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Gafni: 'We need the High Court, but we need it to be weak'

Chief rabbi urges High Court override law: ‘Opportunity to amend law on who’s a Jew’

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef backs demand by ultra-Orthodox and far-right members of likely next coalition, says bill can be used to overcome top court’s rulings on Reform Judaism

File: Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the International Convention Center, on February 1, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
File: Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the International Convention Center, on February 1, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel said Saturday that Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospective incoming government must pass a bill allowing the Knesset to override High Court of Justice rulings, backing a demand by ultra-Orthodox parties and declaring Israel an “Orthodox state.”

The far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s bloc of supporters — which won a 64-member majority in the 120-seat Knesset in the election earlier this month, and is expected to form Israel’s most right-wing government ever — have been demanding that legislation be passed that would allow any 61 lawmakers to overrule decisions by the country’s top court, a demand critics warn could upend Israel’s democratic system of balance between the parliament, the executive and the judiciary.

Israel’s Haredi community leaders have long deplored some High Court rulings, such as those recognizing non-Orthodox Jewish streams and a ruling requiring the state to equally enlist ultra-Orthodox youth to the army — a non-starter for many parts of the community.

In a weekly Torah lesson at a Jerusalem synagogue, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said the so-called override bill was “an opportunity to amend the law on who is a Jew.”

“There was never such a government with 32 religious and ultra-Orthodox Knesset members. Maybe there is an opportunity to amend the law on who is a Jew? Don’t know if it’s possible to fix things. Now is the opportunity to make amends,” he said.

That was a reference to reported efforts by members of the likely next government to change the Law of Return, a landmark law that allows all Jews and people with a Jewish parent or grandparent to immigrate to Israel. The far-right Religious Zionism party and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties have demanded the removal of the “grandchild clause,” thereby limiting immigration only to people born to Jewish parents, or who have converted to Judaism.

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meets in Jerusalem with UTJ MK Moshe Gafni on November 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

Though not a new one, this proposal would mark a profound change to a rule that has been around for more than five decades, dramatically reducing immigration to Israel and potentially sparking a bitter fight with major international Jewish groups, like the Jewish Agency, that support the Law of Return in its current iteration.

It is seen as highly unlikely, though not impossible, that the demand will be realized as is.

Yosef, in his Saturday sermon, said, “This is an Orthodox state, not a Reform one,” accusing Reform Judaism of “causing assimilation abroad.”

“You have to [pass] the override clause to overcome these High Court rulings,” he said.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders, as well as many Israeli religious Zionist figures, do not view the Reform movement as an authentic form of Judaism and do not recognize Reform rabbis.

Yosef has a history of making provocative comments, including against Reform Judaism, women, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Black people.

In this handout photo, United Torah Judaism No. 2 Moshe Gafni (R) and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich meet at the Knesset, November 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

Also Saturday, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni reiterated his party’s stance that without a High Court override bill, Netanyahu’s prospective government won’t be formed.

Speaking at a party event, Gafni said the government would work to cancel the “decrees” issued by outgoing Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and former prime minister Naftali Bennett over the past year and a half.

In Haredi jargon, the word “decree” has the connotation of a draconian measure imposed on religious Jews by a hostile leadership.

Gafni added: “We need the High Court, but [we need it] to be weak.”

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