In a rare move, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut sent a letter on Thursday to Likud MK David Amsalem rejecting his claims that she and her fellow justices discriminate against Sephardim.
It was rare since court presidents rarely weigh in on political issues or respond to politicians, no matter how extreme their comments are. Hayut broke with that tradition and it is understandable.
What Amsalem has done is an embarrassment to the Likud Party that he is a member of, to the right-wing camp he claims to be part of and even to his party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu who felt the need to put out a statement denouncing Amsalem’s comments.
Hayut’s letter came after Amsalem spoke from the Knesset on Wednesday and called on her to be more transparent. “What is Justice Hayut on?” he asked. “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 her Thursday letter. “I wonder where this intense hatred comes from that brings you to say such harsh things.”
“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 continued. “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.
This is not the first time that Amsalem has attacked the court. A few weeks ago, he said that Supreme Court Justice David Mintz was a drunk, after he rejected a petition Amsalem had filed regarding the appointment of a permanent CEO at Israel Aerospace Industries.
Amsalem’s rhetoric is undoubtedly vile. He speaks this way because it serves two purposes. Firstly, it gains him publicity and fame. The media interviews him and give him coverage and airtime. In addition, it makes him popular among the rank and file of his party.
And that is sad. It’s sad because it says something about the state of media in Israel. Amsalem has become a star. He recently appeared on the popular show Master Chef VIP and even took home the top prize. He is frequently interviewed on TV and in the print media. Even Haaretz recently wrote about him in glowing terms.
Head of the Israeli Bar Association Avi Himi told Kan radio that Amsalem should be ashamed for his derogatory speech against Hayut.
“I am also a Machluf,” Himi said referring to his Sephardic ethnicity and childhood in Kiryat Shmona. “I completely support bridging gaps in the periphery but this is shameful.”
In a democracy like Israel, Amsalem has the right to speak the way he wants but the public does not need to accept it. What he fails to realize is that it is exactly people like Esther Hayut and her fellow Supreme Court justices who protect that right and ensure that he can say what he wants even when it against them.
What Amsalem’s voters need to ask themselves is whether this is the kind or representative they want to have in the Knesset. Is this the face of conservative politics in Israel today?
It definitely doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of MKs in the coalition and the opposition who are no less right-wing than Amsalem (and unlike him have real credentials to show for that) but don’t speak the way he does. That is because while they might disagree with Hayut or the Supreme Court which she heads, they understand that there is a separation of powers in Israel and that democratic institutions need to be protected.
Even Netanyahu, who everyone thought Amsalem was speaking on behalf, called Hayut to explain that what his fellow party member said, does not represent him. While Netanyahu has personal considerations due to his trial of not being unnecessarily on the wrong side of the judiciary, he also does not talk the way Amsalem does. Even he has his limits.
Israelis need to make clear that they will not stand for the likes of Amsalem. Either he changes his rhetoric or he be shown the door.