“Justice, justice thou shalt pursue…”– Exodus
“The law is all we have…”– Newman, from Seinfeld’s “The Seven” segment
Team Bibi’s plans to transform Israel’s legal system boils down to a perversion of our most basic biblical teachings. They will forsake justice to feed their political appetites.
Retired Rabbi Jonathan Kligler writes of the pursue-justice declaration in the following version from Exodus: “You shall not be partial in judgment; hear out low and high alike. Decide justly between the Israelite and the stranger alike. Take no bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
(Kligler led the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, an unaffiliated shul in Woodstock, N.Y., for 30 years.)
How can the Israeli Supreme Court fairly dispense justice if the Knesset (its parliament) overrides its rulings? How do we define a political deal to join a coalition so that its leader can evade criminal prosecution? How can the “low” – such as homosexuals and Arabs – expect justice if the law discriminates against them?
Israel ended 2022 when Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and his new government was sworn in on Dec. 29 with proposals to change the legal system and enact toxic policies linked to other sensitive issues. Netanyahu, the returning prime minister and Likud party leader, admitted two political parties into his coalition that seek changes expected to intensify conflicts with the Palestinians. Jews as well as many other Middle East-watchers are deeply worried as to what will come in 2023. This coalition was elected in the latest of five parliamentary elections in nearly four years.
The potential throttling of Israel’s courts parallels the far-right’s control over the U.S. Supreme Court and the routine flouting of New York’s education policies by segments of a Jewish religious minority within a minority within a minority. Our Supreme Court is stocked with archconservatives who have already junked the right to an abortion for no discernible reason, and the Hasidic community in Brooklyn rakes in millions of state dollars while ignoring requirements to provide a secular education.
The law is sacred, so to speak, for any reasonable person. Team Bibi’s plans for Israel’s legal system starkly contradict teachings by our own ancestors. The legal system is not only a point of pride for any nation but it also separates civilized society from savagery and tyranny. The law relies upon a tolerant if not enlightened society to thrive. A strong legal system has the capacity to expand and create unofficial norms that well serve a democracy. Most legal systems have their drawbacks, and America is crammed with them, but we at least have the foundation to do better.
Even “Seinfeld” television character Newman employed the law to keep Seinfeld and his self-involved friends honest, mostly on behalf of Newman’s employer, the U.S. Postal Service. He revealed Seinfeld’s mail fraud scheme and exposed George Costanza’s porn operation (pun coincidental).
A tad more serious than Seinfeld’s misdeeds is the proposal for the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions, which would limit the judiciary’s independent authority. As The New York Times reports it, the courts have protected minority rights, yet the proposed process would add unchecked power to the majority political party. How this would work is unclear.
What is the value of an independent judiciary if its rulings can be overridden by legislators, some of whom may well be the subject of legal cases?
This can work both ways. The current majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has made it plain that some of its decisions are based on ideology and politics rather than the law and the facts of a given case. An override law is among proposals to rein in their concept of justice. Would this serve as a necessary guardrail or risk more damage to pursuing justice?
The biblical proclamation to “take no bribe” is a fair way to describe brazen political deals in Israel, America and New York.
Media sources have long reported that Netanyahu is exploiting the coalition’s influence to exempt him from continuing as a defendant in a corruption trial. One Netanyahu defender stressed that a democratic election justifies changing the direction of a legal case.
Such reasoning spoils the pursuit of justice. If we let politics determine the course of legal proceedings, then we might as well return to the Dark Ages. That is where America could be headed. Supreme Court justices nominated by Donald Trump misled senators when they said they will respect precedent, then they voted to reverse the 49-year-old Roe decision that gave women the right to an abortion. The justices were not even asked to go that far in the case that led to this decision.
In New York, both city and state, elected officials are notorious for catering to Orthodox communities because they usually vote in a bloc. Orthodox voters are credited with helping Republican Lee Zeldin win more than 47 percent of the vote in his campaign against Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul last Nov. 8. If the election was any closer…
In 2014, then-NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the city to fast-track requests for special education services to children with disabilities after hearing complaints from Orthodox Jewish organizations and other groups. Expenses skyrocketed into the millions as Orthodox groups exploited the program, according to a Times report that appeared on Dec. 29, the same day that Team Bibi was sworn in. The Hasidim, reportedly responsible for much of this, is a stream of Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy is one of at least four religious streams of Judaism. The Orthodox represent at least 10 percent of American Jews.
Whatever his intentions, de Blasio said in an interview, “It had to be reformed. If any one of those reforms have opened the door for some individuals to take advantage of the system, that’s unfortunate, and we have to tighten up the rules.”
De Blasio sounds so acutely remorseful.
In Israel, the gay community faces discrimination if Team Bibi amends the current anti-discrimination law to permit businesses and service providers to, as a Times report explains, “refuse to provide a service contrary to their religious beliefs in a way that critics say could lead to discrimination.”
Netanyahu insists that neither homosexuals nor any other group will be subjected to biased laws. If that is true, why are far-right parties pressing for it? What happens if the coalition abandons the proposal? Will the coalition crack up and call a sixth election?
American Jews like myself cannot dictate how Israel shapes its laws and judicial system, but we do have a profound stake in Israel’s future. It is our spiritual and historic homeland. That is why we contribute to Jewish charities, pay taxes to fund military aid and vote for presidents and members of Congress who provide vital support for Israel. We have a right to be heard.
The Jewish presence in America has been treated with respect and equality because we live in a nation of laws that Israel replicated for the last 75 years. Both our nations’ legal systems are tarnished, yes, but neither is broken. Not Israel, nor America need the kind of fixing that Team Bibi has in mind.