reedlangen4_Amir LevyGetty Images_israelprotests Amir Levy/Getty Images

Law’s Struggle for Dignity

In the massive protests sweeping Israel this year, the pioneer of the Supreme Court's authority to strike down legislation has become a focus of attention, underscoring what is at stake in Western democracies more broadly. If populist autocrats succeed in reducing democracy to majority rule, the first victim will be human dignity.

LONDON – One telling development in the popular demonstrations against the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms has been the concentration of protesters on a small side street in Tel Aviv. Here one finds the home of the Israeli Supreme Court’s former president, Aharon Barak, now a target of both praise and obloquy, depending on one’s political allegiances.

Judges are not supposed to be a direct source of political controversy, whether they handed down their most recent decision yesterday or, as in Barak’s case, almost two decades ago. They are supposed to be dispassionate and independent. But democracies in the twenty-first century are dispensing with this ideal, owing not to the conduct of judges, but to emerging autocratic populism, with governments lashing out at any institution that seeks to hold them to account.

In Israel and other democracies, the judiciary has been one of the primary checks against abuses of government power. That is why Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu focused his government’s attention on courts when he returned to power in late 2022. In draft legislation that has since been put on hold, his new government – an alliance between his Likud party and the fascistic Jewish Power party – seeks to curtail the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review, and to exercise greater political control over judicial appointments.