Ayelet Shaked's moral imperative

The new justice minister will promote what she sees as the overarching national interest, without worrying about trampling the rights of others.

Ayelet Shaked is sworn in as Justice Minister at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 14. (photo credit: JIM HOLLANDER / POOL / REUTERS)
Ayelet Shaked is sworn in as Justice Minister at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 14.
(photo credit: JIM HOLLANDER / POOL / REUTERS)
FOR COMMITTED Israeli democrats, the appointment of the feisty right-wing Bayit Yehudi’s Ayelet Shaked as justice minister was like a red rag to a bull. Their fear was of the elevation to a position of potentially game-changing influence of a mean-spirited nationalism that could rock the country’s democratic foundations and undermine its relations with the Western world.
In the battle over Israel’s character between universal Western values and narrow Jewish nationalism, Shaked’s nomination marks a significant victory for the latter. If the new Justice Minister has her way, the Supreme Court’s wings will be clipped and there will be less protection for minority opinion, ethnic minorities, asylum seekers and Palestinians under occupation.
Shaked’s rise is symptomatic of the prominence in Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth administration of political forces more committed to Jewish national power than to democratic values. Where for Israeli liberals the staunchly independent and apolitical Supreme Court has been an enlightened guarantor of human rights, for hawks like Shaked it has erred on the side of being too compassionate and not ruthlessly nationalistic enough.
Should the court’s powers be curbed and its composition radically altered by coopting the stream of nationalist-minded judges Shaked envisages, Israel’s democracy would be under threat. And that could seriously compromise its position in the world.
THE GOOD news for now is that with the coalition’s slim majority of just 61 in the 120-member Knesset, Shaked is unlikely to command the votes needed for far-reaching constitutional change. But that will not stop her and her supporters in Bayit Yehudi and the Likud itself from trying, or prevent them from working, to create conditions for future success.
The fight against the Supreme Court is a natural outgrowth of Bayit Yehudi’s fervently Judeo-centric nationalist ideology. It argues for a strong Jewish national and religious identity expressed through a primarily Jewish state; democratic institutions like the Supreme Court are at best secondary, at worst something of a foreign import.
In the party’s powerful settler wing there is a strong messianic current, which sees as necessary conditions for the coming of the Messiah a state with a core Jewish essence and sovereignty over all of biblical Israel.
Democracy and the Supreme Court are tolerable only to the extent that they serve the higher purpose.
In Netanyahu’s fourth administration, Bayit Yehudi has obtained ministries to promote its ideology: education to inculcate it, justice to alter the balance with the judiciary in favor of the executive and legislative branches; and agriculture, with the World Zionist Organization’s settlement department, to preempt any thought of a two-state solution and lay the groundwork for eventual annexation of most of the West Bank.
Shaked, 39, is not religious, but her secular ideology meshes perfectly with the settlers’ Jewish primacy. As a young woman, she was profoundly influenced by the Russian-born Jewish American author Ayn Rand’s “objectivism,” which promotes a morality of rational egoism. In this view, all individuals are morally bound to seek their own self-interest, with the inevitable success of the best and brightest, the prime movers, the Howard Roarks of “The Fountainhead,” holding society together and taking it forward.
In politics and for the economy, this means small government and unfettered capitalism.
Shaked, however, seems to have elevated the morality of rational self-interest to the national level, seeing a moral imperative in the nation unapologetically pursuing its own self-interest and aggrandizement, without worrying about trampling the rights of others. In other words, in Shaked’s view, denying rights to Palestinians or African asylum seekers is not immoral; on the contrary, it is a moral imperative in service of the rational, overarching national interest.
AT HER inauguration as Justice Minister in mid-May, Shaked, after a sop to the system, signaled her radical intentions. “The justice system is one of the foundation stones of our existence as a democratic society. I will not blunt its teeth,” she declared. “But at the same time I will see to it that those teeth don’t eat away at the lawful powers of the legislative and executive branches. We must find the formula for the right balance between the branches.”
As Justice Minister, Shaked will head the key ministerial committee on legislation, which processes government initiated bills. This will enable her to prioritize her own legislative agenda. For example, her proposed “override clause,” enabling the Knesset to reenact laws, struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, for four years.
Her override initiative came after another controversial bill she sponsored – to detain African asylum seekers in an open prison without trial – was ruled unconstitutional by the court. Now she will be able to act to reverse that ruling.
Shaked is also one of the sponsors of the proposed Basic Law: Israel, the Nation State of the Jewish People, which critics say places Israel’s Jewish character above its democracy and discriminates against its Arab citizens. Her name is also on a bill to curb foreign, mainly European, funding of left-leaning Israeli advocacy groups, seen as an attempt by government to restrict basic civil society freedoms.
One of the main thrusts of Shaked’s policy is likely to be an attempt to revise the composition of the panel for selecting judges, including those chosen to serve on the Supreme Court. At present the panel is made up of three Supreme Court Justices, two lawyers, two cabinet ministers and two Knesset Members, giving the legal representatives a five to four majority over the politicians. Moreover, as all potential appointees need at least seven votes, the Supreme Court Justices have built-in veto power.
Shaked wants to change the panel’s composition to three from the judiciary, three from the executive and three from the legislature, giving the politicians a clear six to three advantage with the aim of making like-minded political appointments to the bench. Right-wingers who favor the change argue that the nation’s elected representatives should have more say over the identities of the non-elected members of the court; critics retort that this would be to politicize an institution one of whose greatest strengths has been its fiercely independent and apolitical nature.
Shaked grew up in Tel Aviv’s affluent Bavli neighborhood, where she still lives today. Her Israeli-born Ashkenazi mother was a bible teacher on the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum. Her father, an accountant of Iraqi descent, is a committed Likudnik.
BORN AYELET Ben-Shaul in 1976, she says her political awakening came at the tender age of eight, when the late Likud leader and prime minister Yitzhak Shamir impressed her in a televised debate with Labor’s Shimon Peres, ahead of the July 1984 election.
The young Shaked took ballet classes, was active in the scouts’ movement and excelled at mathematics. At the prestigious Ironi Daled high school, she represented the Likud in mock elections.
In the IDF, as an instructor in the Golani infantry brigade, she got to know religious Zionist settlers and was influenced by their strong Greater Israel views. After serving in the divided city of Hebron, she became convinced that the Oslo process, then at its height, was leading nowhere and that peace with the Palestinians was unattainable. At Tel Aviv University, she studied computer science and electrical engineering, and after graduating worked for Texas Instruments in its Israel branch as a software engineer and later as a marketing manager.
She is married to Ophir, a fighter pilot in the reserves, with whom she has two young children. Her husband calls her “the computer” in reference to her methodical, clear-headed approach to problem solving.
When she speaks, despite a high-pitched flat delivery, people tend to listen as she invariably cuts to the chase. She says she tries to avoid allowing emotion to cloud her judgment and she dismisses references to her dark-haired, blue-eyed good looks as irrelevant.
Shaked’s first action on the national political scene was to go around Tel Aviv at night removing Ehud Barak and One Israel- Labor Party signs in the run-up to the 1999 election, which Barak won by a landslide.
Seven years later she went to work for the defeated candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition and with just 12 seats very much in the political wilderness. As bureau chief she was instrumental in hiring Naftali Bennett, a wealthy hi-tech entrepreneur with an American background, to head Netanyahu’s team of political advisers. Both left in early 2008, after a clash with the Netanyahus, especially Sara, for which they have never been forgiven.
In early 2010, Shaked and Bennett got together again to found “My Israel,” a right-wing extra-parliamentary advocacy group, to fight what they saw as defeatist “post-Zionist” manifestations in Israeli society and to promote a no-nonsense nationalist agenda. Their campaigning mainly through social media prevented Bank Leumi from selling a real estate subsidiary to Palestinian investors, shamed Israeli actors who refused to perform in the West Bank, published horrific photos of Fogel family members slaughtered in a terrorist attack, challenged the “left-wing bias” of Army Radio, and called for the mass expulsion of African asylum seekers, whom it described as a threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the state.
Shaked started out in national politics in the Likud when she was elected to the Central Committee in January 2012. But just six months later she resigned and announced her intention to seek a spot on the Bayit Yehudi Knesset list. As a trendy Tel Aviv secularist, she was pushed to the fore to help broaden the religious party’s popular appeal. In party primaries in November, she finished third, and took fifth spot on the joint Knesset list after Bayit Yehudi’s merger with the even more hawkish Tekumah.
In a stunning electoral performance in the January 2013 election, which included wide secular backing especially among the young, Bayit Yehudi, now led by the charismatic Bennett, shot up from three to twelve seats and, at 36, Shaked became one of a crop of promising new Knesset Members on both sides of the aisle.
Bennett immediately showed his respect for her talent by appointing her to chair the party’s Knesset faction. At her own initiative, the energetic Shaked also chaired a number of Knesset lobby groups – for the release of Jonathan Pollard, going into his 30th year in an American jail for spying for Israel; for the expulsion of “infiltrators” from Africa; for English-speaking immigrants; and for wider dissemination of Hebrew literature.
In mid-August 2013, after US Secretary of State John Kerry kick-started peace talks with the Palestinians on the basis, inter alia, of an Israeli commitment to free Palestinian terrorists, Shaked fired off a letter calling him a “hypocrite” for forcing Israel to release terrorists, which the US would never have done, and especially while persisting in refusing to free Pollard.
At around the same time, the Knesset’s TV channel named her the outstanding MK of the summer session. Shaked’s most important work that summer, which went well into the following spring, was as chair of the “Shaked Committee” on amending the military service law to incorporate Haredim and enable them to join the work force.
AS SOON as she finished work on the amendments (which have already been nullified by the new coalition agreements with the Haredi parties), Shaked moved on to the next big thing, setting up an office in the poor Shapira neighborhood in south Tel Aviv to hear public grievances against the African asylum seekers she sought to expel. She also played an active role in trying to undermine the Kerry mission before it collapsed, co-sponsoring legislation, which anchored in a basic law the need for a referendum on any peace deal that entails the ceding of territory.
Beyond her opposition to a peace deal, Shaked laid herself open to charges of racism when, in late June 2014, after the bullet- ridden bodies of kidnapped Israeli teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah were found, she posted an article seemingly accusing the entire Palestinian population of involvement in terrorism. “As relevant today as it was then,” she wrote of the 2002 article by the late settler leader and journalist Uri Elitzur, which referred to Palestinian children as “little snakes,” called for the destruction of Palestinian homes so that more snakes would not be raised in them, and suggested that the “mothers of the martyrs,” who encourage their sons “with flowers and kisses,” should follow them to hell.
The next day Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy from Shuafat in East Jerusalem was beaten and burned to death by Jewish extremists. Although it is unlikely that there was any direct connection, posting Elitzur’s rant undoubtedly contributed to the angry anti-Palestinian atmosphere following the murder of the Israeli teens – and brought a heap of irate criticism down on Shaked. Indeed, after her appointment as Justice Minister, a post appeared showing her in a Nazi uniform with a swastika on her arm and accusing her of promoting Palestinian genocide. As a result, she was immediately assigned a body guard detail.
Shaked admitted that posting the Elitzur article had been a mistake. Nevertheless, if her perceived anti-democratic, anti- Palestinian and anti-two-state agenda gains traction, the Netanyahu government could be on course for a major collision with the international community.
And if that happens, Shaked and Bennett are unlikely to back down. Another cornerstone of the Ayn Rand-Shaked philosophy is for individuals to stand up for their own, even if minority, views, no matter what the cost. In other words, it would be an immoral betrayal of the self for Shaked or Bennett to allow an isolated Israel to give in to pressure.
For Shaked standing up to the international community would be a moral duty; for Bennett and his settler followers a fulfilment of divine purpose. Bennett has already rationalized the prospect, insisting that with regard to technological innovation, the world needs Israel more than Israel needs the world.
That is a proposition Bennett, Shaked and Israel would be well advised not to put to the test.