University chiefs warn judicial reform will spark global academic boycott

Top academics say coalition’s overhaul plans will cause ‘fatal damage’ to country’s education, urge informed public dialogue on proposals

Prof. Arie Zaban, chair of the Committee of University Heads and president of Bar-Ilan University. (Bar-Ilan University)
Prof. Arie Zaban, chair of the Committee of University Heads and president of Bar-Ilan University. (Bar-Ilan University)

In the latest appeal by top public officials against the new government’s planned overhaul of the justice system, heads of Israel’s universities warned Monday that the proposals will lead to “fatal damage” to the country’s educational institutions.

“This is liable to manifest itself as a brain drain, and in the fact that faculty members will hesitate to join our ranks; that students, research students, post-doctoral students, and international colleagues will not come to Israel; that our access to international research funds will be limited; that foreign industries will withdraw themselves from cooperating with Israeli academia; and we will be excluded from the international research and educational community,” the Committee of University Heads wrote.

The organization includes chiefs of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Bar-Ilan University, the Weizmann Institute, the Technion, Ariel University and the Open University (which holds observer status.) It is chaired by Prof. Arie Zaban, the president of Bar-Ilan.

The petitioners urged the government not to rush to make huge changes to the judicial system without a broad public discussion on the security, economic, and societal consequences of such alterations.

According to a Haaretz report Sunday, the coalition aims to pass the publicly unveiled phase of its package by early April.

“We call on the government and the Knesset to protect the basic values of the Declaration of Independence, in particular, to protect minority rights and the dignity of every human being,” the academics wrote.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and other justices at a hearing of the High Court of Justice on petitions against the appointment of Shas party leader Aryeh Deri as a minister due to his recent conviction for tax offenses, January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin has proposed restricting the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; giving the government complete control over the selection of judges; preventing the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allowing ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

According to the Haaretz report, additional as-yet unannounced plans include splitting the attorney general’s role, limiting the ability to petition against government actions, and major changes to the quasi-constitutional Basic Laws to reshape the balance of power between the Knesset and the High Court of Justice.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the overhaul will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost absolute power to the executive branch, and leaving minorities undefended.

Over 100,000 protesters rallied against the proposals in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, and thousands more demonstrated in towns across the country, including in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, Herzliya, and Modiin. Last week, thousands of students in more than a dozen university and college campuses around the country held a one-hour coordinated “strike” against the plans.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, January 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Reforming the court has been a major conservative goal for over a decade, with many on the right and among the ultra-Orthodox frustrated by what they see as an activist bench made up of progressives undermining the country’s elected right-wing majority.

On Monday, opposition leader Yair Lapid urged President Isaac Herzog to set up a commission to enact a “balanced” judicial reform, echoing the academic heads’ recommendation for a broader public discussion on the issue.

Herzog’s office later confirmed that the president spoke to Lapid regarding the issue, emphasizing the statesman was pursuing efforts to avert “a historic constitutional crisis” over the coalition’s proposals.

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