Boots on the Ground: Israel’s Judicial Reforms

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It took place in May, before Gershon finished his semester and returned to the United States and before some developments in political negotiations related to this issue in late May.

Michael Johns: Where in the world were you and what were you doing there?

Gershon Stein: I’m in Tel Aviv, Israel. I’m studying abroad for the semester, and I’ve also started research for my senior thesis.

MJ: What are you researching, and what is your senior thesis on?

GS: Right now, Israel is experiencing a huge political movement: one sector of society doesn’t feel represented by the government in power and is protesting judicial reforms that are being proposed by the Knesset, which is their parliament. There’s been a lot of protest related to things that are perceived by some to be un-democratic and forced through. The Knesset is trying to take all these steps to overhaul the judicial system, which is something that most  agree needs change, but the way that they are proposing to change it many fear would strip some of the democratic values of the state. 

MJ: That answer touches on a couple of the issues I was hoping to ask you about, both with respect to the domestic politics of Israel as well as its relationship with the United States. Let’s start with the first one: what has been revealed, or what have you found in your research that is edifying about the domestic politics of Israel?

GS: Something that I found interesting about Israel in this specific case is how divided it is. Among people within Israel, you’re operating in a system wherein people have very different definitions of what they’d like to see from the state. Because it’s defined as a liberal, Jewish, and democratic state, you have a lot of tensions between priorities—such as the Jewish religion, which is key to the state’s stated values, and democracy. A lot of times this comes into tension with the 19 to 20 percent Arab population that lives within Israel.

There was a law that passed in 2018 called the Nation-State Law that reaffirmed Israel’s status as a Jewish state and explicitly recognized Hebrew as the official language and Arabic not as an official language but with a special designation. It explicitly recognized that only Jews have the right to self-determination within the land and all these other things. It was very controversial. The Supreme Court ultimately decided it’s possible to have a Jewish and democratic state, but a lot of scholars argue back and forth and a lot of people—mostly Jews—don’t feel represented, and obviously many Palestinians and Arab Israelis don’t feel represented by the state at all.

MJ: The second thing you mentioned that I’m interested in is how this relates to Israel’s democratic identity as well, which you say is the foundation of its relationship to the United States.

GS: I would first say Israelis aren’t a monolith. People have different definitions of democracy, as we’ve seen all over the world. A lot of liberal people have this definition of liberal democracy meaning free and fair elections for all; certain protections in the government; a checks and balances system. But others I think more loosely define it as meaning free and fair elections within a Jewish people.

Israel doesn’t have a constitution. It has quasi-constitutional laws called Basic Laws, which the Supreme Court can overturn as they could with other laws if they are not in compliance with previous Basic Laws. The margin to pass a Basic Law is just a simple majority in the Knesset, and this is complicated because it means any sort of coalition with any power can pass a lot of laws that are quasi-constitutional and are respected as such. The governing coalition in power right now is trying to change the nomination process of the Supreme Court to make it more political. While people on both sides have argued that the Supreme Court has too much power and needs reform, right now the right-of-center reform looks very much like the political party in control of the Knesset taking control of the Court. This has a lot of legal scholars worried about the future of democracy in Israel.

We also see this affecting private industry, because when private industry is worried about the erosion of democracy, they’re worried about the erosion of property rights and the economy writ large. This has devalued the shekel against the dollar by about ten percent since I’ve been here and is threatening foreign direct investment in the area. I’d also add that the population pyramid in Israel right now has a rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox community and a much slower growing secular community. In the next 50 to 100 years, the country’s population will look very different. The ultra-Orthodox typically study all the time, they don’t work, and they live on state subsidies. For a lot of people, this is a key issue in the current debates because it’s defining the future of this ultra-Orthodox population that’s growing and what that will look like both economically and for the military (because they’re not subject to military service).

MJ: I want to ask you about Israel as an international actor as well, and how that plays with these complex domestic debates. I wonder how the relationship with the United States and the relationship to the region has evolved—in your perception, where does Israel see itself?

GS: I think democracy does have something to do with Israel’s relations in the region, but what I hear more is that having diplomatic relations with Israel as the Abraham Accords established in 2020 is really good for access to the United States, specifically connection to U.S. diplomacy, aid, and advocacy on the international stage. Second, Israel’s tech sector is key to a lot of its relationships in the Middle East. Gulf states once relied on oil as the basis of their economies but are starting to diversify and they look to tech in Israel as the basis of a strategic trading partnership.

Economic ties don’t do it all—after the Second Intifada, Qatar broke its economic ties with Israel and now they don’t have close diplomatic relationships—but Israel importantly has a lot of biotech startups and some of the premier technology in desert agriculture and water desalinization. They’re able to work with other states to help them protect their own water reserves, which is valuable, as many countries in the Middle East will face massive water shortages in the next 50 years as freshwater lakes and underground reserves dry up. I think technology is important to Israel, and if the current reforms disrupt that, Israel will lose economic strength and perhaps will not be as strategic a partner for other states in the region.

MJ: Thank you. One last lighthearted question—what’s your favorite part of living in Israel? What do you like most about being there?

GS: A couple of things. From an academic perspective, it’s interesting to see everything I’ve researched playing out in society and in the streets. It’s just an interesting time to be in Israel. Last summer I did research funded by the Laila Foundation on Israeli education policy and how that contributes to a lot of divisions in society—I had only been in Israel for fourteen days prior to doing that research. I did all of it, gained this understanding of Israeli civil society, and now I have the opportunity to really dive in. That’s been very valuable to me, to understand what people are thinking, what it’s like living here, and the daily life in Israel. I’ve pushed myself out of the study abroad zone to engage with people in the community.

I’d also say that seeing a place where Jews freely live without fear of discrimination, without fear of violence or hate, is really impactful. Prior to coming to Israel I had never seen synagogues without security guards. In the United States, when people go to pray they’re always worried about a mass shooting or some sort of attack. While the U.S. news media portrays Israel as this violent place with a lot of conflict, day to day there’s not a lot of issues. When people go to pray—or you see people walking around who are very clearly Orthodox Jews—you don’t see that anywhere outside of certain areas of New York in the United States. It’s been really impactful to see a place where people can do that.

MJ: Thank you for your time!

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