75 Israeli Orthodox leaders call for dialogue on judicial overhaul

Though many signatories of open letter have deep ties to settler movement, most are part of the more liberal wing of the religious Zionist community

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Israelis wave flags during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023 (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israelis wave flags during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023 (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Dozens of Orthodox religious leaders on Tuesday called on all political parties to meet and consider President Isaac Herzog’s proposed compromise on judicial reform, warning in an open letter that the government’s current unilateral moves were threatening to cause a rift in Israeli society.

The letter was signed by 75 male and female Israeli religious leaders, who generally come from the more liberal end of the religious Zionist community, but included a number of prominent figures as well.

“We call on members of all factions of the parliament to immediately open dialogue in the spirit of President Herzog’s calls and to allow them to be seen through. This is in order to try to reach consensus, across political camps, for changes to the judicial system and to the balance of powers between branches of government, which will preserve the independence of the different branches,” they wrote.

The religious leaders said such changes were necessary in order to “restore balance” between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government and to strengthen Israelis’ faith in the government.

“Changes without as much broad agreement as possible are likely to fray the thread connecting different parts of the nation, causing a rift and a breakdown,” they wrote.

The signatories included the head of Tzohar Rabbi David Stav, the head of Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Alon Shvut settlement Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, prominent Jewish law expert Rabbanit Malka Puterkovsky, former education minister Rabbi Shai Piron, and dozens more.

The government is currently advancing legislation that would overhaul the legal system, significantly curbing the High Court of Justice’s power to exercise judicial review, giving the government an automatic majority on the judicial selection committee, allowing lawmakers to overrule court rulings with a bare majority, and allowing cabinet ministers to appoint their own legal advisers.

In response to the highly contentious proposals, tens of thousands of Israelis have begun to take part in weekly protests in cities across the country, leading economists have predicted severe financial repercussions if the measures go through, and foreign allies have warned against the overhaul.

The rabbis’ open letter referred to a five-point compromise proposed by Herzog on Sunday night, which included clearer legislation to formalize the status of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws and a reworked configuration of the Judicial Selection Committee that wouldn’t give total control to the government — as the coalition’s current proposal would — but would instead give greater representation to the different branches of government.

A majority of Israelis — 62 percent — support stopping or postponing the current legislative process, with half saying it should be halted entirely and the other half saying it should be delayed to allow debate. Just under a quarter, 24%, said it should continue as planned, and 14% said they didn’t know, according to a recent Channel 12 poll.

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