My Word: Justice and social justice

Last week, we got a tragic reminder that being a judge is not necessarily a good job.

By
February 13, 2011 00:53
FILES PILE up in a Jerusalem court.

overworked 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

‘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.

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 work.

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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.

Part 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 circumstances.

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 stumble.

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 shareholders.

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 private vehicles.

Even assuming that many buyers postponed the purchase from the end of 2010, the car-owners must believe they can afford to run them.

I even began to wonder whether the entire matter of a strike hadn’t been dragged into the limelight hitched to the Egyptian bandwagon.

There 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.
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