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An Evening with Dr. Asher Grunis, Former President of the Supreme Court of Israel

Simon Pelsmakher


On Sept. 20, Dr. Asher Grunis, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel, visited Windsor, Ont. to discuss the uniqueness of Israeli constitutional law. He was accompanied by Amanda Hohmann, Director of the League for Human Rights at B’nai Brith Canada.

After receiving his law degree (LL.B.) in 1968 from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Asher Grunis went on to pursue advanced degrees at the University of Virginia (LL.M.) and Osgoode Hall Law School (D.Jur.) in Toronto. In 2003, Dr. Grunis joined the Israeli Supreme Court, serving as its President (the highest position on the Court) from 2012 to 2015.

In Windsor, Dr. Grunis was welcomed with a warm reception from the Windsor Jewish Federation before meeting with the Dean of Windsor Law. Upon his arrival at the university’s law faculty, Dr. Grunis proceeded to discuss various fascinating aspects of the Israeli legal system. For example, unlike Canada or the United States, the Israeli Supreme Court serves as the intermediary court of appeals and as the final court of arbitration. Furthermore, under certain specific circumstances (judicial review), parties can seek a remedy directly from the Supreme Court itself.

In other words, the Israeli Supreme Court is very, very, busy. Dr. Grunis stated that, whereas the Supreme Court of Canada took some 65 cases in 2015, the Supreme Court of Israel saw more than 3,000 that year.

Even more interesting is that it is not uncommon for the Israeli Supreme Court to come to a legal decision within a matter of hours or days when first hearing a case – something that is frankly unheard of in Canada. For instance, Dr. Grunis discussed a case in which Palestinian NGOs sought the Supreme Court to order the Israeli government to distribute gas masks to Palestinians in the wake of the Gulf War, amid fears of chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein (page doesn’t exist). Within 36 hours, the Supreme Court decided in their favour.

Dr. Grunis also spoke of challenges the Court is currently facing. Notably, the concept of standing (essentially, that the parties pushing forward a complaint should be directly impacted by the facts of the case – a key requirement in Canadian and American law) is not required by the Israeli Supreme Court.

This allows almost anyone to file a complaint or petition with the Court, regardless of whether they were involved with the matter or not. This is arguably one of the main reasons why the Israeli Supreme Court is often criticized for commenting on public affairs: if an individual files a complaint with the Supreme Court regarding a matter before the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament), even if that individual does not have standing, the Court may choose to issue an opinion on the constitutionality of that issue.

(L-R) Nicole Abergail, student, Jesse Tepperman, student, Dr. Grunis, Hohmann, and Pelsmakher

As a country yet to formally pass a constitution (the United Kingdom also operates without a constitution), the Knesset has passed numerous “Basic Laws” that serve as the backbone of the Israeli legal system. Dr. Grunis mentioned that the Knesset and Israel’s judiciary have expanded upon these laws, in order to provide Israelis with full democratic rights that are expected in most Western states. In doing so, at times, Israeli courts have looked to decisions from abroad.

Indeed, it was fascinating to learn how fundamental Canadian Constitutional Law cases have been cited by the Israeli Supreme Court. Dr. Grunis also said it is not uncommon for the Israeli judiciary to cite cases from the United States, Germany, Australia, and other like-minded states. The reason for pursuing this strategy is simple: Western democracies may differ in their legal systems, yet the challenges they face are very similar.

Passionate about International and Israel Affairs, Simon Pelsmakher is a Research Assistant at B’nai Brith Canada. He has previously written on Israel’s complex relationship with Turkey, the Peace Process, Canadian Foreign Affairs, Human Rights Law, and the security situation facing Israel from a strategic vantage point. He is studying law, and is excited to continue his writings from a legal perspective.