Employees of legal civil service warn of potential strike

Hundreds of tech workers strike, block Tel Aviv road to protest judicial overhaul

Demonstrators against controversial plan warn of threat to foreign investments, impact on economy; NY-based investor in local startups says it supports action

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

Israeli tech company employees stage a one-hour protest in Tel Aviv against judicial overhaul, January 24, 2023 (Courtesy)
Israeli tech company employees stage a one-hour protest in Tel Aviv against judicial overhaul, January 24, 2023 (Courtesy)

Hundreds of workers in the tech sector held a one-hour warning strike on Tuesday, blocking roads in central Tel Aviv as they protested the government’s contentious plans to overhaul the judicial system.

Dozens of Israeli companies and organizations granted permission for their workers to attend demonstrations held around the country.

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

“Without democracy, there is no high tech. Even without ChatGPT, we know that you are wrong,” read some of the signs held by the striking workers, referencing the artificial intelligence tool. Others read: “No freedom, no high tech.”

“The High Court of Justice is protecting us all,” some demonstrators chanted.

Toward the end of the hour-long strike, demonstrators around Tel Aviv’s Sarona complex went onto busy Kaplan Street — the site of one of Saturday’s mass protests — where they briefly blocked traffic.

Tech workers block a street to protest judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on January 24, 2023 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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.

Over 100,000 people demonstrated against the overhaul in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, with thousands more at other demonstrations including in Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba.

“It’s not every day that we see high-tech men and women, and many more from the private sector, who pause their work to wave a warning flag together because our democracy is in danger. And if democracy is in danger, the economy is in danger,” said Yinon Costica, co-founder of Israeli cybersecurity firm Wiz, who spoke at the protest. “Our concern is the trust of foreign investors, foreign clients and foreign workers.”

“That same trust that was built with great labor can very easily fade away because of one very bad piece of legislation that overrides the courts,” Costica said.

Among the other companies that allowed employees to join the protest against the legislative changes advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin were Lemonade, Natural Intelligence, Wiz, Redis, HoneyBook and Forter.

The strike came as many Israeli companies, moneymakers, and business organizations have in recent weeks publicly voiced their concern that the judicial overhaul plan is poised to threaten democracy and harm the thriving local tech industry.

Many fear that a weakening of the judiciary system will mean foreign investors may shy away from funding companies in the country, and force businesses to leave and set up shop elsewhere.

As presented by Levin, the coalition’s proposals 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.

Levin has called the proposals “the first stage” of his planned overhaul; further changes would reportedly be enacted at a later stage.

Israeli workers stage a one-hour strike against in Tel Aviv against government’s judicial overhaul plan. (Courtesy)

“Ninety percent of the funds invested in [Israeli] high-tech comes from abroad and are at stake here,” Costica said. “Without these investments, high-tech will suffer a fatal blow and the tens of billions of shekels of tax money that funded the security, health, education and welfare of every citizen will evaporate.”

New York-based investment and private equity firm Insight Partners, which has become one of the largest investors in Israeli startups in recent years, sent a letter on Monday to its Israeli portfolio companies expressing its position regarding the “political unrest unfolding in Israel,” and support of “the high-tech ecosystem in Israel as they speak out in support of democracy, equality and equal opportunity.”

“We are grateful for the open dialog with our Israeli portfolio companies who have reached out to us to share their concerns,” Insight Partners wrote. “We uphold the principles of democracy, equality, and equal opportunity, and we denounce acts that seek to stifle personal freedoms or acts of hatred, violence, or discrimination.”

Two former Bank of Israel governors, Karnit Flug and Jacob Frenkel, said this week that the government’s plans for a sweeping overhaul of the country’s judiciary could negatively affect Israel’s credit rating and “deal a severe blow to the economy and its citizens.”

Channel 12 news reported Monday that Bank of Israel governor Amir Yaron is expected to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express his concerns about the possible impact, noting that the bank had sent the Finance Ministry a list of concerns raised by international ratings agencies.

‘Without democracy, there is no high tech. Even without ChatGPT, we know that you are wrong’ and ‘No freedom, no high-tech.’ Tech workers protest judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on January 24, 2023 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the head of the Association of Jurists Yitzhak Gordon sent a letter to Levin on Tuesday, warning that the changes to the status of government legal advisers which the government intends to enact will, in their current format, lead to strike action by employees of the legal civil service.

Part of the proposed overhaul of the legal system involves changing the position of government ministry legal adviser from a professional appointment under the aegis of the Justice Ministry to a political appointment by the serving minister.

The proposals will also change the legal adviser’s advice from binding to merely recommended, as well as other changes relating to the tenure and terms of government legal advisers and other legal staff.

“These changes are expected to do serious injury to public legal staff and to their rights, income, their jobs, their professional future, and their occupational security,” wrote Gordon.

He said these “dramatic changes” were being advanced “without good faith” and “in a manner that is not acceptable in labor relations in general and in public service work relations in particular, via unilateral, forceful and aggressive steps without conducting negotiations with the workers’ representatives,” added Gordon.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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