Public figures should ‘moderate discourse,’ judiciary says in rebuke to Ben Gvir

Judicial Authority implicitly criticizes national security minister for remarks attacking Arab judges; watchdog group calls for investigation into Ben Gvir for incitement to racism

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir makes a statement to the press in Ashdod, October 31, 2023. (Video screenshot, courtesy Otzma Yehudit)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir makes a statement to the press in Ashdod, October 31, 2023. (Video screenshot, courtesy Otzma Yehudit)

Israel’s Judicial Authority implicitly criticized far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir Tuesday for publicly criticizing judges by name over decisions they have issued in recent days.

In an unsigned statement issued by the authority spokesperson’s department, the judiciary insisted that all Israeli judges evaluate cases on their merits, and called on “senior public figures” to “moderate” the public discourse.

The Judicial Authority was likely referring to Ben Gvir, who has explicitly criticized two Arab judges by name over the past week for ordering the release of detained individuals suspected of incitement to terrorism.

On October 25, Ben Gvir criticized Judge Arafat Taha of the Nazareth District Court for releasing to house arrest actress Maisa Abd Elhadi, who posted comments on her social media pages allegedly praising the October 7 Hamas atrocities.

In a post to X (formerly Twitter), Ben Gvir quoted the judge’s ruling to release Abd Elhadi from detention, in which Taha said he was doubtful her posts amounted to a criminal offense, and said: “This is what domestic enemies look like.”

And on Monday, Ben Gvir criticized Judge Ihsan Kanaan of the Haifa District Court for releasing left-wing, pro-Palestinian activist Yoav Bar from detention after he was arrested on suspicion of behavior in a public space that could lead to a disturbance of the peace, after pro-Palestinian propaganda was found in his home by the police.

The High Court of Justice hears petitions against the government’s incapacitation law, September 28, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The judge released Bar from detention since the material had been found in his home and not on his person in public.

Ben Gvir said the decision was “unacceptable,” “a disgrace,” and again said of the judge: “This is what domestic enemies look like.”

Elhadi was subsequently indicted on charges of identifying with a terror organization and incitement to terror, amid a wide police crackdown on Israelis allegedly expressing support for the attacks online.

A decision on whether or not to indict Bar is yet to be made.

“In recent days, offensive statements have been published against judges for doing their job. The Israeli Judicial Authority views these statements very severely,” the statement put out by the spokesperson’s department of the Judicial Authority read.

The statement said such comments were especially concerning when made by “senior public figures, who, precisely at these times, should be expected to work to moderate the discourse,” likely in reference to Ben Gvir.

“Israeli judges rule in accordance with the law, the circumstances of the case, and the evidence placed before them, and will continue to do their work faithfully, without fear and without bias, in times of emergency as well as on normal days,” the statement concluded.

Ben Gvir quickly retorted on Tuesday, saying: “I suggest that the Judicial Authority concentrate on calling to order judges who demonstrate empathy for terrorism supporters, instead of trying to educate elected officials.”

In response to Ben Gvir’s comments that the judges were “domestic enemies,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) filed a request with Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, asking her to open an investigation into Ben Gvir on suspicion of incitement to racism and incitement to violence.

“Calling a judge a ‘domestic enemy’ due to a judicial decision is not a sincere and courteous criticism, but rather an unprecedented threat to a judge’s independence and ability to perform their duties by a minister in the government,” said ACRI in its letter to the attorney general.

In 2007, Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terror organization for holding signs at a protest reading “Expel the Arab enemy” and “Kahane was right,” a Jewish supremacist slogan referring to racist rabbi Meir Kahane.

On Tuesday evening, the State Attorney’s Office filed an appeal to the Nazareth District Court against the decision to release Abd Elhadi from detention.

Dozens of police investigations have been opened against Arab citizens into alleged incitement to terrorism and similar charges following the October 7 atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, and the State Attorney’s Office has indicted 40 people so far for such offenses.

ACRI has accused the State Attorney’s Office and the police of being overly zealous in their investigations into and indictments of people on charges of incitement and similar offenses, and accused them of failing to similarly clamp down on incitement against Arab citizens.

The State Attorney’s Office rejected these allegations.

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