In manifesto, minister says a more Jewish Israel will be more democratic

Top justice official Ayelet Shaked supports making Jewish character ‘concrete’ in law rather than ‘symbolic,’ calls ‘overabundance’ of laws a danger to individual freedoms, and claims regulation is stifling the economy

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks during a swearing-in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on August 9, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks during a swearing-in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on August 9, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the world according to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the State of Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities are mutually reinforcing rather than irreconcilable, and overall, not very different from one another.

In her view, legislation-happy Knesset members pose a “danger” to individual freedoms, excessive government regulation is stifling businesses and hurting economic growth, and the roles of the judiciary and legislature must be delineated anew.

Shaked this week outlined her legal worldview in a nearly 20-page treatise in the new HaShiloach periodical (Hebrew), urging Israel to enshrine its Jewish character into law — a shift from the “symbolic” to the “concrete” — while arguing that such a move would only strengthen Israel’s democracy.

The document, in which Shaked spelled out her positions and reasoning at length — a rare occurrence for any Israeli lawmaker — immediately drew harsh rebuke from other lawmakers, who accused her of seeking to weaken the country’s democratic character.

She wrote: “Precisely as we want Israel to undergo processes of advanced democratization, it is our obligation to deepen its Jewish identity in turn. These identities certainly do not conflict. On the contrary: I believe they strengthen one another. I believe we will be a more democratic state the more we are a Jewish state, and we will be a more Jewish state the more democratic we become.”

In the document, she railed against an overabundance of legislation by Knesset members, calling the pattern of seeking government solutions to numerous social and economic challenges “dangerous” to individual freedoms. The Jewish Home lawmaker also maintained that Israeli businesses and free market are “stifled” by excessive regulation and what she described as unreasonable legal restrictions.

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and MK Ayelet Shaked attend a plenum session in the Knesset on March 12, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)
Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and MK Ayelet Shaked, right, attend a plenum session in the Knesset on March 12, 2014. (Flash90)

In the article, Shaked attacked the definition of a Jewish state as posited by former Supreme Court justice Aharon Barak, who said “its meaning should have a high level of abstraction, so that it will unify citizens and find the common ground between them.”

Barak’s definition, argued Shaked, has made the concept of a Jewish state “almost entirely symbolic,” as well as “flat and almost meaningless.”

Israel’s dual identities have long — and erroneously — been seen as dueling, wrote the sole secular member of her Jewish Home party.

“I am unwilling to accept that I must stand by one of the elements [Jewish or democratic] while coming out against the other. Moreover, I am unwilling to accept the view that the two traditions are so different,” the justice minister wrote.

Rather than an abstraction, Shaked insisted, the Jewish character of Israel should be enshrined in law with “concrete implications.” While it was not immediately clear what implications she was referring to, Shaked also alluded to the controversial “Jewish statehood” bill, which was shelved in the last government and which sought to enshrine Israel’s Jewish character in its Basic Laws while recognizing Hebrew as Israel’s official language. It also sought to recognize the Jewish calendar and holidays, make Israel-Diaspora ties a matter of law and anchor the Law of Return.

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni on November 16, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni on November 16, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Obviously such a change raises complicated questions,” Shaked continued. “When the concept ‘a Jewish state’ stops being a symbol and is given real meaning, who is liable to be harmed by this? Will the balance be compromised? Will we emerge unscathed?”

Shaked’s predecessor in the Justice Ministry, Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni, on Wednesday lashed out at the column.

“The government, including Ayelet Shaked, view democracy as a technical matter of majority rule,” Livni told Army Radio. The prime minister refused to add the word “equality” in the Jewish statehood bill, she noted.

“Those who want to erode democracy want to get us used to the idea that where there is a point of conflict between Judaism and democracy, Judaism will be chosen at the expense of human rights.”

Also from the opposition, Meretz MK Michal Rozin charged on Wednesday that the “Judaism that Shaked is referring to is in fact nationalism.”

“The Jewish vision of the Jewish Home party is nationalism based on Jewish law. Strengthening the Jewish component, in her view, is discrimination and deporting the stranger (the infiltrator law) and occupation of lands,” she wrote in a statement.

Meanwhile, Likud MK Micky Zohar criticized Shaked for several months ago nixing his Shabbat bill, which would have shuttered businesses on Saturdays.

Shaked on Thursday brushed off the criticism by Livni, telling Army Radio it was evident the former justice minister didn’t read the article. Moreover, she argued that her article was entirely divorced from matters of religion-state, and insisted there was no conflict between a “Jewish statehood” bill and equality for all of Israel’s citizens.

“It is not at all about matters of religion and state. It’s about Judaism as nationhood,” she said. “I think Israel must be the nation-state of the Jewish people and certainly must give full rights to everyone who lives here.”

Too much legislation?

Shaked also addressed her role as the head of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the high-level panel that evaluates all bills ahead of a Knesset vote. In the past 15 months, Shaked said she has been handed 1,500 pieces of legislation. By way of comparison, Shaked noted that between 1955 and 1959, the Knesset passed just 13 laws; between 2009 and 2013, it passed over 500.

“Legislation in Israel has reached dangerous levels. The freedom of Israeli citizens is deeply harmed by this competition between Knesset members, from the excessive intervention in their lives,” she wrote.

Lawmakers rush to endorse bills they hadn’t even read, simply to get headlines, she asserted, and underlying all the proposals is “the assumption that all solutions are always found in the state and its clerks, and never by the individual or his free initiative.”

Every law that passes is in some sense “a vote of no-confidence” in the individual and the community’s ability to govern itself and impinges on freedom, she argued.

Dr. Tomer Persico, a scholar in the field of contemporary spiritual culture, took issue with this assessment of legislation, calling it in a Facebook post “an overgeneralization and very simplistic” view.

“It’s obvious to us all that we cannot, as individuals and communities, manage every matter on our own. For example, someone must establish how long maternity leave is, what the standard for edible foods should be, whether a large ammonia tank should or should not be located in Haifa, and whether there will or won’t be a public broadcaster. These things must be legislated.”

“The same statement becomes puzzling when juxtaposed with the latter part of the article, in which Shaked fully endorses enacting the Jewish statehood law,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the Knesset on September 2, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the Knesset on September 2, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Inthe article, the justice minister painted a dark portrait of a “parallel world” in which the laws she called “bizarre” were approved.

“When I look at the bills that come to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation I discover that without our applying firm brakes week after week, the bills would create a new world, parallel to ours. In this parallel world, the government would control citizens by regulating more and more economic matters, while individuals would have very little freedom to conduct themselves and their businesses,” she wrote.

By way of example of some of the bills nixed by the committee, Shaked said: “It would be a world that punished hotels, not through market forces, for not having WiFi internet,” and “it would be a world in which the state would enshrine the rights to housing in constitutional law, even though it could not respect that right.”

“It would be a world offering pension packages that we have no way of implementing without imposing immense taxes to fund them, and one that does not understand that the nearly childish intervention in the free economy would burn it to the ground,” she added.

The justice minister also decried “unnecessary” government regulation of businesses, which she said was “stifling them and as a result placing the state’s [economic] growth in grave danger.”

She further maintained that there were too many restrictions on Israeli employers. “The number of criminal offenses an employer in Israel is liable to be convicted of in connection to his business dealings is above one thousand,” she wrote. “The situation is intolerable… it is chasing away good people from holding jobs in corporations. We must put an end to it.”

Israel's Supreme Court justices on April 17, 2016. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israel’s Supreme Court justices on April 17, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A longstanding critic of the High Court of Justice’s involvement in torpedoing new laws passed by the Knesset, Shaked reaffirmed her commitment to formulate a Basic Law that would strip the state’s top legal body of that authority. Critics have long argued that such a move would compromise Israel’s rule of law.

Such a law would put an end to the “absurd situation in which the government and Knesset are surprised, time and again, by the legal stop sign restricting their activities,” she wrote.

“So I hope” it will cease, she continued, “when this law goes into effect.”

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