At first glance, Menachem Mautner’s Law and Culture in Israel at the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century looks like two books in one. The first is a shockingly honest critique of the Supreme Court, of a kind rarely heard from someone who shares the court’s ideological agenda. The second is a far less honest proposal for imposing this agenda on Israel by decidedly undemocratic means.
Mautner, one of the leading lights of Israel’s law scene, brings a great deal of expertise to bear on the subject of the court. He is a full professor at Tel Aviv University’s law school, where he formerly served as dean and currently holds a chair in comparative civil law and legal theory; he has also taught at the University of Michigan, New York University, and Harvard. He has won a slew of awards and prizes, and one of his previous books, The Decline of Formalism and the Rise of Values in Israeli Law (1993), is still the most frequently cited work in articles on the development of law in Israel over the last thirty years. Mautner has also been active in public affairs: He was a member of the committee, chaired by then-Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, that prepared a sweeping revision of Israel’s civil code; he chaired a public commission on copyright law; and he has been mentioned in the press as a possible candidate for the high court itself.
These professional credentials obviously lend great weight to his analysis. But it is the analysis itself, and the evidence he provides to back it up, that makes this book so significant. Essentially, Mautner documents how Israel’s liberal elite has responded thus far to the conclusion that democracy no longer serves its interests. And the proposal he offers for changing Israel’s self-definition as a “Jewish and democratic state” offers a disturbing preview of how this response might develop in the years to come.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator on public affairs.
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