The Israeli Supreme Court

Page last updated 17 Oct 2015


Israel prides itself on having an independent judiciary and there is no doubt that, from time to time, the Israeli Supreme Court has delivered judgements at odds with the prevailing trends and dominant preferences of the ruling elite. Yet, on important issues, there is also no doubt that the Court has often chickened out and the issue remains: to what extent is the Supreme Court the guarantor of civil liberties and human rights in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, to what extent a fig-leaf for their effective suppression?

Its activist reputation dates from the 1990s and two decisions, in particular, when Justice Barak was head of the Court. In a landmark ruling, the Court found against the use of torture by the IDF. It also found in favour of the Ka’adan family, Palestinian Israelis, who had been prevented from building a house in the (Jewish) community of Katzir.

But from the start of the second intifada, the Court moved slowly into validating actions of the Israeli government that disempowered Palestinians, whether in the Occupied Territories or Israel proper.  Particularly egregious has been the Court’s upholding of a 2003 temporary law on family unification, in breach of Israel’s own Basic Laws. (This victimises Palestinian Israelis in particular, no longer able to bring in their spouses from outside Israel proper as they have traditionally done, thus depriving citizens of the right to a family life on the basis of their spouse’s ethnicity).

And an attempt by a number of Israeli citizens to have their nationality recognised as Israeli rather than as Arab or Jewish (or any one of the 130 other possibilities) has been turned down, most recently in 2012.


1. Judge Barak
Gideon Spiro, Yesh Gvul, Jan 2007

This piece was published  on the retirement of Supreme Court President Aharon Barak.

“As Aharon Barak’s retirement as Supreme Court President drew near, the farewell ceremonies have multiplied – and in all of them, he was showered with superlatives bordering on a personality cult… I listened and read all the superlatives, while pinching myself: is that the Aharon Barak I know? After all, my friends and I have been struggling all these years for human rights and democracy, and somehow – not only have we not found Barak on our side, but amazingly he was almost always facing us as an opponent. No doubt about it: Barak has succeeded in creating around him a ‘human-rights man’ aura even outside Israel. This is a huge propaganda feat, almost unparalleled in human history – considering that Barak is, to a large extent, the judicial designer, enabler and backer of the regime of human-rights abuses in the Occupied Territories.”


2. Israeli colonialism, plain and simple
Amira Hass, Ha’aretz, 11 May 2015

A biting critique by the formidable Amira Hass: “In two court decisions involving shoving Palestinians off their land, Supreme Court justices have confirmed what Israel’s critics are saying: that Israel has been a colonialist entity since 1948.”


3. Contradicting its own ruling, Israel’s Supreme Court legalizes segregated communities
By Amjad Iraqi, +972, 18 Sep 2014

In a major decision in 2000, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the town of Katzir, which was established on state land by the Jewish Agency, could not deny the right of the Arab Ka’adan family to live in the town simply on the basis that they were not Jewish. It was effectively reversed by Supreme Court decision in September 2014, when it recognised the legality of the law allowing admissions committees in 434 communities in the Negev and the Galilee (about 43 percent of all towns in Israel) to reject housing applicants based on their “social suitability” and the communities’ “social and cultural fabric”.

(Amjad Iraqi is Projects & International Advocacy Coordinator at Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.)


4. Image of High Court upholding human rights against Knesset is a sham
Amjad Iraqi, +972, JfJfP 7 May 2015

The government’s plan to curb the High Court’s authority distracts from the fact that on most of Israel’s discriminatory and anti-democratic laws and policies, the two institutions see eye to eye.


5. The racist reality behind Supreme Court’s brief moment of glory
By Jonathan Cook, MERIP, JfJfP 24 Feb 2012

The liberal high point of Israel’s Supreme Court rulings is contrasted with its recent deplorable rulings (such as giving Israel the right to quarry Palestinian land on the invented legal principle of ‘prolonged occupation’). And the limitations of those earlier ‘liberal’ judgments are also laid bare.


6. Court rules no such thing as Israeli nationality
A JfJfP consolidated posting, 4 Oct 2013

Articles by Tia Goldenberg, Associated Press, Ben White, MEMO and more:
Israel is a state with no national citizens. Rather, that state encompasses residents whose status and rights are measured according to ethnic group, religion, national origin. For over five years, Uzzi Ornan and his ‘I am an Israeli group’ have been pressing for Israelis to be legally acknowledged as Israeli citizens. In October 2013 Israel’s supreme court ruled – again – that having an Israeli nationality would threaten the Jewish nature of the state.


7. White Lie
Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom, 27 Feb 2010

Avnery is one of those who has been campaigning over decades now to be recognsied as Israeli nationals. But while the Israeli Interior Ministry recognizes 126 nations, Israeli is not among them. According to the official doctrine, the State of Israel cannot recognise an “Israeli” nation because it is the state of the “Jewish” nation….


Contents of this section


a) What kind of society?

Jewish and democratic?

b) Divisions among Israeli citizens

Ashkenazi and Mizrachi
The Russians
The Falashas

Palestinian citizens of Israel

c) The Israeli Supreme Court – champion of rights?

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