'We are well familiar with dictatorship'

Judicial overhaul divides ex-Prisoners of Zion from former Soviet Union

Groups on both sides of the issue have published open letters making arguments grounded in their experiences behind the Iron Curtain

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Yosef Mendelevitch visiting St. Petersburg Airport, November 30, 2014. (Canaan Lidor)
File: Yosef Mendelevitch visiting St. Petersburg Airport, November 30, 2014. (Canaan Lidor)

The proposed judicial overhaul dividing Israeli society and the Jewish People is also splitting a small group of Israelis who are profoundly familiar with injustice: Zionist former political prisoners in the former Soviet Union.

Earlier this month, more than 120 former Prisoners of Zion, also known as refuseniks, and people who had fought to leave the Soviet Union for Israel, signed a petition supporting the overhaul. Proponents say it corrects the judiciary’s alleged overreach into the legislature’s authority while critics warn it would make the judiciary subservient to the government and seriously harm Israeli democracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday agreed to put the overhaul on hold for at least a month following mass protests.

On Tuesday, more than 50 people with those same credentials responded with their own petition, warning that the overhaul endangers democracy. Both groups grounded their opposing views in their experiences behind the Iron Curtain.

To the group opposed to the overhaul, it “effectively represents a state coup, paving the way for dictatorship in the State of Israel.”

They added: “We are well familiar with dictatorship and how it affects every citizen in all aspects of their lives. In the totalitarian USSR, some of us were tried, imprisoned, sent to labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for our efforts to realize our national and human rights.”

Among the cosignatories of that letter were Vladimir Lifshits, who had been imprisoned at a Soviet labor camp for over a year until 1987 for applying to immigrate to Israel several years earlier, and his wife Anna. Another is Naftali Prat, who in 1956 was sentenced to six years in prison for Zionist activities, which he spent in the Mordovia work camp.

Signatories of the pro-overhaul refuseniks letter included Yosef Mendelevitch, a participant in a daring attempt by 12 Zionists to hijack a plane in Riga and fly it to Israel. He was arrested in 1970 and released in 1981. Another cosignatory is Anatoly Goldfeld, who was sentenced to four years in jail in connection with the attempted hijacking.

“We remember well the anti-Zionist trials in the former Soviet Union against us and our comrades, and the statement repeated to us at the start of each trial: ‘Soviet courts are guided by Socialist judicial thought,'” the refuseniks supporting the overhaul wrote. “In other words, there’s a law, but the official ideology supersedes it.”

Yuli Edelstein, a prominent member of Likud and chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, is a former Prisoner of Zion. He arrived in Israel in 1987 after being held in a Soviet jail for over three years. A longtime advocate of judicial overhaul, he has nonetheless criticized the government’s actions in pursuing this goal.

Natan Sharansky, a political hawk who is the former chairman of the Jewish Agency and perhaps the best-known refusenik, signed neither petition. In a Times of Israel interview last month, Sharansky voiced reservations about the speed and manner in which the overhaul had been advanced, but also said that he believed an overhaul of the judiciary was necessary and that the government’s planned legislation would not make Israel a dictatorship.

When President Isaac Herzog unveiled his alternate framework two weeks ago, Sharansky wrote a blog post on ToI entitled, “President Herzog’s initiative is not perfect, but I support it.”

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