Israeli proposal to make legal judgments from the Bible stirs controversy

Knesset Constitution Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky's proposal calls for courts to draw on “principles of Hebrew law” in instances that are not covered by existing law.

September 17, 2017 22:35
3 minute read.

sraeli lawmakers attend a vote on a bill at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem February 6, 2017. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)

A two-pronged legislative initiative by Knesset Constitution Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky to make “Hebrew law” a basis for court judgments is under fire from Arab MKs and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which warn that such a move could heighten discrimination against Arabs.

Slomiansky’s proposal, which is due to be discussed on Monday by a Knesset committee advancing the controversial Nationality Law, calls for courts to draw on “principles of Hebrew law” in instances that are not covered by existing law and cannot be resolved by making analogies, the Bayit Yehudi MK said.

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These principles will derive from the Tanach (Jewish Bible), Mishna and Talmud, Slomiansky said.

The proposed Nationality Law is seen by advocates as strengthening the Jewish character of the state, whereas critics see it coming at the expense of democratic values. The law contains a provision along the same lines as Slomiansky’s proposal, which he is advancing in a separate bill to that effect.

MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) said the proposals constituted “another degradation of our rights and legal status. We would like Israeli law to depend on universal values, human rights and democracy, but not religious issues and content.”

“It’s another exclusion of our community and of general universal values. It effects everyone who cherishes universal values. It might lead to discrimination, to giving preference to Jews over non-Jews.

We don’t know who will be the justice to interpret Hebrew law and which interpretation he will make.”

Jabareen said that making the principles of Jewish sacred texts a basis for Israeli law was “similar” to Muslim-majority countries making Shari’a – Islamic law – a basis for their legal systems. “Whenever formal law depends on religious values, it’s a clear incorporation of religion in the law system that goes against looking for common ground through universal values.”

He warned that Slomiansky’s proposal could also lead to discrimination against women.

Slomiansky, however, defended his proposal in remarks to The Jerusalem Post: “We are not talking about a situation of if it passes tomorrow than everyone will have to put on phylacteries and every woman will have to go to the mikva. We want a judge who has no solution in the existing law, and he can’t solve it by analogy, to look at what the Hebrew law says on the matter and try to adopt it.”

He added by saying Hebrew law was ahead of other systems in providing for a day of rest, severance pay and paying employees on time.

“It contains beauty, wisdom and sense.”

Slomiansky showed little patience for the criticism that such a law could lead to discrimination against Arabs. “If you learn from Jewish law to give a day off, then the Arab will also get a day off. The same for paying an employee on time. These principles apply to everyone. And beyond that, we are a Jewish state.

It is permissible for us to be a Jewish state. We give rights and obligations to everyone who lives here, but we are a Jewish state.”

Slomiansky stressed that he was “not saying to adopt the Shulhan Aruch [code of Jewish law] with this law” and that if an issue is already covered by a law on the books “things won’t even reach the Hebrew law.”

Dan Yakir, legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, voiced strong objection to the proposal.

“Hebrew law is ancient law and doesn’t address modern democratic values,” he said. “It can be construed in many ways, and giving it priority might be in contradiction to democratic values and constitutional principles.”

Yakir said the proposed law would “definitely” cause harm to the Arab minority.

“We know there are racist laws in Jewish law, laws that give priority to Jews, and this cannot dictate what we do in 2017 regarding the right to equality of all citizens in Israel,” he said. “There are beautiful values, like taking care of the stranger. And there are other commandments which contradict these. Any judge can construe the law according to his views. That is why it’s so dangerous.”

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