‘It’s a good job you’re not a judge, you wouldn’t send anybody to prison,” a
colleague recently told me. I hasten to add, we had been discussing the case of
former MK Naomi Blumenthal – convicted of corruption for paying for the hotel
rooms of Likud central committee members – not the pending sentencing of former
president Moshe Katsav, found guilty of rape.
RELATED:Beinish: Supervisors tried to help Judge Benatar
Last week, I got a tragic
reminder that being a judge is itself not necessarily a good job – the suicide
of 55-year-old Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge Maurice Benatar, who left a
note for his family blaming (probably among other factors) the case overload at
I hate to think of the overwhelming, drowning despair he must have
been feeling before he reached the conclusion that the only way out was a
self-imposed death sentence. Much though I quip that deadlines are called that
because they are killers, I don’t mean it literally. Like most of my friends, I
have learned to live with my workload, overdraft and a to-do list the length of
a (particularly prosaic) novella. It’s better than the alternative.
of the public shock at Benatar’s death was the feeling that with a highly
respected job, he had been spared the daily struggle to bring home a decent
salary. But it’s not easy being a judge in Israel.
“There just aren’t
enough judges,” a lawyer told me when I asked her opinion. “Especially now that
there are often two shifts in court, judges simply don’t have the time to
formulate and write up rulings from one case to the next. And the cases
themselves are hard. The judges are often subjected to threats, work in
unpleasant physical surroundings and face a constant battle to keep up. Last
year, a young judge gave up after just a few months at the job because he
couldn’t take it anymore.”
The wheels of justice, it seems, not only
grind exceedingly slowly, they grind down the judges and lawyers who are meant
to be the moving force.
Lawyers I spoke to, and a couple of interns
wondering about the career path they had chosen, said they were surprised by
Benatar’s suicide, but not by his death. “He could just as easily have died of a
heart attack, only then people wouldn’t have realized it had something to do
with his work,” said one.
Israel is characterized not only by one of the
highest per-capita ratios of lawyers but paradoxically (or perhaps as a result)
with one of the most heavily burdened court systems. The average judge deals
with more than 2,300 cases a year. How? That’s their problem. And ours.
Obviously, judges find it hard to do a case justice under these
The solution includes adding extra judges (amazingly,
there are still many good, willing candidates); reducing the number of cases by
use of arbitration; finding creative ways to expedite the legal process; and,
maybe, reeducating the public so that the phrase “See you in court!” does not
trip so easily off the tongue, causing the entire system to
Among the many questions raised by the sad affair, by the way,
is: “Where is the justice minister?” Indeed, I began asking it during the
recent, hugely damaging strike by the state prosecutors, when the silence from
the ministerial office was so deafening that I couldn’t remember the name of the
incumbent. (It’s Yaakov Neeman, in case you, too, have forgotten.) IT IS EASY to
throw the burden back on the Treasury – and nobody is better placed to
understand the strains of being overworked and unappreciated than Finance
Minister Yuval Steinitz.
Not only is Steinitz married to a judge, but
news of Benatar’s death coincided with reports that he had been hospitalized,
suffering from chest pains and exhaustion as his carefully prepared two-year
budget was shot down from all sides. The worst of it, he pointed out in a
bedside radio interview, was the feeling that he had been stabbed in the back.
That he didn’t come right out and say Binyamin Netanyahu’s name might be because
he didn’t want to be sued for slander.
A day before he collapsed, the
unsympathetic Yediot Aharonot carried the story that some of Steinitz’s
neighbors were planning to demonstrate outside his door to protest the rising
prices of bread and fuel.
Indeed, the costs of basic necessities have
been going up here, as they have all over the world, leading the Histadrut trade
union federation to threaten a general strike and the government to zigzag on
its budget plans.
Some Likud MKs even worried out loud that they might be
out of a job following the next elections if steps aren’t immediately taken to
reduce the pressure on ordinary citizens.
It’s hard to ignore the hikes
in everything from water and electricity to public transportation (for those of
us who live a happy, car-free existence), mortgages (for people who managed to
buy an apartment) and rents, for the ones who see home ownership remaining
forever a dream. Add to this child care for the young and the surprisingly
expensive “free” education for older children, and you realize that middle-class
life could be better. Heaven help the truly poor.
There was also much
talk of Holocaust survivors who could not afford medicines (although surely all
senior citizens deserve affordable health care).
Perhaps part of the
solution lies in the Sheshinski Committee’s recommendations regarding the
royalties on the natural gas recently discovered off the coast. As Steinitz also
advocates, despite the intensive lobbying, the country as a whole must benefit
from this natural asset, not just the company owners and
More than anything else, Israel’s No. 1 social problem is
the ever-growing divide between rich and poor, aggravated by the complete
abandonment of the socialist principles which provided both a sense of unity and
security in days gone by.
Nonetheless, at a time when the surrounding
countries are rioting over bread prices and the lack of jobs, our situation is
not bad. Even compared to much of Europe, we have weathered the global economic
crisis cushioned on a white, feathery cloud.
At the same time that
headlines were screaming that the middle class was turning into the “working
poor,” and the price of gasoline could ignite a riot, I came across a report in
the (largely pro-Netanyahu) Yisrael Hayom that according to figures issued by
the Customs Authority, January saw a 91 percent rise in the number of imported
Even assuming that many buyers postponed the purchase
from the end of 2010, the car-owners must believe they can afford to run
I even began to wonder whether the entire matter of a strike hadn’t
been dragged into the limelight hitched to the Egyptian bandwagon.
are definitely political forces at play.
I found I could not only predict
what the politicians would say, but who would say it.
And this is why I
don’t foresee a widespread uprising of the type we have been witnessing south of
the border. Firstly, protests here always end up being affiliated with one
political party or other, leading people who associate with a different faction
to stay at home. More importantly, we all, fortunately, have too much to
lose.The writer is editor of
The International Jerusalem Post.