The Justice Ministry doesn’t usually garner much interest among Israelis. It is, after all, a mid-level prize, modest compared to more lucrative ministerial posts like Defense, Finance and Foreign Affairs. However the announcement last week that Ayelet Shaked of Habayit Hayehudi would be Israel’s new justice minister seems to have struck a raw nerve.
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Reactions to her appointment were extreme, to say the least. Many responded with shock and fear, voicing concerns that a right-wing extremist who in the past has entertained quasi-genocidal thoughts will now be in charge of Israel’s entire justice system. A great many others chose to rebuke Shaked for her looks, instead of her politics.
“Finally, we have a Justice Minister worthy of being featured on calendars in auto repair shops,” cracked former cabinet minister and Knesset member Joseph Paritsky on Facebook. In a later interview, Paritsky quipped that she was “as beautiful as the women of the Reich.”
Paritsky’s comments, sadly, were not the only ones referring to Shaked’s looks. A gossip item in Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot told of a visit Shaked and her husband made to a hotel pool during a family outing. “Unfortunately for the others holiday makers,” the item concluded, Shaked remained clothed.”
The sexist attacks on Shaked eventually led Meretz leader Zehava Galon and Meretz MK Michal Rozin to uncharacteristically rush to Shaked’s defense, forsaking for a short while their vehement criticism of her extremist ideology for a vehement defense of her as a woman.
“I am fed up with all of the sexist and misogynist comments regarding Ayelet Shaked,” wrote Galon in a hugely viral Facebook post that also described the incoming minister as an “intelligent and hard-working politician with nationalist anti-democratic views.|”
The problem is, in the great hullabaloo over Shaked’s sexist detractors, her “nationalist anti-democratic views” have been glossed over to a great extent. Because the sexist attacks regarding her looks have been so vile, the public debate has been hijacked by gender politics, and in the process, Shaked has been spared much of the criticism she rightly deserves.
Indeed, to many Israelis, the idea of Shaked as justice minister is downright frightening. And it has nothing to do with her looks. It’s got everything to do, however, with her unyielding extremism.
A rather obscure (but combative) right-wing activist up until a few years ago and the only secular woman in the otherwise religious Zionist party led by Naftali Bennett, Shaked has entered politics with the outspokenness and indignation of an activist. Among other things, she is one of the originators of the so-called “nation-state bill” that aims to turn Israel’s democratic values into unwanted subordinates of its Jewish identity. One of the major pieces of legislation she intends to promote as minister is her own so-called “NGO bill,” which limits the donations received by human rights groups and other left-wing organizations.
In July, Shaked made international headlines when she took to Facebook to share an inflammatory article by the late right-wing journalist Uri Elitzur that called for the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians “including the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses” — and referred to Palestinian children as “little snakes.”
To have a person who entertains, however briefly, thoughts of indiscriminate killing, that promotes Jewishness over democracy, thereby admitting the two are mutually exclusive, in charge of the Israeli judicial system? That’s a scary thought indeed.
But her extremism is not the only reason the prospect of her as justice minister is worrisome to many. It is also her distorted, dangerous views regarding the Israeli justice system, her repeated promises to act on those views and her new capacity as chair of the powerful and secretive Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which decides which bills are allowed onto the Knesset floor and is a perfect graveyard to bury unwanted bills. As chair of the committee, she won’t be able to make or break a bill on her own, but she’ll have enormous influence on the fate of legislation, and therefore on the actual functioning of Israeli democracy. What this means for gay rights legislation, some of which Shaked spoke against before, is anyone’s guess.
She also harbors an intense dislike of Israel’s judiciary, specifically the Supreme Court. Shaked has never hidden her views on the Israeli legal system, or her intention of curbing its power and independence. Shaked and her party leader, incoming Education Minister Naftali Bennet, have repeatedly said in the past that Israel’s judges are too powerful and too left-wing and have to be reined in. One of Shaked’s major pieces of legislation during the last Knesset term was a bill aimed at allowing the Knesset to override the Supreme Court and reenact laws that the court disqualified. As justice minister, she is expected to push for a reform that would change the process by which judges are selected and move as much of the decision-making as possible to the Knesset.
This Tuesday Shaked sounded a conciliatory tone, saying “we are proud of our Supreme Court. It is among the world’s leading high courts, and its justices are outstanding.” Between judicial activism and judicial restraint, Shaked said she prefers “the conservative approach.” That’s as incendiary as she got, but it’s hard to imagine her detractors, who fear she will turn out to be a zealous minister persecuting human rights and religious freedoms and irreparably politicizing the justice system to suit her (and the right wing’s) needs, will be appeased by this.
The real damage?
Of course, as extreme as Shaked is, her views regarding the Supreme Court and her plans for it are not very new, and little is likely to actually change in this respect any time soon. The right wing has been trying to erode the Supreme Court’s independence and reform the judge-selection process for its own purposes for many years now, and so far its success can been measured in small increments. Daniel Friedman, Ehud Olmert’s justice minister, shared many of Shaked’s views regarding the justice system, yet the judicial selection process hasn’t changed.
The truth is, it’s much harder to change the Israeli justice system than it may seem, and with designated Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon resisting many of the proposed changes to the Supreme Court, Shaked likely lacks the political muscle to force radical reforms.
What’s more, the truth is, Israel’s Supreme Court is not the bastion of left-wing elitism Shaked makes it out to be. The image of the interventionist, ultra-left Supreme Court is one of the most enduring myths of Israeli politics. In fact, it regularly rules in favor of the government on security matters, and is a great enabler of Jewish ethnocracy in Israel.
That doesn’t mean Shaked as justice minister is not a worrying prospect, or that she is not dangerous, just that she will most likely not lead a vast revolution of the Israeli justice system.
Most likely, like her predecessors, she’ll just bring the system closer to the extreme right by another small increment. That small increment, though, might be slightly bigger than the rest.