Hebrew Hear-Say: Sue far, sue good

The law might not be an ass, as Dickens's Mr. Bumble charged, but this time the judge certainly made an ass of himself.

liat collins 88 (photo credit: )
liat collins 88
(photo credit: )
It was a clear case of courting disaster. Telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, British Judge Peter Openshaw, presiding over a trial of three men accused of Internet terror offenses, painfully confessed: "I don't understand the language. I don't really understand what a Web site is." The law might not be an ass, as Dickens's Mr. Bumble charged, but this time the judge certainly made an ass of himself. Before you mumble, "There ought to be a law against it," take into account that such trials and errors take place in courtrooms everywhere. Many years ago, as a Hebrew University research assistant to sociologist Prof. Brenda Danet and sociolinguist Prof. Shoshana Blum-Kulka, it was my job to go over records of trials and find cases in which the judge (shofet - also used for a referee, by the way) and the defendant (nitba') had clearly misunderstood each other. They might both have been speaking Hebrew, but they were, in effect, speaking different languages. Just as English-speaking judges tend to use Latin, Israeli judges frequently use classical Hebrew terminology, meting out not so much poetic justice as justice in poetic terms. The criminal mind, however, is not exactly linguistically innocent, either. Many defendants use their own slang, which proves that when it comes to language, they are a law unto themselves. I recall an incident in which the defendant referred to a Caspomat (literally a brand name for an ATM, but used to describe a "hole-in-the-wall"-style distribution point for drugs) and utterly confused the presiding judge, who was banking on it meaning something else entirely. Nowadays, the global village seems to suffer from the "Law & (dis)Order effect," in which plaintiffs rely on knowledge gained through TV courtroom dramas without realizing you can't plead the Fifth Amendment in a country that doesn't even have a constitution. And calls of "objection" and "sustained" don't ring out when the average Israeli has his day in court, despite their popularity in American television series. In fact, it's a world apart from the TV version, more often "in camera" (bidlatayim sgurot as they say in Hebrew, "behind closed doors") than on camera, without even a jury to witness the event. Not, of course, that trials are restricted to Mr. Average. An embarrassingly long list of politicians and top officials can discuss the strength of their convictions in the most negative sense of the word. They might not seem very appealing to the general public, but the majority will at least try to appeal convictions that might affect their future careers, wonderfully known as crimes of moral turpitude (or in Hebrew, avera sheyesh 'immah kalon). Translating legal terms is an art form. For instance, the word "sentence" itself is used differently. "Mishpat" in Hebrew can mean either a sentence in the grammatical sense or a "trial" or simply the "Law," whereas the word "sentence" in English refers to the verdict (in Hebrew, gzar din, which can also mean decree). I rest my case. And why are briefs (taktzir) called briefs when they are often so long and twisted? No wonder many people are turning instead to arbitration (gishur - from the word "gesher," bridge). Most confusing of all is trying to figure out the difference between the Supreme Court (beit hamishpat ha'elyon) and the High Court of Justice (beit hadin hagevoah letzedek, usually shortened to bagatz), in which the Supreme Court rules as "a court of first instance" - I promise you that is English - primarily in matters regarding the legality of decisions of state authorities. Both reside in the same beautiful building, conveniently close to the Knesset, designed to architecturally incorporate themes of light and darkness and justice. Just when you think you've sorted out their respective roles, it seems the ball's figuratively in the other court. There are, of course, countless jokes about lawyers (many of them told by lawyers, orchei din, themselves), but they have my full admiration - and I'm not just playing devil's advocate here. I love what their legal minds do with words. Someone yells down the phone: "Sue the bastard!" and the average attorney quickly translates that into a letter diplomatically starting something like: "It has come to our attention..." ("noda' lanu") and ending with the polite-sounding threat: "We will be forced to take further action" (nifne le'arka'ot). Israel is constantly discussing judicial activism (activism shiputi) and the "Buzaglo test" (mivhan Buzaglo), the principle of Israeli law that the country's highest personages and most ordinary citizens - the hypothetical defendant Haim Buzaglo - should be judged by the same courtroom standards. But judge for yourself what goes on elsewhere. Take, for example, the case in the US that has won headlines like The New York Times' "Judge Tries Suing Pants Off Dry Cleaners," in which Roy L. Pearson, Jr., is suing the dry cleaner for $67.3 million for misplacing a pair of trousers he wanted to wear his first week on the bench. It seems to take the principle of "tzedek, tzedek tirdof" - pursuing justice - and turn it more into a matter of persecution (redifa) than prosecution, amida ladin. liat@jpost.com