Over 500 academic expats sign petition backing anti-overhaul protests

Petitioners warn of growing brain drain and loss of funding due to controversial legislative moves, says demonstrations justified due to government’s pursuit of ‘limitless power’

Protesters against the coalition's judicial overhaul legislation march in the central city of Rehovot on September 2, 2023, carrying signs reading: "There is no education without democracy" (right) and "A lesson in democracy." (Roby Yahav)
Protesters against the coalition's judicial overhaul legislation march in the central city of Rehovot on September 2, 2023, carrying signs reading: "There is no education without democracy" (right) and "A lesson in democracy." (Roby Yahav)

Over 500 Israeli academics working at universities around the world on Sunday signed a petition backing protests against the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary, warning that the upheaval around the issue will sap Israel of its brain power unless the legislation is halted.

The petition, signed by figures hailing from universities in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, expresses support for the ongoing protests “including strikes and disruption initiatives,” while labeling Israel’s independent judiciary a “vital safeguard against tyranny.”

“Israeli academic institutions are already experiencing a loss of funding and a ‘brain drain,’ due to the government’s assault on democracy and the politicization of research and education. These destructive processes will eventually lead to the decline of science and the higher education system in Israel,” it read.

The signatories said they are “appalled and alarmed by the grave crisis instigated by the Israeli government.”

“The government’s destructive conduct is scandalous, characterized by concealment and distortion of facts, verbal abuse, dangerous incitement, and disregard of experts’ opinions,” read the text, which is sponsored by the UnXeptable protest group made up of Israelis abroad and local allies. “Pursuing limitless power requires relentless, uncompromising acts of protest and resistance.”

As of publication, there were 552 signatories.

File: Students and teachers protest the government’s judicial overhaul plans with a banner saying “Without democracy, no academia” in Tel Aviv, on February 5, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Leaders of various scientific communities inside Israel have taken part in demonstrations against the judicial overhaul in recent months and have threatened to resign in protest, including members of the health tech community and the nuclear energy sector.

Israeli universities have encouraged staff and students to take part in demonstrations against the legislation.

In August, the heads of public research universities and members of the National Council for Civilian Research and Development warned of “destructive” consequences for the “future of scientific research” in the country due to the government’s judicial overhaul, in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Education Minister Yoav Kisch and Science Minister Ofir Akunis.

The academics cited “growing signs in the past months, and especially in the past weeks, that testify to destructive developments that could harm the scientific resilience of Israel.”

Among the signs are a “significant drop” in the number of leading Israeli scientists overseas willing to return for work, a reluctance by foreign scientists to attend conferences in the country, “explicit threats” to scrap research cooperation agreements, donors already having halted their funding to Israeli academia or having threatened to do so, a drop in research grants to Israeli scientists, and a “significant decrease” in research and development investment in Israeli tech.

With the branches of government set to see an unprecedented showdown as the High Court begins to hear petitions against the overhaul, protest organizers announced a march will take place September 7-9, beginning in the northern city of Safed and ending at Tel Hai. A second march will be held from four locations in the south, to Beersheba.

First up will be a hearing Thursday on petitions against Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who has seemingly decided not to convene the Judicial Selection Committee — which appoints new judges — until the coalition passes legislation giving it more control over the panel.

File: President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut and Supreme Court justices at the High Court in Jerusalem hear petitions against the so-called ‘Tiberias law,’ on July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Then on September 12, the High Court will begin hearing petitions against the first piece of judicial overhaul legislation passed, an Basic Law amendment that bars the judiciary from using the reasonableness standard to reverse government and ministerial decisions.

The hearing on the reasonableness legislation will be carried out with a full bench of all 15 justices for the first time in its history. The court has never struck down a Basic Law.

The coalition argued that the amendment was critical to restrain what it sees as an overly activist court interfering in government decisions, while opponents argued the reasonableness standard is a key tool for protecting certain rights and the independence of law enforcement officials.

Nullifying the quasi-constitutional Basic Law would be an unprecedented exercise of judicial review over the Knesset’s constituent authority. Netanyahu has refused to say whether his government would abide by such a ruling.

On September 28, the top court will hold a hearing on the coalition’s recusal, or incapacitation, law.

That legislation, an amendment to Basic Law: The Government, shields the prime minister from being removed from office by the High Court or the attorney general and was specifically passed to prevent such an order from being applied to the current premier, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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