Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut on Thursday wrote a letter of complaint to opposition lawmaker MK David Amsalem, rejecting the “hatred” in remarks he made the night before when he suggested that the chief justice and her colleagues were racist against Mizrahi Jews.
It was an unusual response from a chief justice to a lawmaker, but not the first time that Hayut has pushed back against criticism of the court. In December she wrote a letter of warning that followed a similar outburst from Amsalem.
On Wednesday night Amsalem had raged in the Knesset plenum, after the Supreme Court earlier in the day rejected three petitions he had filed against the government relating to appointments and possible conflicts of interest.
“Instead of writing pointless nonsense that you yourself don’t understand, write ‘Mr. Amsalem, I can’t stand you, can’t stand either the Amsalems or the Machlufs, and I will not give you assistance as [the judicial system] is ours and you do not belong in our norms and our world,'” Amsalem said, citing Sephardic-sounding surnames of Jews who were expelled or immigrated from Arabic-speaking or Muslim countries following the establishment of the State of Israel.
Machluf is the middle name of Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, who has claimed his tax offense conviction was influenced by his heritage.
Amsalem said that Hayut was belittling all those whose names don’t end with “vitch,” a reference to Ashkenazi names, called the Supreme Court “corrupt” and suggested Hayut and others were drunk on arak, aniseed-flavored liquor, when they turned down his petitions, an accusation he has leveled at justices in the past.
In an open letter to the Likud lawmaker released on Thursday morning, Hayut wrote it was “with regret that I heard the defamatory words” against herself and her fellow judges, and noted it was not the first time Amsalem had attacked her.
“Nothing is further from the truth than to say that I can’t stand the Amsalems and Machlufs,” she wrote. “I wonder where this poison and hatred comes from that leads to you say such things about people that you don’t know at all.”
Hayut wrote that she had been born in a transit camp and raised in a community that included Jews of all backgrounds, with “many Amsalems and Machlufs” alongside “Moskovitches, Herschkovitzes and Ravitches.”
“As children, we played together in the neighborhood and studied together in class, and the friendship that grew between us as children lives and breathes to this day, because we chose human love and respect for others,” Hayut wrote.
“I certainly enjoy a shot of good arak sometimes with family and friends, but that has no connection to court rulings that I write and my colleagues write,” Hayut continued. “Those are written with a completely clear mind based on the law, to the best of our ability and legal knowledge — and only that.”
“I believe that from the place we have been privileged to reach, we — me and you — have a duty to do good, to contribute to unity in Israel and not to sow division and incitement. Think about that,” Hayut concluded.
In response, Amsalem said Hayut’s “nonsense” was making matters worse.
Speaking to the right-leaning Galey Israel radio station, Amsalem said he was surprised by the letter, as judges usually don’t respond to public officials, and suggested that Hayut was trying to cover her bias with claims of being acquainted with Jews of Eastern origins.
“Some of the racists I meet say to me ‘my daughter married an Eastern [Jew],'” Amsalem said, according to a Channel 12 news report of his interview.
Amsalem also challenged Hayut to a battle of wits, declaring “I am not less intelligent than you. I am prepared to sit with you [to discuss] any subject that you choose and you will understand with whom you are dealing.”
Referring to Hayut’s letter, Amsalem said, “I see pure evil here.”
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar weighed in, saying Amsalem was expressing the views of Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and that the comments were part of a continued attack on the justice system during the former prime minister’s corruption trial.
“The voice is Dudi but it’s the hand of Bibi,” Sa’ar tweeted, referring to Amsalem and Netanyahu by their respective nicknames. “MK Amsalem’s unceasing attacks on the Supreme Court, its justices and presidents are part of a systematic campaign to delegitimize all the legal institutions in the country, stemming from personal interest in the context of Netanyahu’s trial. The purpose of the attacks is to intimidate Israeli judges. I will not let them destroy the country!”
Netanyahu, however, came down on the side of the chief justice, phoning Hayut to reject and distance himself from Amsalem’s comments.
“I talked to Hayut, I made it clear that [Amsalem’s] words are not acceptable to me,” Netanyahu said.
In December, Hayut said in a missive to Israel’s judges that ongoing attacks on the justice system by politicians “should trouble all those who care about the independence of the judicial system.”
That letter came after Amsalem, known for his brash style, attacked Supreme Court Justice David Mintz for a ruling he issued on a petition Amsalem filed and suggested the jurist was drunk when he wrote it.