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Reimagining Democracy

The Yaron Ezrahi Conference on Democracy

October 28-29, 2020

President Reuven Rivlin: "Not every criticism is incitement. Not every criticism of the judiciary is incitement. Not every criticism of the government is incitement. Criticism is important, but it must be constructive criticism… Today, more than ever, Israeli democracy needs a Basic Law of Legislation. We have no choice but to join forces, and form an agreed-upon Basic Law that will calm and stabilize the entire public system… Above all of this stands our Jewish and democratic state. Jewish and democratic in one breath and one statement. For this is our home whose walls are shaking today. The intense and heated debate, which is important and legitimate, about the separations of powers must not be conducted with boxing gloves on."

Prof. Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court: "The criticism of the court has gone way beyond any reasonable framework... (There is) a total mistrust throughout the entire system. I think each MK who is in the coalition & tomorrow will be in the opposition... must understand that a Basic Law cannot be changed like a regular law. A regular law requires a regular majority. For a Basic Law, this isn't enough…. No. For this we need a solid majority.

"The issue of the relations between the Knesset, the legislative authority and the executive authority, a usually problematic relation in a parliamentary democracy, but with us there is a situation in which the government dictates all Knesset decisions… "

MK Gideon Saar: "It is definitely the case that the High Court's in political issues in general and legislation in particular is accelerating wildly… It's actually hyper-activism... This whole dynamic, also undermines the public's confidence in all the authorities."

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn: "The pendulum of balance between the three branches of government has swung too far towards the executive branch. This is the real point of contention. The judicial branch is doing its job… The number of laws that the court has amended or blocked or called to amend in the last 30 years is very small. When you compare it to intervention in Europe, or in the US, the number in Israel is smaller..."

Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute: "How can we fix the relationship among the three branches of government when trust in government is at an all-time low? What can we do to buttress a free press in this age of disinformation? What must we do to better prepare our young people for the day when it's their turn to safeguard democracy? These are questions, of course, that affect not only Israel but democracies over the world."


Prof. Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector of the Central European University and former Leader of the Opposition in Canada, delivered a thought-provoking speech on the contested epistemology of democracy, emphasizing the importance of elite self-criticism for the process of “reimagining” democracy.

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler and the NY Times' Ben Smith on "Strengthening the Press in a World of Economic and Political Threats"

Ben Smith Select Quotes: “Trump has really changed the ecosystem around the media and intensified polarization. There is enormous damage that isn’t going to go away when he leaves”.

“The social media platforms have so much power. They are not organizations or politicians. They're companies trying to make money and they are trying to deal with crises as they arise. Facebook is now trying to build an international court, which is the best they can do - these systems are difficult to treat with legislation. Censorship isn’t the biggest question – bur rather how things are amplified.”

"It's an interesting question for social media companies - what types of lies are dangerous enough that they should aggressively take down."

Regarding the media crisis – “A lot is happening at the same time over a long period. The newspaper business is in real trouble. We see three processes as a result: a shift to subscription and pay for content; emergence of non-profits – in part thanks to Trump. Now there is support for news organization as an important civic institution; government support which is very problematic – the government is trying to control the content of government supported channels."

"We're not really seeing a declining trust in the media - it's increased polarization. Many people see the media as a political actor."

On the challenges COVID has presented – “In a crisis we expect public officials to share important credible information and for the media to echo it and that didn't happen in the beginning in the beginning. You had the CDC advising against masks and then changing their mind. This left the media wondering what to do.. As scientific consensus emerged – the media did a better job."

"COVID accelerated existing processes - advertising was in decline and it dropped dramatically which led platforms to collapse while online commerce and subscriptions grew.”

“Media and politics were never really separable in the past. One question is – what will the Republican party look like after Trump and how will they deal with the media?”