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The Trouble with Israel’s Supreme Court

On the ongoing culture war that’s reshaping the country, and the proposed changes to its judiciary

Mass demonstrations have swept through Israel since January 4, when Yariv Lenin, Israel’s justice minister, announced proposed changes to the country’s judiciary. If enacted, this so-called “Supreme Court override” bill would limit the Court’s power, as well as the power of government legal counselors; in their place, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition would be granted a majority on the committee that appoints judges, thereby limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to rule against the executive and strike down legislation. Why is this happening now, and how much is at stake? 

The most common explanation is that Netanyahu is (yet again) under indictment, and this judicial overhaul plan would undermine the people and institutions likely to put him in prison. But Bernard Avishai, a professor at Hebrew University and Dartmouth College, the author of The Tragedy of Zionism and The Hebrew Republic, and a frequent contributor to Harper’s Magazine, explains that this is “only half the truth,” and the full explanation is far more complex, requiring an understanding of a culture war between theocracy and democracy that has persisted since Israel’s founding.

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September 2014

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