Israel’s Judicial Reforms Could Strengthen Religion’s Role in Public Life

Religious parties hold unprecedented power to pursue their agenda in Netanyahu’s coalition government.

About 100,000 people protested the reform last weekend amid a growing culture clash in Israel.

TEL AVIV—For three weekends now, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to weaken the Supreme Court, which would allow his conservative government to strengthen the role of religion in public life.

Banners across the city center on Saturday called for the end of Mr. Netanyahu’s carefully assembled coalition, the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history, over the planned overhaul. Some 100,000 people turned out, making it one of the biggest protests in years.

The judicial overhaul is a central issue for the veteran deal maker’s latest administration, his sixth since his first stint as premier in 1996, and would allow his conservative allies to pass laws they have long hoped to enact but have previously been struck down by the high court or would likely be challenged by it.

Among them are laws that would grant ultra-Orthodox Jews a legal exemption from Israel’s mandatory military draft, permit gender segregation in public spaces and discrimination against LGBT people, and provide religious leaders greater control over Jewish conversions and holy sites.

The result is a growing culture clash pitting metropolitan secularists and liberal Jews against the religious right, which has seen its political influence grow over the past decade. Religious conservatives control half of the coalition’s 64 seats, with the other half controlled by Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.

“The Supreme Court has been their enemy on issues of religion and state,” said Israel Cohen, a political commentator for the ultraorthodox radio station Kol Barama. “Israel is both Jewish and democratic. But to the group of traditional faithful” that makes up Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, “the Jewish part is more important,” he said.

Their cause dovetails with that of many on the Israeli right, even those who are secular, who believe the Supreme Court is controlled by left-wing justices despite the growing political power of the right.

Some current and former justice officials, including the current attorney general and Supreme Court chief justice, have joined the political opposition in saying the proposed judicial reforms could undermine the country’s limited system of checks and balances, in which the Supreme Court is the only completely independent branch of government.

Supporters of judicial reform say it isn’t being pushed to facilitate any specific legislation, but rather is meant to correct what they say is rampant judicial activism.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a red tie, has struck coalition agreements with ultraorthodox parties.

Uri Maklev, an ultraorthodox lawmaker in the United Torah Judaism party, said the ultraorthodox are joining the push for judicial reform because they feel the court has pursued an antireligious agenda.

“The court is supposed to protect minorities. But our minority wasn’t protected. It was the opposite: We were greatly harmed by it,” he said.

Coalition agreements with Mr. Netanyahu and statements by conservative lawmakers lay out an agenda that relies on overcoming previous or expected challenges by the Supreme Court.

For the ultraorthodox, a top political priority has long been to enshrine in law an exemption from the mandatory military service required of all Jewish Israelis.

Most ultra-Orthodox Israelis don’t serve in the military and instead study the Torah full time in religious seminaries and live off government subsidies as part of an unofficial agreement that has existed since Israel’s founding in 1948. Many in Israel say it is unfair that non-ultra-Orthodox citizens must carry both the security and economic burden for the country.

Since 1999, the Supreme Court has struck down all attempts to pass laws legalizing the exemption, on grounds that it would give unequal treatment to the community. Those decisions prompted some of the largest protests in Israel’s history.

The ultraorthodox have secured an agreement with Mr. Netanayhu to pass a law that would make Torah study a fundamental national value, putting it on par with military service and paving the way for a formal exemption. But ultraorthodox lawmakers worry that without the judicial overhaul and the ability to overrule the Supreme Court, another draft exemption law would likely not stand.

Coalition agreements with ultraorthodox parties also call for rolling back Supreme Court decisions that guaranteed certain rights to non-Orthodox Jews.

This includes decisions that the state recognize conversions to Judaism inside Israel that aren’t through official ultraorthodox channels. The agreements also call for the removal of the court-sanctioned right of other Jewish denominations, such as Reform and Conservative Jews, to pray according to their traditions, including without gender segregation, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and other holy sites.

Some fear that without the Supreme Court’s intervention, ultraorthodox parties will be able to monopolize the role Judaism plays in public life.

“When it comes to matters of religion and state, implementation of the judicial reforms…could actually overrule the rights of a majority of Israelis including those who identify as secular, traditional, liberal and modern Orthodox,” said Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz of the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank.

Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition agreements with religious conservative parties also call for amendments to Israel’s law that defines discrimination. The changes would stipulate that gender separation isn’t discrimination. This could pave the way for them to impose gender segregation on public buses or in gatherings in public spaces largely frequented by religious people, something the Supreme Court has ruled against in the past. These parties also hope to establish communities that only permit religious residents.

Religious political parties also want to make it legal for goods and services providers to discriminate against customers based on the basis of religious belief, according to coalition agreements. Conservative lawmakers advancing the legislation have said it could allow doctors to refuse treatment to LGBT people or permit hotel owners to refuse to host a gay couple.

In response to those remarks, Mr. Netanyahu said his administration wouldn’t allow “any discrimination of LGBTQ people or harm the rights of any other Israeli citizen.”

Minister of National Missions Orit Strock, a member of the Religious Zionism party, said the legislation was intended to allow religious people to live according to their values rather than to discriminate against others. She said the amendments were chosen specifically to counteract previous decisions by the Supreme Court or government legal advisers.

In an interview with Israel’s public broadcaster last month, Ms. Strock said: “I want to allow people to do what they want without the law telling them it’s discrimination.”

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