderous headline appeared: “Disgraceful Wages of Chareidi Teachers Due to Chareidi Politics.” And a few days later, the newspaper featured yet another revolting headline: “The Future of Israel’s Economy Has Been Surrendered to a Government of Tribal Machers.” As far as these writers are concerned, chareidim are unstatesmanlike and their community deserves nothing, and state funds are therefore being funneled to an undeserving class of citizens. The article accuses the chareidim of being sectarians with complete disdain for the state and the rule of law. On the same day, the newspaper featured another three headlines, each spanning an entire page (in The Marker’s style). One of those headlines read, “A Chareidi City, Sectarian Funding, and Discrimination in Housing: The Agreements Are Sad News for the Industry.” Another read, “The Working Plan of the Government of Connivers: Shamelessly Grab Whatever You Can.” Finally, the third story was titled, “Cell Phone Service for All of Us to Be Slowed Because of an Internal Chareidi Conflict.” Unbelievable!

Vile Hatemongering in the Media

So much for The Marker, but their colleagues in Haaretz do not have any more respect for the current government. They, too, have published articles dripping with venom and slander. For instance, on the fifth of Teves, Haaretz featured a story titled, “Netanyahu and Coalition Partners Are Selling Out the Arabs, Chilonim, and Women.” On the third of Teves, Calcalist ran a headline claiming that taxes for chilonim are six times higher than for chareidim. We cannot afford to ignore this hateful propaganda, which tends to penetrate the public consciousness. All propaganda has an impact, but negative propaganda is the most powerful of all.

There are plenty of answers to these accusations; all that the chareidim need to do is present the facts, and the media’s lies will collapse. If a secular Israeli pays six times as much tax as his religious counterpart, it isn’t because the system is skewed against him; it is only because his earnings are six times as great. The kollel stipend for a chareidi yungerman will be no more than a measly 1200 shekels even if the government doubles it; any claim that the kollelim are profiting on the backs of secular Israelis is completely disingenuous. Many chareidi schools teach the Liba core curriculum and still do not receive equal funding for the government. And most of the “religious” demands of the coalition are aimed at upholding the status quo and preventing the religious community from being exploited, no more than that. These are the facts, but someone needs to listen to them.

Last Friday, an article appeared that bordered on incitement to murder. In a lengthy discourse, the writer “explained” that phenomena such as congestion on the highways and long wait times for medical appointments are the products of a system of incentives that encourage a high birth rate and serve to benefit the chareidi populace. Just imagine how this article affected a sick person who is waiting impatiently for an appointment with a cardiologist, or anyone in a similar situation. The following excerpt from the article also appeared as a large pull quote on the side of the page: “There is no real difference between a secular Israeli, who goes out to work every day in order to support not just himself but a large portion of the chareidi populace, and a slave who was forced to pick cotton in the southern United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The chareidim have taken over this country; they have sucked up the chilonim’s money and used it to finance their birth rate, and now the people who fed them and protected them are being shown the door.” It is hard to believe that anyone with a Jewish heart could have written these words. And what sort of impact did this rhetoric have on a previously unbiased reader who views the media as a reliable source of information? That is a very disturbing thought. Does anyone doubt that the chareidi community has a duty to respond to its detractors?

Winds of Change in the Knesset

My friends, we are in the middle of a revolution. The chokehold has been broken, the siege has been lifted, and a new era is dawning. It would only be natural for us to dance in the streets at this point.

Over the course of three days, we were informed that three of the previous government’s pernicious initiatives were being frozen: Michoel Malchieli, as the Minister of Religious Affairs, suspended Matan Kahana’s changes; Amichai Chikli, in the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, put a halt to the flow of funding to the Reform movement; and Shlomo Karai in the Ministry of Communications suspended the overhaul of the cell phone system. Meanwhile, Betzalel Smotrich revoked the taxes on disposable dishes and sweetened drinks, Aryeh Deri instituted a new policy concerning immigrants, and even some price hikes were halted. It all seemed like a dream. In the Knesset, the dramatic change was evidenced by the broad smiles of some of the parliament’s members, along with the defeated look in the eyes of others.

And that is not all. Last Monday, the employees of the Knesset received a notice about a learning session dubbed “Current Events Through the Lens of the Parsha.” MKs Waldiger and Michoel Bitton invited the Knesset staff to “take a short break and join a brief learning session with Rabbi Shneur Ashkenazi.” This was yet another sign of the dramatic turnaround that had overtaken the Knesset.

Last Tuesday, Asarah b’Teves, Meir Porush was sworn in to his new position as Minister of Yerushalayim Affairs. The spectators showed up toward the beginning of the Knesset sitting, expecting Porush to be sworn in immediately after the one-minute speeches; however, the chairman abruptly closed the sitting before it could take place. After a few moments of confusion, the situation became clear: Porush had asked him to wait until the end of the taanis before swearing him in to his position. Sure enough, after Maariv Porush returned to the Knesset with several family members and supporters, and he was formally assigned to his new position. This was yet another sign of the welcome changes taking place in the Knesset.

Make no mistake: No one is rejoicing in anyone else’s misfortune, and the euphoria in the Knesset has nothing to do with revenge against the outgoing government. The people are simply grateful and overjoyed that the fences that were breached are being restored, the status quo will be reestablished, the oppressors of the religious sector have been subdued, and evil has begun to dissipate.

Avodah Zarah Removed from the Land

After the new members of the government were installed in their respective positions, they all hurried to the party offices to share a lechayim. This was a quick but serious event; it was time to get to work, and the new members of the government were cognizant of their newfound responsibilities. In the Shas party office, we heard Aryeh Deri reciting the brachos of shehecheyanu and borei pri hagefen in an emotional tone. “Let us daven for success in achieving the goals that Rav Ovadiah Yosef laid out for us in the earliest days of this party’s history,” he said. Deri spoke about many of the causes that the Shas party was charged with promoting, from mikvaos and dayonim to kiruv and the periphery. “We all remember how Rav Ovadiah used to lament the fact that there are a million children in Israel who do not even know the words of Shema Yisroel,” he said. “That may well be the main reason that we are here.”

At one point, Yaakov Margi, the newly installed Minister of Welfare, added another brocha, based on the dictates of the mishnah in Maseches Brachos: “If a person sees a place where miracles were performed for Israel, he should say, ‘Blessed is He Who performed miracles for our ancestors in this place.’ [If he sees] a place where avodah zarah has been uprooted, he should say, ‘Blessed is He Who uprooted avodah zarah from our land.’” The Minister of Welfare proceeded to recite the second of those two brachos, and everyone present responded heartily, “Amein!”

The Inexplicable Yair Lapid

One day, the phenomenon known as Yair Lapid will be studied by scholars who will gape in disbelief. The phenomenon of Yairism or Lapidism, whatever you wish to call it, defies comprehension. Historians will cite Yair Lapid as evidence that the human capacity for temerity knows no bounds. How can a man who ruined everything he touched have the audacity to ask the public to trust him again? Lapid has proven himself to be completely inept, yet he is presumptuous enough to try to teach the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history a few lessons about how to run the country. Personally, I think that Netanyahu was fully justified when he snapped at the members of Yesh Atid in the Knesset, “Why are you shouting? Why don’t you listen and learn something? Who do you think you are to be teaching us what to do? What are you even talking about?”

During his time in power, Yair Lapid shattered Israel’s relations with the rest of the world and reduced the Foreign Ministry to ruins. He demonstrated his complete lack of understanding of how to run a state, and he made it very clear that even the most basic concepts eluded him. He earned heaps of derision and showcased his own ignorance in every area, from history to English and, of course, Yiddishkeit itself as well. And his public statements regularly came back to haunt him and trip him up. Yet this past Thursday he appeared at the Knesset podium and conceitedly began listing the “accomplishments” of his government. “This is just for the historical record,” Lapid smugly informed his audience.

All of Lapid’s predictions have been disproven. He haughtily claimed that his government would last for four years and that the opposition would be crushed. In an interview conducted a week before the election, he declared, “I am worried that Netanyahu will try to cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the outcome of the election.” He also said that he was not concerned about the prospects of the Meretz and Labor parties. Now, let us forget for a moment that his prediction about Meretz and Labor turned out to be totally misguided, and that his accusations against Ben-Gvir were baseless. The mere fact that he claimed that Netanyahu would reject the election results is utterly appalling.

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