My Word: Law and disorder

Had Rabbi Lior gone to the police station to explain that rabbinic endorsements of books are common, the public humiliation would not have taken place.

Rabbi Lior with supporters in Jerusalem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi Lior with supporters in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘There are judges in Jerusalem.” It was this statement of faith in the judicial process by prime minister Menachem Begin that first came to my mind last week as the riots surrounding the detention of Kiryat Arba-Hebron Chief Rabbi Dov Lior grabbed headlines. Still under the influence of a recent visit to the Begin Heritage Center and Museum in the capital, I also recalled his statement “I will never lend a hand to a war of brothers.”
Begin, indeed, played a decisive role in preventing the Altalena affair from turning into civil war. Many members of the Irgun wanted to avenge the deaths of those killed in June 1948 when David Ben-Gurion ordered the firing on the ship carrying arms to the organization. To be fair, “the Old Man,” Ben-Gurion, too, was acting out of a belief that the country would be split in two if groups like the Irgun and Lehi did not disband and put all their efforts into defending the nascent state within the framework of the IDF.
That the Altalena association came so naturally is worrying. Even more perturbing is the way a colleague urged me to “write about Dov Lior, even though you know you’re going to be attacked for what you say.” For a split second, I wasn’t sure if she meant physically attacked or just that I would receive hurtful e-mails and talkbacks.
What has become known as the Dov Lior Affair, however, is a red warning light. It alerts us not only to present risks, but more importantly to the future dangers if we continue on this path.
At the very heart of the affair is the question: Is anyone above the law? Given that Israel has recently seen a former president sentenced to jail and a former prime minister still in court, the answer would seem to be “No.”
But some people can’t take “no” for an answer. And those were the scores of people who brought traffic into the capital to a standstill on June 27, tried to breach the walls of the Supreme Court building and held a vigil outside the home of Deputy Attorney-General Shai Nitzan, whom they consider to be responsible for an arrest warrant issued against Lior.
His many – very vocal – supporters claimed he was being hounded “like a common criminal” for his views. But Lior’s dramatic detention was actually the result of his six-month refusal to comply with police requests that he meet with them at police headquarters to answer questions in their inquiries into the possible incitement contained in the book called Torat Hamelech (The King’s Torah), to which he gave his written endorsement. The book reportedly disseminates the view held by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira that non-Jewish lives are inherently less valued in the eyes of God than Jewish lives, and carries the subtext that it is OK to kill Arabs, under certain circumstances, just for being who they are.
I admit I haven’t read the book – the thought that sales might have been boosted by this week’s publicity is just one of the aspects of the affair I find repugnant.
Since the initial story broke last August, several Torah scholars have issued their own refutations. The spontaneous demonstrations were held largely by members of the national-religious camp, although, thank heavens, they don’t speak for all of us.
Part of their anger was probably the result of the way that Lior, a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor and veteran crew member of the Exodus, was arrested amid flashing lights and sirens as squad cars surrounded his vehicle when he traveled on the Efrat-Jerusalem road.
Of course, had he agreed all those months ago to go to the police station himself and submit a brief statement explaining his viewpoint – that such rabbinic endorsements of books are common – the shocking, public humiliation would not have taken place at all.
It reminded me of the Emmanuel school affair, exactly a year ago, when parents refused to comply with a court order that their daughters return to the Beit Ya’acov school (for all of two remaining weeks of term) and were very publicly escorted to prison for being in contempt of court.
The Lior case, too, shows true contempt of the legal system.
Rabbis should have a special status and be treated with respect, but this status does not put them beyond the law of the land. They are religious leaders, not demigods. And as leaders, they need to be particularly aware of the direction in which they are taking the country.
The problem is not religion, as secular friends immediately claimed, but how religion is interpreted.
There is also a problem created by the judicial system itself. Five years after he retired, we are still feeling the impact of the philosophy of former Supreme Court head Aharon Barak, who maintained that “hakol shafit” – everything can be tried in court.
This approach has led to the feeling by many of politicization and over-intervention by the courts. It also leads to charges of court bias and double standards. More than one person in the aftermath of the Dov Lior incident asked why it is that respected rabbis can be hauled in for questioning while academics who call for violence can hide behind the banner of academic freedom and freedom of expression. The name of Ben-Gurion University’s Dr. Eyal Nir, who on Jerusalem Day a month ago issued a call on his Facebook page urging people to break the necks of rightwing activists, was bandied about.
One obvious question is, where is the religious Zionist leadership in all this? And the fact that Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman has been maintaining the right to silence is astonishing. Neeman should have used his authority and good name to try to calm matters; instead, he became the subject of abuse during a visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. And this before the inevitable repeat performance with Rabbi Ya’acov Yosef.
After being hailed as a hero, Lior told yeshiva students that evening that he had refused to report for questioning because he believed he had committed no crime. (I hesitate to point out that prisons all over the world are filled with people who believe they have done no wrong. I hope in Lior’s case it doesn’t come to that.) In a press conference, State Attorney Moshe Lador stressed the justice system’s commitment to the rule of law and that the detention order was issued after Lior failed to obey a police summons.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying, “The law binds all and all are subject to it.” Similarly, opposition leader and former justice minister Tzipi Livni said that while she didn’t like to see a rabbi taken into custody, the principle of equality before the law must be preserved. “If we lose that foundation, we will lose the source of authority, which is the foundation of our joint lives,” she said.
Interestingly, her father, Eitan Livni, was apparently one of those who argued against Begin’s no-revenge stand in the prestate days not so long ago.
The country is obviously still young, and the divisiveness of the different camps of the early days has not yet disappeared.
Fire off a talkback or an e-mail, but don’t shoot me – I’m only the messenger. My message is that just as we take the external threats to the country seriously, we cannot afford to ignore the inherent existential dangers stemming from a split at home.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.