• Moderator
    Ms. Dana Weiss
    Journalist and Presenter
  • Panelist
    Prof. Aharon Barak
    former President of the Israeli Supreme Court
  • Panelist
    Prof. Amnon Rubinstein
    Recipient of the Israel Prize for Law

The Strength of the Israeli Democracy

This panel hosted two of Israel’s greatest legal minds. Professor Aharon Barak, who served as Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court from 1995 to 2006 and issued some of the country’s most enduring rulings and precedents. Professor Amnon Rubinstein, a legal scholar and lawmaker, served in key ministerial positions in four governments and was awarded the Israel Prize.

Dana Weiss, one of the country’s leading journalists and a lawyer by profession,led a candid conversation with the two men about preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.

Weiss began by asking them to comment on the recent funeral of Rabbi OvadiaYosef, in which some 800,000 mourners from all over the country attended what became the largest funeral in Israeli history. Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel’s Sephardi community, was well known for the judgments he made based on Jewish law, and was also a frequent critic of the Supreme Court.

“There is a dual legacy for the Rabbi,” Professor Rubinstein said. “On one hand, there were liberal judgments. On the other there were regrettable statements, which I hope will be forgotten. The fact that there is a large swath of the ultra-Orthodox community which does not accept the principles (of the country) is nothing new. There’s also a large and growing part of the public that does not accept the principles of a Jewish and democratic state, and we have to admit that.”

Weiss took her next question from a recent Israeli poll showing that 32 percent of Jews surveyed preferred the concept of a Jewish state over a democratic one, 22 percent preferred a democratic state, and 37 percent would choose the two together.

“Our job as judges,”Professor Barak replied, “is to define Jewish and define democracy in a way that they could co-exist in peace. They can be defined in a way in which they do not conflict.” Furthermore, Barak said, “Many lawyers look for the conflict and not the common ground.But judges should try to find the synthesis and harmony.”

“We need to fight for it (keeping Israel Jewish and democratic),” said Barak, “and we need to articulate why it’s so important. We’re like other democracies in England, France and the U.S., but we’re also a Jewish state and that’s why people are here. I could live somewhere else but I live here because I am a Jew. I can be a Jew and be democratic without being conflicted. Although the trend might not be headed in that direction, we need to fight and not give up on it.”

Rubinstein also noted that the majority of Israelis want democracy—which has been part of the Jewish state since Herzl first envisioned it—to remain an integral part of Israel.

Barak went even further.“Democracy is not just elections. It’s also human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers and independent judiciary. A Jewish state is not just Jewish heritage. It’s also Zionist heritage. Israel’s values are also those of Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky, Spinoza and others.”

Rubinstein expanded on the imperative to secure equality for all citizens. “The State of Israel needs to be a state where non-Jews will feel equal both to Jews and to other countries. Why did the Zionist movement come into existence? For this precise reason! When Jews did not enjoy equal rights but only partial equality, we all saw what happened.”