He’s 86 and Long Retired. Why Are Israelis Protesting Outside His Home?

Aharon Barak’s one-bedroom apartment in central Tel Aviv was meant to be the site of a quiet retirement, after his career as an Israeli attorney general and later Supreme Court justice. When Mr. Barak, now 86, moved here from Jerusalem 13 years ago, he placed his collection of unusual walking sticks — more than 200 of them — by the front door. He hung his wife’s oil paintings on the walls. And his wife, Elisheva, also 86, set her easel by the sliding doors to their small garden.

But now, the Baraks’ home is less bestilled than besieged.

In recent weeks, crowds have gathered frequently in the leafy street outside to accuse Mr. Barak — who retired 17 years ago — of being a dictator, a criminal and even an enemy of the state.

“Look, it’s not the way I planned my aging,” Mr. Barak said in an interview this week, shortly before another noisy protest began outside. “It is an exceptional situation,” he said. “But we are in an exceptional situation.”

Mr. Barak, a Holocaust survivor who helped seal peace with Egypt, is in the cross hairs because he once led and helped empower Israel’s Supreme Court — a legacy that the right-wing government now wants to unravel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition has proposed a judicial overhaul to give the government more control over selecting the court’s judges, limit the court’s influence over Parliament and give lawmakers power to override court rulings.

After mass demonstrations persuaded the government to stand down on its proposal — for the moment — Mr. Barak’s home became a focus of protests by the coalition’s supporters, who hope to prod it into moving forward with the plan.

“He is the enemy,” said Hagai Himmelblau, 53, an engineer protesting outside Mr. Barak’s home. “Election after election, the right wing wins, but we can’t rule,” Mr. Himmelblau said. “He is one who started everything, the one who caused it.”

As a Supreme Court justice for 28 years until 2006, the last 11 as the court’s president, Mr. Barak was involved in many of its most contested decisions, including its ban on most uses of torture by the security services and its ruling against government policies that stopped Arabs from living in certain Jewish areas.

Throughout his career, Mr. Barak strongly backed expanding the court’s jurisdiction; in 1995 he wrote a seminal decision that helped empower the court to strike down laws it deemed unconstitutional.

It has done so more than 20 times since, rejecting the authorization of certain Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank — a move that angered the pro-settlement right — and invalidating legislation that exempted ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service, which upset the religious right.

To many secular Israelis, Mr. Barak is an icon for trying to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic, while judges outside the country see him as a totem for judicial independence. Elena Kagan, the United States Supreme Court justice, has described him as “my judicial hero.”

But to right-leaning Israelis, as well as some conservative judges in the United States, Mr. Barak placed too much power in the hands of an unelected court, at the expense of democratically elected lawmakers.

“He is without a doubt a great jurist,” Daniel Friedman, a former Israeli justice minister and an arch-critic of Mr. Barak, said in a 2009 documentary film about the judge. But “Barak treats Parliament’s statutes as a rough draft to be rewritten,” Mr. Friedman said.

Mr. Barak said his judicial ideals were partly shaped by his childhood. Born in 1936 in Lithuania, Mr. Barak was nearly 5 when Nazi soldiers occupied his city of Kovno, now Kaunas. They killed thousands of Jews and corralled thousands of others, including his family, in the Kovno ghetto.

Mr. Barak survived after he was smuggled in a sack to another part of Kovno, and then sheltered by Lithuanian farmers. He emigrated with his parents to Palestine in 1947, the year before the birth of the state of Israel.

This experience taught Mr. Barak three things, he said: the need for a Jewish state as a homeland for the Jewish people; the need for that state to protect individual rights, including those of non-Jewish minorities; and the need for the courts to help resolve inevitable tensions between those first two tenets.

“My job as a judge, in any given point, is to find a solution that fits both of them,” Mr. Barak said.

The right says that triangulation made Mr. Barak’s court too concerned about Palestinian rights, and not enough about Israel’s security, as when it stopped intelligence officers from using the torture methods often directed at Palestinians under interrogation. Leftists say his court was too often an apologist for Israeli overreach, as when it backed the construction of a wall, nearly 450 miles long, to limit Palestinian entry to Israel from the West Bank, ordering only relatively minor changes to its route.

Mr. Barak’s fluid understanding of the nature of a Jewish state has also caused backlash. Ultraconservative Jews want to govern Israel according to Jewish law. But to Mr. Barak, a Jewish state should be shaped by the looser concept of Jewish values, which includes interpretations of Jewish scripture but also the ideas of secular Jewish thinkers.

“The Bible is the source of our relationship to this country,” Mr. Barak said in the interview. But, he said, “it is not the only source.”

Mr. Barak comes from a family of jurists. His father was a lawyer. His wife, whom he met at high school, was also a prominent judge. Their three daughters and son all trained as lawyers, and they all have been gathering at their parents’ apartment during the recent protests in a gesture of filial solidarity.

After spending the early part of his career as a law professor, Mr. Barak began his life in public service in 1975, when he was appointed attorney general under Yitzhak Rabin, who was then prime minister.

Mr. Barak ended up prosecuting Mr. Rabin’s wife, Leah, after it emerged that she held a bank account in the United States, illegal at that time under Israeli law. The episode forced Mr. Rabin’s resignation and contributed to a later election victory for Likud, the right-wing party that Mr. Netanyahu now leads.

Menachem Begin, Likud’s leader then, appointed Mr. Barak as a negotiator in the 1978 Camp David peace talks with Egypt. President Jimmy Carter attributed the subsequent sealing of a peace treaty — Israel’s first with an Arab country — partly to Mr. Barak’s meticulousness. “The hero at Camp David, for the entire process, was Aharon Barak,” he said.

Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1978, Mr. Barak helped to gradually increase the kinds of cases the court heard, often arguing that without judicial involvement, the government will always have the upper hand over the individual.

“In a situation in which law doesn’t apply, who governs?” he said. “The one who has the power.”

But critics felt he took that approach too far in the 1990s, when he helped lead the process by which the court’s judges occasionally overruled lawmakers.

Parliament itself began that process by passing legislation that enshrined basic human rights. In doing so, lawmakers acknowledged that the court would now need to overturn future laws that infringed those rights. But Mr. Barak, in 1995, wrote one of the landmark rulings that asserted the court’s ability to do so.

“Did I succeed in writing a page in our legal history?” Mr. Barak pondered later, in a speech upon his retirement in 2006. “Only history can answer that.”

Now, the government’s overhaul plan makes that a less hypothetical question.

Some will say he has “written a footnote but not the page,” Mr. Barak suggested, while others will say “he wrote too many pages.”

Myra Noveck, Jonathan Rosen and Carol Sutherland contributed research.

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