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Israeli democracy may not survive a ‘reform’ of its Supreme Court



(JTA) — On Dec. 29, Israel swore in Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth government. The Likud leader became Israel’s prime minister once more, and one week later, Israel’s long-anticipated judicial counterrevolution began.

In the Knesset Wednesday, newly minted Justice Minister and Netanyahu confidant Yariv Levin unveiled a package of proposed legislation that would alter the balance of power between Israel’s legislature and its Supreme Court.

At the core of this plan is a bill to allow the Knesset to override the Supreme Court. Levin’s proposals — which almost certainly have the immediate support of a Knesset majority, regardless of Levin’s assurances that they would be subject to “thorough debate” — would pave the way for Israel’s new government to pass legislation that curtails rights and undermines the rule of law, dealing a blow to Israeli democracy.

The dire implications of this proposed judicial reform are rooted in key characteristics of the Israeli political system that set it apart from other liberal democracies. Israel has no constitution to determine the balance of power between its various branches of government. In fact, there is no separation between Israel’s executive and legislative branches, given that the government automatically controls a majority in the parliament. 

Instead, it has a series of basic laws enacted piecemeal over the course of the state’s history that have a quasi-constitutional status, with the initial intention that they would eventually constitute a de jure constitution. 

Through the 1980s, the Knesset passed basic laws that primarily served to define state institutions, such as the country’s legislature and electoral system, capital and military. In the 1990s, there was a paradigm shift with the passage of two basic laws that for the first time concerned individuals’ rights rather than institutions, one on Human Dignity and Liberty (1992) and the other on Freedom of Occupation (1994). These laws enshrined rights to freedom of movement, personal freedom, human dignity and others to all who reside in Israel. 

Aharon Barak, the president of Israel’s Supreme Court from 1995 to 2006, argued that these laws constituted a de facto bill of rights, empowering the court to review Knesset legislation and to strike down laws that violate civil liberties, a responsibility not explicitly bestowed upon the court in the basic law pertaining to the judiciary. In 1995, the Supreme Court officially ruled that it could indeed repeal legislation that violates the country’s basic laws, heralding an era of increased judicial activism in Israel in what became known as the “judicial revolution.” The court has struck down 20 laws since, a fairly modest number compared to other democracies.

The judicial revolution of the 1990s shifted the balance of power in Israel’s political system from one of parliamentary sovereignty, in which the Knesset enjoyed ultimate power, to one in which the legislature is restricted from violating the country’s (incomplete) constitution. Israel’s Supreme Court became a check on the legislative branch in a country that lacks other checks and balances and separations of power.

As a result of these characteristics, the Supreme Court currently serves as one of the only checks on the extraordinary power of Israel’s 120-member Knesset — which is why shifting that balance of power would have such a dramatic impact on Israel’s democracy.

Levin’s proposed judicial overhaul includes several elements that would weaken the power and independence of Israel’s Supreme Court. The plan includes forbidding the Supreme Court from deliberating on and striking down basic laws themselves. It would require an unspecified “special majority” of the court to strike down legislation, raising the threshold from where it currently stands. 

Levin has also called for altering the composition of the selection committee that appoints top judges to give the government, rather than legal professionals, a majority on the panel. It would allow cabinet ministers to appoint legal advisors to act on their behalf, rather than that of the justice ministry, canceling these advisors’ role as safeguards against government overreach. Should a minister enact a decision that contravenes a basic law, the ministry’s legal advisor would no longer report the violation to the attorney general, and would instead merely offer non-binding legal advice to the minister. 

The pièce de résistance is, of course, the override clause that would allow the Knesset to reinstate laws struck down by the Supreme Court by 61 members of Knesset, a simple majority assuming all members are present. The sole restriction on this override would be a provision preventing the Knesset from re-legislating laws struck down unanimously, by all 15 judges, within the same Knesset term. 

This plan’s obvious and most immediate result would be the effective annulment of the quasi-constitutional status of Israel’s basic laws. If the Knesset’s power to legislate is no longer bound by basic laws, these de facto constitutional amendments no longer have any teeth. There are no guardrails preventing any Knesset majority from doing as it wishes, including violating basic human rights. The Knesset could pass laws openly curtailing freedom of the press or gender equality, for example, should it choose to do so.

This counterrevolution, in effect, goes further than merely undoing what occurred in the 1990s.

Most crucially, the Knesset that would once again enjoy full parliamentary sovereignty in 2022 is not the Knesset of Israel’s first four decades. Shackling the Supreme Court is essential to the agendas of the new government’s various ultra-right and ultra-religious parties. For example, the haredi Orthodox parties are eager to re-legislate a blanket exemption to the military draft for their community, which the court struck down in 2017 on the grounds that it was discriminatory. They also have their sights on revoking recognition of non-Orthodox conversions for immigrants to Israel, undoing a court decision from 2021

The far-right, Jewish supremacist parties of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, meanwhile, see an opportunity to deal a decisive blow to an institution that has long served as a check on the settlement movement. They hope to tie the court’s hands in the face of oncoming legislation to retroactively legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land, which are illegal under Israeli law. But this is only the beginning: Neutering the authority of the court could pave the way for legal discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority, such as Ben-Gvir’s proposal to deport minorities who show insufficient loyalty. 

The timing of Levin’s announcement Wednesday could not be more germane. The Knesset recently amended the basic law to legalize the appointment of Aryeh Deri, the Shas party leader who is serving a suspended sentence for tax fraud, as a minister in the new government. The Supreme Court convened Thursday morning to hear petitions against his appointment from those arguing that it is “unreasonable” to rehabilitate Deri given his multiple criminal convictions, a view shared by Israel’s attorney general. Levin’s proposals would bar the court from using this “reasonability” standard. 

The Israeli right has long chafed at the power of the Supreme Court, which it accuses of having a left-wing bias. But a judicial overhaul like this has never enjoyed the full support of the government, nor was Netanyahu previously in favor of it. Now, with a uniformly right-wing government and Netanyahu on trial for corruption, the prime minister’s foremost interest is appeasing his political partners and securing their support for future legislation to shield him from prosecution.

In a system where the majority rules, there need to be mechanisms in place to protect the rights of minorities — political, ethnic and religious. Liberal democracy requires respect for the rule of law and human rights. Yariv Levin’s proposals to fully subordinate the Supreme Court to the Knesset will concentrate virtually unchecked power in the hands of a few individuals — government ministers and party leaders within the coalition who effectively control what the Knesset does. That those individuals were elected in free and fair elections is no guarantee that the changes they make will be democratic. 

The post Israeli democracy may not survive a ‘reform’ of its Supreme Court appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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