Analysis: Haredim find new ally in the Supreme Court

The ultra-Orthodox sector is learning to defend its democratic rights.

high court 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
high court 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Suspicious haredi leaders and activists were pleasantly surprised to discover Monday that the Supreme Court can be an ally and that liberal, democratic values such as human rights and freedom of religious expression can sometimes serve haredi interests. "Today the Supreme Court gave legitimacy to our claims and backed them up with values such as human dignity," said Shlomo Rosenstein, a member of the Jerusalem Municipality and Transportation Coordinator for the Haredi Public in the capital. Judging from Monday's meeting, relations between the Supreme Court and the nation's haredi community, estimated to number between 500,000 and 750,000, have come a long way since the huge anti-Supreme Court rally of February 1999 attended by 250,000 demonstrators. Back then, the secular, left-wing elitists of Israel's highest court were enemies. A series of anti-Orthodox decisions, such as recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, had been handed down and the haredi community felt under fire. These old wounds do not heal quickly. The haredim do not officially recognize the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, since its laws are based on gentile jurisprudence. That is why they did not file to defend their position against a petition presented by novelist Naomi Ragen which called to put an end to gender segregation on public buses. But perhaps haredi suspicions were unfounded. On Monday, a panel of judges chaired by the modern Orthodox Elyakim Rubinstein seemed to show empathy and understanding for the haredi community's desire to strictly separate the sexes on public buses, according to haredim who were present at the discussions. "The questions they asked and their comments seemed to show that they understood our needs and sensibilities," said a haredi PR man who works with one of the large bus companies that runs "Mehadrin" lines that seat men at the front and women at the back. "The judges failed to understand what Naomi Ragen was so upset about. Why should a woman care if she sits in the front of the bus or in the back of the bus?" asked rhetorically the anonymous PR man. Whether the PR man is right or not, the haredi community may have discovered another route of influence in Israeli society: the Supreme Court. The first major development in haredi influence was the community's discovery of its buying power. As the haredi population grew they became aware of their formidable consumer buying power. They could put pressure on the cellular phone operators to offer handsets that do not have Internet access, SMS or access to other services that offend haredi sensibilities. They could demand that supermarkets carry products with more stringent kosher supervision. They could put pressure on El Al, the national carrier, to stop flying on Shabbat and they could demand that building contractors build haredi-only neighborhoods. Now, haredim may have entered a new stage of influence: using the Supreme Court, that bastion of liberalism and equality, to support haredi religious freedoms as long as they do not hurt the freedom of others too much. Haredim are learning to defend their democratic rights.