Israeli security at the scene where a Palestinian terrorist opened fire on Israelis at the Har Adar settlement, outside of Jerusalem, Sept. 26, 2017..
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Ahead of US President Donald Trump’s expected announcement today of a Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited Israel last week – and conveyed a wise message in her inimitable style. The 85-year-old Ginsburg, who is one of three Jews on the nine-member US Supreme Court (the others are justices Elana Kagan and Stephen Breyer), came to receive the inaugural Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony held in Tel Aviv’s Yitzhak Rabin Center.
Appointed by president Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg is considered a liberal member of the Supreme Court, while the new justice touted by Trump will certainly be conservative, tipping the delicate balance in the body 5-4 in favor of the conservatives. In her acceptance speech, Ginsburg stressed that her Jewish identity had been central to her strong sense of justice. “I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew,” she declared. “The demand for justice, for peace, for enlightenment, runs through the entirety of Jewish history and tradition.”
A day later, before the screening of RBG – an acclaimed documentary about her life and career – at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Ginsburg was asked how her Judaism had influenced her approach to law. She responded that at the entrance to her Supreme Court office, there is a large poster with Hebrew letters reading, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – justice, justice, thou shalt pursue.”
But it was only on Friday that Ginsburg, in conversation with former Israeli Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch at the American Center in Jerusalem Center, related directly to Trump’s nomination.
“We don’t know who the nominee is,” Ginsburg told the small audience at the event organized by the US Embassy. “The president said he would announce his nomination on July 9. How much time will it take to investigate him? Now it takes just a majority of the Senate, which the Republicans have at the moment, [but] may not have after the midterm elections. So we don’t know if the president will be successful in rushing his nominee through before the midterm. If it gets to the midterm and the balance in the Senate shifts, it will be a different story.”
Ginsburg noted that after being nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the Supreme Court justices’ independence from the other two branches – the legislature and executive – is protected by the US Constitution. “The thing we care most about is preserving the institution, preserving the independence of the judiciary from the president and the legislature.”
And then, for the first time, she openly criticized the Israeli judicial system, which unlike the US, forces the retirement of Supreme Court justices at the age of 70.
“We hold our offices during good behavior. That means essentially for life. I think we are the envy of judges all over the world,” she said. “I think that Israel has much too young a retirement age, 70, by my standards, so I would have been gone 15 years ago.”
Ginsburg also voiced veiled criticism of the lack of separation in Israel between religion and state as well as the Orthodox monopoly. “I don’t understand it very well, but to the extent that I do, the religion is Orthodox. I think in the United States there are many more Conservative and Reform Jews than there are Orthodox, and I am proud that both in the Reform and Conservative synagogues, women are rabbis.”
She recalled once being asked by the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the US if it wasn’t sufficient that women were accepted into the Conservative movement’s cantorial program rather than a rabbinical one.
Finally, Ginsburg counseled Israel not to do anything to harm the independence of its Supreme Court. “Israelis should appreciate that the court here has been a model for other courts struggling to achieve independence, and it would be a really sorry thing if the court’s wings are cut by the legislature,” she concluded.
To those contemplating legislation that would reduce the powers of the Supreme Court in Israel, currently headed by Justice Esther Hayut, it was a clear and concise message.