ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Hundreds of tech workers rally against judicial shakeup plans for 2nd week in a row

Protests held at 16 sites across country, including in Tel Aviv, where some demonstrators try to block traffic, clash with police; former Supreme Court head warns against plan

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

Israeli tech company employees stage protest in Tel Aviv against judicial overhaul, January 21, 2023 (Courtesy)
Israeli tech company employees stage protest in Tel Aviv against judicial overhaul, January 21, 2023 (Courtesy)

For a second consecutive week, hundreds of tech sector workers held a one-hour strike on Tuesday, marching in 16 locations including in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya and Haifa as they protested the government’s contentious plans to overhaul the judicial system.

Protesters gathered at various locations — the Sarona complex in Tel Aviv, a high-tech complex in Herzliya, the Airport City business park, and the University of Haifa — many of them carrying Israeli flags.

In addition to last week’s signs in Hebrew, which read “Without democracy, there is no high tech,” and “No freedom, no high tech,” protesters on Tuesday also held large signs in English reading “Save our startup nation” and “No balances – no checks.”

During the strike, demonstrators at Tel Aviv’s Sarona complex went into busy Kaplan Street, where they briefly tried to block traffic and clashed with police.

The planned overhaul has drawn intense criticism, even from longtime proponents of judicial reform, and has sparked weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, private companies and other bodies.

Israeli companies, moneymakers, and business organizations have been stepping up efforts to voice concern over the judicial overhaul plan, which they say threatens democracy and will harm the thriving local tech industry. Many fear that a weakening of the judiciary system will create uncertainty and reduce the likelihood that foreign investors will inject funds into companies here. This in turn could force local and international businesses to leave and set up shop elsewhere.

Wiz co-founder & CEO Assaf Rappaport (left) discusses judicial overhaul with former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch at Cybertech conference in Tel Aviv, January 31, 2023. (Gilad Kavalerchik/courtesy)

The legislative changes advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin would severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

As protesters from the tech community were holding the strike, former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch spoke at the Cybertech Global 2023 conference in Tel Aviv about what is at stake should the proposed judicial shakeup be realized.

“An independent judiciary – this is what we need in a democratic state and this is what we stand for,” Beinisch said in a podium discussion with Assaf Rappaport, CEO & co-founder of Israeli cybersecurity company Wiz.

“Although we share values with many democratic states, we developed the legal system differently. We don’t have a constitution, we don’t have institutions that will protect democracy but the Supreme Court,” Beinisch elaborated. “What is a democracy? Separation of powers, checks and balances, protecting human rights – and this is what the court stands for.”

Should the judicial changes be passed, Beinisch said, judges could feel they need to curry political favor in order to be promoted to a higher court.

“What objectives and values will they protect?” she exclaimed. “We are an apolitical court… the common values we share are pluralistic — and this is now in danger.”

Also speaking at the conference, Nadav Zafrir, co-founder and CEO of Israeli cybersecurity venture capital firm Team8, talked about the importance of Israel’s position as an “epicenter of global cyber innovation.”

“What do we need to do to make sure we remain that way? We need to choose to be on the right side of history. We can’t sit on the sidelines,” said Zafrir, a former commander of IDF intelligence Unit 8200. “We need a strong democracy with institutions that support predictability and stability.”

Zafrir added that Team8 shares the tech community’s concerns about the judicial overhaul and its possible implications for the economy and beyond.

“We need to remember that we didn’t build this incredible startup nation in isolation, but we built it together as a nation and it is rooted in our heritage, our culture, our military, our academia, and our business over decades,” he said. “We must find a way to continue to build it together and this is the time to stick together and quickly find a way to build a bridge for our economy and Israel’s future.”

Growing investor jitters over the judicial changes on Sunday pushed Israeli stock indices down by more than 2% and government bond prices dropped, while the shekel lost 2.9% of its value against the dollar in the last week of January.

“The year 2023 began with share price increases in Tel Aviv, similar to the trend on stock exchanges around the world, which lasted for about two weeks,” the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange wrote in its monthly report for January. “In the second half of January, against the background of the emerging reform in the legal system and the concern over its impact on the Israeli economy, there were declines in Tel Aviv shares accompanied by a weakening of the shekel against the dollar.”

TA-35 index of blue-chip companies rose by about 3.3% in the first half of the month, and then fell by about 4.3% during the second half. On a monthly basis, the index saw a decline of 1.1%, according to TASE data.

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