Issachar Rosen-Zvi

Tel Aviv University law professor discusses Israel’s future

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Tel Aviv University law professor discusses Israel’s future

Issachar Rosen-Zvi

Remember the pre-Oct. 7 protests in Israel? The ones against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempted judicial reform of the Supreme Court? Issachar Rosen-Zvi certainly remembers them. And even though his country is facing an external crisis against Hamas, the Tel Aviv University vice dean of the faculty of law doesn’t discount the domestic threat of judicial reform. That’s the takeaway from a talk he gave at Harvard University on May 15, titled “The Perilous State of Israeli Democracy and Pathways Forward.”

“The amazing thing that happened is that … Israeli society fought back,” Rosen-Zvi said. “That was an actual miracle, in a way.”

Although the talk focused on the protests, during the Q&A Rosen-Zvi addressed a different sort of demonstration – the pro-Palestinian protests at colleges and universities across the world, including the U.S. and Greater Boston. When he spoke at Harvard, after the Israeli independence day of Yom Ha’atzmaut, student protestors at Harvard had recently removed their encampment in Harvard Yard.

“I’m not sure what to make of it,” he told the Journal. “Is this antisemitic? Is this anti-Zionist? Is it just anti-government policies? Maybe there’s some of each – probably, that’s the right answer. I don’t know.”

Rosen-Zvi also discussed the war in the Gaza Strip that is about to enter its ninth month since the Hamas attacks that claimed around 1,200 lives with more than 250 others taken hostage. The ensuing conflict in Gaza has killed about 35,000 Palestinians, according to estimates.

The war “raises important legal and ethical questions for Israeli society,” Rosen-Zvi said. “What is our personal responsibility for the actions of a democratically elected government when it engages in reprehensible and unethical actions, supposedly on our behalf?”

“Let’s suppose they get rid of the government,” he said. “That means thinking about strengthening the Israeli democracy,” which to him means “end the occupation … the first thing we should do is that.”

Attendees got a crash course from Rosen-Zvi on how the Netanyahu government could fall – three ways, none of which were easily attainable – as well as on Israeli legal documents from the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948 to the controversial Nation-State Law of 2018, which codified Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Rosen-Zvi also gave a primer on judicial reform and the backlash it caused before Oct. 7 overshadowed everything.

Based in Tel Aviv, Rosen-Zvi vividly remembers the protests that engulfed his country over much of the previous year – indeed, he helped organize a protest group on his campus. Despite this seeming show of unity on the left, Rosen-Zvi saw fissures among the liberal Democrats, reflective of a broader fragmentation he discussed in Israeli society.

Before an audience of about 45 people, he divided Israeli society into four camps. On the left, there are liberal Jewish Israelis and there are Israeli Arabs, also known as Palestinian Israelis. On the right, there are the ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionists.

Netanyahu managed to unite both the ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionists when he won his most recent election in November 2022. He sought to pass judicial reform, which Rosen-Zvi said would have had disastrous consequences.

“On the one hand, they tried to capture the court by making political appointments,” Rosen-Zvi said, “and on the other hand make it really difficult for the Supreme Court to review legislation.”

He called it “essentially a constitutional coup.”

Rosen-Zvi views an independent 15-member Supreme Court as vital.

“What judicial reform tries to accomplish is not [trying] to create more balance between branches of government but [trying] to weaken the Supreme Court, the only check on government power,” he said.

“Over the years, there have been different attempts to reconcile and solve the Jewish-democratic character of the state,” he said. “One of the very well-known is a proposal by Prof. Aharon Barak … [to] interpret the Jewish component in a way that aligns with the democratic aspects. A Jewish and democratic state concept is not only political or ideological, it’s also legal.”

One questioner asked Rosen-Zvi about reports of one way disillusioned left-wing Israelis were dealing with their country’s problems – emigration. That is one path he rejected.

“Definitely, Israel can go the wrong way,” Rosen-Zvi said. “It can become an extreme far-right religious state none of us would want to live in.”

But, he said, “Right now, I am refusing, normatively speaking, to entertain this option, because emigrating is for cowards.” Θ

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