Out Loud

Court-ing a Better Israel

18 September 2013 By Daniel Sokatch

5774 is still very young year, but when it comes to the integrity and independence of Israel's judicial system, the year is off to a pretty good start. Two very different court victories on issues NIF cares about deeply made this new year not only sweet, but also just.

The year began with a bit of judicial poetry. Last week, an Israeli court rejected a libel suit brought by the organization Im Tirtzu against progressive activists who had started a Facebook page called "Im Tirtzu is a Fascist Organization."

Regular readers of this column will remember that Im Tirtzu was the extremist right wing organization that, in 2010, attacked NIF and other liberal Israeli organizations, an act that augured what our former board president Naomi Chazan called Israel's "democratic recession. You may recall the hideous posters and billboards, portraying Naomi with a horn on her head, and outrageously falsely accusing her – and all of us – of aiding Israel's enemies. Despite all this, we never tried to take Im Tirtzu to court. Rather, we fought them in the court of public opinion, and, simply relying on the facts, we exposed them for who they were: a particularly nasty Israeli version of ultra-nationalist chest-thumping common to many societies that feel themselves to be under siege. After failing to topple the New Israel Fund, these self-appointed guardians of Zionism turned their sights on Ben Gurion University of the Negev, which was accused of being insufficiently Zionist. And then, true to form, they decided to try to shut up and shut down those pesky activists with their online 'fascist' designation, who had attracted thousands of supporters.

That didn't go well for Im Tirtzu.

In his ruling, Judge Refael Yacobi made two major findings, both of which cheered the activists, institutions and organizations Im Tirtzu has targeted over the past several years. First, he decried Im Tirtzu's use of libel suits as a bullying tactic to avoid actual debate. Second, in the words of an editorial in Ha'aretz:

In the case of Im Tirtzu, the court determined that there is indeed a certain common denominator between the organization's positions and certain principles at the foundation of fascism. In fact, according to the ruling, the very filing of the suit shows some of the activities and principles of the organization, which under the guise of "strengthening the values of classic Zionism" conducts campaigns to silence criticism. A direct line connects the principles of Im Tirtzu to the filing of the suit to the court's conclusions.

That's right: the activists weren't libelous in their description of Im Tirtzu because they weren't wrong.

But that was only the first piece of good news coming out of Israeli courts over this High Holiday season.

Just yesterday, in a major and critically important decision, the High Court struck down the 2012 Anti-Infiltration law. The Court ruled unanimously that the law, under which those seeking political asylum and refugee status could be held in administrative detention for up to three years, was unconstitutional, at odds with Israel's Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. The Court gave the State 90 days to examine the cases of each of the 2000 or so men, women and children – the vast majority of whom come from Africa – and to release all those entitled to release under the Entry to Israel law.

This ruling was, in part, the result of intense advocacy and legal work by many leaders within Israel's civil society. We can all take pride that five NIF-backed NGOs worked together to bring this issue to the High Court: The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hotline for Migrant Workers, ASSAF, Workers' Hotline, and The African Refugee Development Center.

These victories demonstrate that Israel's independent judiciary is alive and well, despite the efforts of ultra-nationalists to trammel the courts and progressive civil society. And they show that the voices of the civil society sector that we support are strong, brave and, ultimately, heard.

But the struggle is far from over. In response to their devastating loss, an Im Tirtzu founder decried the courts as unfair, and under NIF control! More seriously – and far more worryingly – hard-liners in the Knesset have already vowed to resubmit "anti-infiltration" measures, as well as new bills to circumscribe the power of the High Court to review – and overturn – such legislation. So we have our work cut out for us. But for now, let's enjoy a sweet beginning to a new year. May it be a good, peaceful and just one for all of us, and for Israel.

Daniel Sokatch



About the Author

Daniel Sokatch

Daniel Sokatch

Daniel Sokatch is the Chief Executive Officer at the New Israel Fund. Read more about Daniel Sokatch...


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