My Word: Changing of the guard

The departure of Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch last week couldn’t have been more symbolic. But for all the wrong reasons.

Supreme Court President Asher Grunis 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Supreme Court President Asher Grunis 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
The departure of Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch last week couldn’t have been more symbolic. But for all the wrong reasons. Some commentators in the Hebrew press noted that her last case was typical of her involvement in social justice issues. In true Beinisch style, she ruled against state-determined criteria for receiving social benefits. But above all, it seemed sadly typical that her last ruling after five and a half years as head of the Supreme Court should be in a case that has been going through the legal system for seven years. Talk about slowly grinding wheels of justice.
Beinisch, on a panel of seven judges, ruled that owning or having use of a car cannot be considered a reason to make a person ineligible for income support. Car ownership in this day and age cannot be considered a measure of means and personal wealth. Ironically, the day the ruling was handed down, citing lofty principles of human dignity, the headlines were screaming about the planned price hike in the price of gasoline, which looked likely to hit an all-time high of approximately NIS 8 a liter. Suddenly car ownership looked beyond the means of even most middle-class wage earners.
It was, of course, also typical that nobody knew whether the price really would go up at midnight on February 29 or whether a last-minute deal would be reached. The country is turning last-minute deals into a national sport. One day the Pri Hagalil food factory is closed, putting hundreds out of work in an area which suffers from chronic unemployment, and three days later it’s open again – for now. The ports went on strike, for a few hours, before an agreement was reached. Even the Ammunition Hill war memorial, as I noted last week, was closed for a few hours before the funding for its continued operation was found, until next time.
Israelis are good in crisis situations. They are also prone to creating crises. Beinisch’s last day in court managed to create its own old-new crisis.
Shimon Peres hosted a reception at the President’s Residence to bid farewell to Beinisch as Supreme Court head and welcome her successor, Asher Dan Grunis. The entertainment was purely instrumental, presumably to avoid more news items about women singing in public and the reaction of the ultra-Orthodox.
The unexpected sideshow was not about who sang, but who didn’t. Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran drew fire from right-wing MKs for standing quietly and not singing the national anthem. This of course is also typical. Instead of being proud that, despite what the world thinks, Israel is not an apartheid state, and that an Israeli Arab can work his way through the system to the position of Supreme Court judge, MKs including David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) and Moshe Feiglin (Likud) complained that Joubran, a Christian of Lebanese Maronite descent, can’t quite bring himself to belt out the words to Hatikva: “As long as deep within the heart/A Jewish soul stirs/And to the ends of the East, forward/An eye looks out, towards Zion/Our hope is not lost/The hope of two thousand years/To be a free people in our land/The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Sitting as a proudly free Jewish woman in Jerusalem, I bet that those same MKs would fight any attempt to change the words to the national anthem to make it more inclusive.
In one fell swoop, the hawks in effect equated Joubran with, say, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose comments on the status of Jerusalem also made headlines last week. Speaking at the International Conference for the Defense of Jerusalem in Qatar’s capital Doha, Abbas questioned the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and accused Israel of using “ugly means” to erase the Arab-Islamic and Christian links.
Rotem and Ben-Ari don’t so much pick their battles as provoke their own wars. They are not strengthening the Jewish nature of the state, they are going against it.
Ben-Ari intends furthering what has been dubbed the “Joubran bill,” according to which only a judge who served in the IDF or did civil national service would be eligible to serve as a Supreme Court justice.
Rotem, who chairs the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said he plans to ask Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to force Joubran to resign. Despite his own position, Rotem does not seem to realize that contempt for Joubran shows a contempt not only for the court in which he sits, but also for the principles of justice.
BEINISCH’S RETIREMENT has been branded as the end of an era – not so much the Beinisch era, as that of her predecessor Aharon Barak. Barak’s philosophy, which continued to be felt under Beinisch, could be summed up in two words “judicial activism,” or, in Hebrew, “hakol shafit” – everything can be tried in court. Not surprisingly, this approach led many to feel that the courts were becoming politicized and overly interventionist.
New Supreme Court President Grunis has a different view. For example, just a week ago he dissented from the High Court of Justice’s majority decision against extending the Tal Law, which legislated exemptions from military service. He maintains that the court had no business interfering with the issue that should be left up to the legislators.
The Barak/Beinisch philosophy that almost anyone can petition the High Court on almost anything resulted in some 10,000 petitions a year. No wonder it takes seven years for cases to be determined. This is likely to change.
Grunis is the type of judge who likes to preserve the right to remain silent. He can best be judged, therefore, by his rulings – and the wording of his decisions. Grunis’s rulings are known to be brief and to the point. He is not seen as someone out to promote an agenda. But he is an Israeli Supreme Court judge, and as such he stands for the defense of the country’s democratic nature no less than his predecessors. Despite his reluctance to overturn legislation, for example, he voted, like Beinisch, against the privatization of prisons, ruling it would be a serious violation of the basic rights of human dignity and freedom. In another well-known ruling, however, he maintained the Citizenship Law, which prevents Palestinians who marry Israeli Arabs from automatically receiving Israeli citizenship or residency. “Human rights should not be a recipe for national suicide,” Grunis ruled.
His name in recent reports has usually been followed by the word “restraint” just as Barak’s was automatically linked to “activism.” That does not, of course, mean he won’t have an impact.
Perhaps the most important task ahead of him is to restore public confidence in the legal system. Restraint and the lack of a clear political identity go a long way towards this.
“There are judges in Jerusalem,” said prime minister Menachem Begin in a statement of faith in the judicial process.
It is perhaps fitting that the week in which the country marked the 20th anniversary of Begin’s death, Grunis took over as head of the Supreme Court.
Grunis’s message, in recognizing that not everything can be ruled upon judicially, is that the country’s lawmakers have to take responsibility and deal with controversial issues. The judges in Jerusalem sit very close to the Knesset and the legislators, too, need to show courage and principles.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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