A political war is fought over Israel’s courts

ormer Supreme Court President Aharon Barak: too secular and liberal for some

ormer Supreme Court President Aharon Barak: too secular and liberal for some

After years of being a bastion of Israel’s liberal-left establishment, the Supreme Court appears to be moving to the right.

There is currently deadlock in the appointment of three new Supreme Court judges, with an ideological battle being waged between religious and right-wing representatives and the secular, mostly Ashekanzi left.
The Judicial Appointments Committee is chaired by the Justice Minister, and also includes three judges from the Supreme Court, three Knesset members and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association.

Traditionally, the judges on the committee vote as a bloc and decide between themselves, in advance, on their preferred candidates.
In the years of the powerful Supreme Court President, Aharon Barak, the judges usually managed to influence at least two other members of the committee and get their way.

But three years ago they pushed through the appointment of Dorit Beinisch as president. She is a protégé of Mr Barak and a firm believer in his activist human-rights agenda, but without his stature. Since then, the opposition to the judges in the committee has strengthened.

The Court’s critics on the committee have long claimed that its judges are cut from the same cloth: secular, liberal establishment types. In recent years, they managed to challenge the status quo by appointing successful lawyers from the private sector. In the past, only veteran public servants were allowed into the hallowed corridors.

The new committee is more radical and is making itself felt.

It is headed by maverick Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who has an account to settle with the legal establishment. He believes that false fraud charges were brought against him the last time he was appointed to the post by Binyamin Netanyahu, 13 years ago.

The three other politicians on the committee are all from the right, as is one of the Bar representatives. For the first time, the anti-liberal coalition has a clear majority on the committee.

Last week, the two MKs on the committee, Yisrael Beteinu’s David Rotem and Uri Ariel of the National Union, presented their lists of candidates. All four were religious, with three of them living in West Bank settlements.

This was the last straw for the establishment. There used to be only one token religious judge in the Supreme Court but in the past 20 years their number has grown.

Some settlers do serve as judges in the lower courts but on the Supreme Court it is unheard of. The list was labelled “provocative” in the media and controversial rulings by one of the candidates, Judge Moshe Drori, have suddenly been unearthed. The committee held its first meeting last Friday. No decisions were reached.

Over the decades, “the old Israel” — the secular, Ashkenazi, left-leaning, educated middle class whose parents founded the state — saw the Supreme Court as the last bulwark of its ideals.

The Knesset, the IDF, business and even academia have all been forced to reflect a more integrative Israeli society (though Israeli Arabs and Charedim are still largely excluded).

This may be the Supreme Court’s last stand.

HOW one judge was accused of being BIASED
Since District Court Judge Moshe Drori’s name was put forward by the right-wing bloc on the Judicial Appointments Committee, his rulings have been closely scrutinised.

Particular ire was raised by his decision last year not to convict a rabbi who was charged with hitting a young Ethiopian immigrant with his car when trying to exit a car-park without paying.
The rabbi was a candidate for the position of Dayan on a rabbinical court. The judge handed down only a fine and community work so as not to jeopardise his career.

He also wrote that the victim’s reception by the court “which listened to her respectfully” was, for her, a positive experience of acceptance into Israel.

The lenient sentence and condescending tone of the ruling, which was partially based on halachic law, has cost Mr Drori at least one of his supporters on the Committee.

But further misfortune has befallen the woman, a member of the Falashmura group, which is not recognised as Jewish according to the halachah.

She emigrated to Israel in 2002, converting to Judaism the next year.
Last month, a rabbinical court presided over by Rabbi Avraham Sherman, was supposed to rule in her divorce case, but instead revoked her giyur.

The court cited evidence in the divorce proceedings as proof that she had conducted a “non-Orthodox lifestyle”, thereby proving that her conversion was a sham.

Last year, Rabbi Sherman ruled that thousands of conversions performed by the giyur court of Rabbi Chaim Drukman were not to be relied on.
Revoking a giyur of another rabbinical court used to be almost unheard of, but over the last year there have been dozens of cases in which evidence, often only hearsay, concerning the convert’s lifestyle, has been enough to cancel their giyur.

    Last updated: 4:11pm, July 9 2009