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Monday, July 24, 2023

Missing From the American Coverage of the Israeli Judicial Reform Controversy

The headlines from the New York Times today put the matter succinctly: "Israeli Parliament Passes Contentious Law Limiting Judiciary." "Protest Movement Spurred by Legislation Vows to Fight On." The U.S. coverage of the controversy is entirely Israel-centered, understandably enough, with some discussion of how the controversy is affecting U.S.-Israeli relations. The overall bent of the coverage in the kinds of mainstream, politically liberal legacy press I read for my basic news is critical of the changes and of the Netanyahu government, and describes the battle as one in which "Israel's identity hangs in [the balance]."

What surprises me about all this coverage is how much the story has been treated as purely unique and internal to Israel, except in the sense of its impact on US-Israeli relations, and how little, if any, of the coverage has treated it as relevant for American debates over Supreme Court reform. One may remember that that issue was important enough to some constituencies in the 2020 election that it forced then-candidate and later President Biden to provide the official, time-honored sop of a blue-ribbon commission in order to quiet them down; that the issue certainly did not die down after Dobbs; and that it continues to fuel interesting proposals from important, albeit non-influential, corners of the party. Although the Supreme Court ethics movement and related coverage strikes me as more purely and immediately strategic, targeted, and partisan (which is not to say there's no "there" there; just that whether there is or not is not really the point for many newly enthusiastic groups and individuals), it is of course tied to the longer and larger debate. So you would think there would be a lot more connecting of the dots when an entire country is currently convulsed by actual legislative movement in the direction of judicial reform. (I use "reform" for convenience, setting aside debates over the best term to use.) 

I would think that such coverage and commentary would be interesting in part because it could fuel self-subversive thinking and realignment, pushing reporters and editors out of their customary schemas. One could imagine a story taking a positive angle on the Netanyahu government's success (on the assumption, obviously true, that most mainstream news reporting in the major papers has an angle), on the view that it shows that it is possible for government to succeed in altering the balance of power between the judicial and political departments. Or one could imagine a story taking a more wary or negative view of the Israeli protesters, either because they are interfering with what in the U.S. would be (for some) a cherished goal, or because they demonstrate how many levers those who resist such reforms might push, including some that might offer legitimate cause for concern or criticism. (Given longstanding discussions of the relative partisan skew of the membership of our armed forces, one might think that the threat of Israeli military reservists to stop serving if the Israeli judicial reforms passed would be of special concern here.)

But one doesn't have to imagine any particular angle or story to think the Israeli experience might simply provide interesting food for thought in the context of stories about American Supreme Court reform. Coverage of Supreme Court reform here, when it discusses public opinion, tends to do so at a crude level, asking whether a majority supports some reform or other but not talking much about the intensity of support or opposition or distinguishing much between bare and overwhelming majorities. In the case of Israel, President Biden has urged that for "significant changes" of the sort represented by the Israeli reforms, it is "essential" for the government to achieve "the broadest possible consensus" before moving forward. Surely that view is relevant to the ongoing American debate, and can be the subject of agreement, disagreement, and analysis in the context of American Supreme Court reform. (That view, I should add, seems consistent with the relatively hands-off, low-priority approach Biden has taken to the issue domestically.) If Congress had a majority favoring some arguably constitutionally permissible change to the structure of the Supreme Court and its relation to the political branches, and if, say, 56 percent of the public favored such a change, would it be proper, or precipitate, to go ahead with it? If American soldiers, reservists, or government employees threatened to resign en masse if the change were passed, would that sort of pressure be legitimate or illegitimate, praiseworthy or blameworthy?

I don't, of course, mean to suggest that the Israeli experience maps on to the United States experience with any exactitude. Nor do I mean to suggest there has been no such coverage. That can't possibly be the case. But if it had been even mildly present in the standard mainstream American coverage of developments in Israel, which has been voluminous, it would have been much easier to spot--and I cannot spot it, at least in the major papers and even in their opinion sections. It's a missed opportunity for interesting perspectives on and coverage of both the American and Israeli debates over the judiciary. It's also a rather bizarre absence, even if one takes into account the siloing of domestic and foreign coverage in American newspapers.     

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 24, 2023 at 12:05 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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