Supreme Court President Hayut denies Amsalem's racism claims

In a rare move, Israel's Supreme Court President Esther Hayut responded to Likud MK David Amsalem's insinuation that the court is racist.

SUPREME COURT Chief Justice Ester Hayut presides over a hearing in Jerusalem in May. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
SUPREME COURT Chief Justice Ester Hayut presides over a hearing in Jerusalem in May.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In a rare public response to a politician, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut rejected accusations by Likud MK David Amsalem of discrimination against Sephardim in top court appointments.

Leading into next week’s appointment of four new Supreme Court justices, Amsalem insinuated to the Knesset plenum on Wednesday that Hayut racially discriminates against Israelis coming from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds.

None of the justices expected to be appointed next week come from Sephardi backgrounds, but most of the negotiations over the candidates revolved around right-wing versus left-wing issues, having a private sector appointment, having an Israeli-Arab appointment, and equal opportunity for women.

With Khaled Kabuv, Ruth Ronen, Gila Kanfei-Steinitz and Yechiel Kasher all slated to be appointed, the new group will check many of those boxes, but did not address the Sephardi diversity issue.

That said, the Supreme Court has had ethnically Sephardi justices, as do other court levels.

Amsalem seemingly called on Hayut to be more transparent with her feelings towards him: “What is Justice Hayut on?” he said. “Instead of writing nonsense [in her judicial opinions], why don’t you write ‘Mr. Amsalem, I can’t stand you: not the Amsalems and not the Machlufs,” a reference to Shas head Arye Deri.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Hayut wrote in a letter on Thursday. “I wonder where this intense hatred comes from that brings you to say such harsh things.”

It is rare for a Supreme Court justice to address a public official, especially in such a sharp manner.

“I heard yesterday the words that he said from the Knesset plenum, directed toward me and my colleagues, and not for the first time,” Hayut wrote. “I grew up in a ma’abara (transit camp for new immigrants), where there were many Amsalems, Machlufs, Bittans right next to Moskovitchs and Hershkovitzs,” she wrote.

Amsalem was quick to respond to Hayut’s letter, telling Galei Israel Radio: “Don’t forget that a committee of politicians elected you; I was elected by the people.”

“It may be Dudi [David Amsalem] speaking the words, but it’s Bibi who is talking,” tweeted Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. “Amsalem’s relentless attacks on the Supreme Court and its judges are simply part of a systematic plan to delegitimize all the lawful institutions in the State. This is all coming from a personal vested interest, and it’s all about Netanyahu’s trial. The objective of these attacks is to vilify Israel’s judges. I will not let them ruin the state!”

Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu did not take Amsalem’s side: “I spoke with Hayut and told her that Amsalem’s comments are not acceptable, do not reflect my opinion, were said without my knowledge. In a democracy, all public institutions are subject to criticism, but the criticism needs to be relevant and address the institution, not the person representing it.”

The new appointments are expected to go through next week after several months of delay, after Hayut, Sa’ar and the Israel Bar Association had agreed on three of four candidates but failed to agree on the fourth.

Adding Kasher onto the list appears to have solved the problem, as he is acceptable to both Sa’ar and Hayut but also checks the Bar Association box for a private-sector lawyer on the court, after multiple former justices with private sector backgrounds retired.

The anticipated deal also comes after the Bar Association succeeded in getting one of its preferred candidates, Gali Baharav-Miara, appointed last week as the country’s new attorney-general.

“Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote words this morning that come from the heart and penetrate straight to it,” tweeted Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai. “This is so lacking in our public discourse.”

“I apologize to Supreme Court President Hayut that she had to write this letter,” said Labor MK Gilad Kariv. “This is because we MKs failed to stand as a protective wall against the most racist one in the plenum, someone who poisons public discourse every day when he goes up to speak.”