As we head into Purim 2023 (5783 according to the Jewish calendar), which starts tomorrow night - there is so much going on that it has been difficult for me to find the time to write some updates. I am back in Israel for a bit - and planning to read from Megillah Esther
tomorrow night at our shul in K'far Saba. We will also have the chance to read Tuesday morning, followed by a festive meal in the afternoon - a "Purim Seudah."
Here in Ra'anana, it was hotter than 30c today (more than 86F outside). The streets of Ra'anana were closed for the "Adloyada" parade - with floats of kids in costumes, loud music, and all kinds of festivities. We took a walk and it was simply bustling and vibrant - with kids (and sometimes their parents) in costume starting the Purim celebrations. A nice distraction I suppose from everything that is going on politically.
I don't intend to dedicate this blog to a full and detailed analysis of all of the political events taking place here but I do want to spend some time dealing with a few major issues.
Israel's "Judicial Reform"
First of all, the headline event in Israel is the proposed "judicial reform." You may have read or heard a variety of opinions on this from different commentators - including a podcast by Elliot Abrams - or a Conrad Black article in the National Post. You can also read any of a number of different articles in Haaretz or other publications with other viewpoints.
The bottom line is that no matter what spin some of the right wing commentators might try to put on this, the current Israeli government's proposals amount to a dramatic weakening of the power of the Supreme Court - and the transfer of that power to any bare majority of the Knesset.
The proposed legislation, which has passed a first reading and may well pass second and third readings this week - involves four main proposals.
The first proposal is to remove the power from the judges to conduct a judicial review of legislation on the basis of certain grounds that have been defined under decades of Israeli law - including the ground of "reasonableness." Although Israel does not have a formal written constitution, Israel's "Basic Law" has developed quasi-constitutional status and has provided the framework for judges to overrule legislation if it is deemed to violate the basic law. The current governing coalition argues that this tilts the state's power into the hands of the judges rather than the elected representatives. The Netanyahu coalition would like to remove that power from the courts and, essentially, allow the government to pass any type of legislation it likes, with a bare majority and with no judicial oversight. They point to Canada's "notwithstanding clause" in support of this concept and the second proposal.
The second proposal is to allow the Knesset, with a bare majority of any type, to overrule any decision of the Israeli Supreme Court. As I mentioned, the proponents of this change cite Canada's "notwithstanding clause" as their source of inspiration for this legislative idea.
The third proposal is to change the way judges are appointed so that the government in power is able to override other stakeholders and install any judges that it wants to install. Here, the proponents of this idea rely on the American experience. Although the U.S. Senate can reject judicial appointments, it rarely happens. Trump is clearly the example of how, in one term, a President can completely reshape the court politically. The Netanyahu government is salivating at the prospect of installing a "yes" court of the type that Trump managed to install in the U.S.
The fourth proposal involves turning the Attorney General position into purely a political appointment and requiring appointed legal advisors to provide the advice and support that the government is requesting - rather than objective and legally supportable advice.
There are reasonable arguments about these proposals - especially when examined individually.
Defining the limits of "judicial review" in any democracy is an extremely important issue. Ideally, a country should have a written constitution to set these limits and Israel does not. But even in the absence of a specific written constitution, the common law system builds legal jurisprudence over time in the form of precedents. Judicial review in Israel has been defined and delineated by Supreme Court Judges for more than 30 years and, in some cases, since the 1950s. The idea of simply taking away power from the courts and overturning a wide range of judicial precedents, legislatively, does seem somewhat questionable. Especially if it is for a particular political goal.
The "notwithstanding" clause is less defensible. Sure Canada has one but nobody really points to it as one of highlights of the Canadian Charter. In fact, it is probably one of the key flaws, even though it was part of a political compromise used to reach agreement on the Charter in the first place. But over the past few years, its use has become ever more frequent. What use are a bunch of fundamental guarantees of rights if they can simply be overridden by a thin majority? Once the use of a notwithstanding clause becomes politically acceptable and common, protected rights lose their value. They are no longer "protected." Some members of the Israeli opposition - even some on the right - have proposed, at a minimum, a law that would limit the use of this "notwithstanding" clause to situations where 2/3 or 3/4 of the Knesset would support it. That would be better and might be the basis for a compromise on this issue but it is not currently being proposed.
There is also a reasonable argument about how judges are appointed. It is unclear which country has found the ideal approach to appointing judges. One would hope that they would be appointed because of their legal and academic qualifications and their experience and not simply because of their viewpoints on certain political issues. In Israel, 3 judges currently sit on the panel that appoints judges to the Supreme Court - and any appointment has to get past these three judges - since three members of the committee can veto an appointment. The Netanyahu government argues that this means the judges "appoint themselves" to the bench. This is simply not true. At the same time, there is a reasonable argument that judges should not have deciding power in appointing new judges to the Supreme Court.
The current proposals aim to Americanize the Israeli system and allow any sitting government to appoint the judges it would like to see on the bench. This is a marked departure from the way things have been done in Israel since the 1950s and would represent a significant degradation of the level of judicial independence in Israel.
There are also reasonable legal arguments about the role of the Attorney General.
But the bigger issue, aside from examining each of these proposals individually, is to look at the whole bundle of changes as one group of proposals and to assess the effects of these changes and the context.
You have a current Prime Minister, who is, himself, facing a series of criminal charges and an ongoing criminal trial that is still in progress. As the Prime Minister, he is forging ahead with a plan to weaken the court system, install new judges, limit the power of the court itself and then provide that a bare majority (which he now has) can override any decision of the Court.
Moreover, he is also looking to pass legislation to reinstall Aryeh Deri, a thrice convicted criminal, into a senior cabinet position in the Israeli government even after the Supreme Court ruled 10-1 that he could not serve as a cabinet minister because of these convictions.
In short, there is little argument that this whole "judicial reform" plan is a calculated effort to weaken the power of the courts, eliminate judicial oversight and allow Netanyahu and his government to take control over the courts, presumably as first step towards eliminating his own legal challenges.
Having a strong, independent judiciary is one of hallmarks of a liberal democracy. For this reason, this power grab by Netanyahu and his cronies has caused so much backlash in Israel. It is a recognizable and transparent attack on Israel's liberal democratic character and the type of step that could move Israel along the path towards Turkey, Mexico, Russia or other autocratic countries.
As the Netanyahu government continues to advance these legislative initiatives, the number of protesters continues to increase. This past Saturday night, there were more than 200,000 demonstrators in Tel-Aviv and hundreds of thousands in other places across the country.
Despite some of the spin - this is not simply "sour grapes." Although Netanyahu and his supporters won the election and earned the power to form the government, they were not granted the power to gut the Israeli Supreme Court and pass legislation that would significantly erode the liberal democratic nature of the state. I would expect that the size of these demonstrations will continue to increase and that we will see other types of protests including general strikes and other disruptions.
Terrorism and Palestinian Issues
There has been a significant increase in the number of Palestinian attacks on Jewish Israelis in Israel and in the territories. But that increase, at this point, cannot be blamed on this relatively new government. There had already been a growing number of attacks under the previous government.
However, under previous governments, the response to these attacks was controlled by responsible members of government, even though there were certainly excesses from time to time. Israel now has extremists in position of authority, controlling the police and the army - or trying to, at least. (The lines of authority are not entirely clear in Netanyahu's cabinet).
Following an attack last week in which terrorists killed two Jewish Israelis, Israeli settlers went on a rampage and attacked the town of Huwara (the town where the terrorists were from), killing at least one resident of the town and injuring more than 100, some critically. The government and the army failed to stop or prevent the attack. Since then, two of the attackers have been arrested. But one of Netanyahu's Ministers, Betzalel Smotrich, said that the whole town should have been burned down. He later retracted his comments.
The attack was nothing less than a "pogrom" and must be condemned in the strongest of terms. Going on a rampage and attacking innocent civilians cannot possibly be part of the policies of any supportable government.
There are several other issues but I will leave some of them for a later blog.
And Now For Something Completely Different: A few Other Issues:
As you know from some of my earlier blogs, I do enjoy watching NFL football and I am big fan of the Buffalo Bills. A very promising season came to a disappointing ending, but I digress. I came across an interesting article about the issue of violence in football and how it meshes with Jewish values. I found it to be thought provoking, though I did not agree and still watched the game (which was a very exciting super bowl). Here is the Article - entitled American Football: A Case Study in the Limits of Halakha. Ultimately, my take is this. The learned Rabbi uses violence and the risk of injury to propose barring the watching of spectator sports from a perspective of Jewish law. But note that the Rabbi does not cite any alternative sports as a more gainful pursuit. He mentions hockey but indicates that he knows nothing about it. Ultimately, his main point is that observant Jews should simply spend their time studying Torah or engaged in other pursuits and presumably shouldn't waste their time watching any spectator sports.
Many sports involve the risk of injury - whether that includes Olympic diving, cycling, gymnastics, skating competitions or the major competitive sports like football, hockey, basketball and soccer. When competitors push themselves to the limit - in competitions that test the "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" motto, there are bound to be injuries. Sometimes, recognizing the fact that these athletes are out there on the edge is what makes their accomplishments so exciting and so compelling.
I take the point that the NFL may have more of an obligation to address long term injury including brain injury. I for one, would also support, for example, a rule that all hockey players have to wear full face protection.
But overall, I'm not sure that I am prepared to agree with the Rabbi that all spectator sports are intrinsically a waste of time - though he is not the first one to make this argument.
I would reject that argument, especially, as a Toronto Maple Leafs' season ticket holder - who continues to hope that the Leafs' Stanley Cup drought, which has been in place since 1967, will end eventually and the Maple Leafs will host a Stanley Cup parade. Ice Hockey is, of course, a religion of its own in Canada. As someone who has played, coached and attended hockey games since the age of 6, I am not prepared to conclude that involvement in hockey, as a whole, somehow clashes with any particular Jewish values. In fact, when our kids were growing up in Toronto, all of the Jewish day schools participated annually in a one day ice hockey tournament - with as many as 12-14 teams participating from different Jewish day schools.
The Toronto Conservative shuls, for years, also ran a shul softball league.
Finding ways for people to stay in shape, often by getting involved in different group sports is probably something that should be encouraged and in accordance with Jewish values, even though we might prefer those sports that are less likely to lead to serious injury. Often people who play the sports are also spectators of the professional versions.
From the perspective of a Torontonian, as you might know, the Maple Leafs made a host of trades and roster changes at the NHL trade deadline to try and improve their playoff chances. Unfortunately, they did not pick up a new goalie. Although I am hopeful that these changes will improve the team, the Leafs will have to play Tampa and Boston in the first two rounds (Boston only if they beat Tampa). I am not entirely optimistic that they will be able to beat Tampa, let alone Boston. But one can always hope.
This will involve some very late night viewing when I am in Israel. The games tend to start at 2 a.m. or even 3 a.m. Israel time. I guess I will have to keep Toronto hours, even while spending time in Israel.
I think that is about all I have the time or energy for at this point, but I will take the time to wish everyone a happy Purim and hope that you all get the chance to eat some really good hamentaschen, hear the Megillah and, yes, have a drink or two, despite the new Health Canada guidelines (which propose eliminating all alcohol consumption).
I will try to address some other issues shortly including Israel's perspective on the Russia-Ukraine War, other proposals of the Netanyahu government and whatever else comes to mind, including perhaps my take on this year's Oscar candidates (I have gotten through 9 of the 10 nominees). For now, as Torontonians emerge from 25-30 cm of new snow - I plan to enjoy the hot weather here in Ra'anana over coming weeks.