After rulings last week that struck down egregious examples of legislative inequality, the Supreme Court has come under a vehement assault by ultra-Orthodox parties and their coalition fellow travelers. Opponents of the court on the right-wing of Israeli coalition politics declared their intent to pass laws that would strip the court of its constitutional role as the sole guardian of our democratic rights.
In overruling the law “regulating” the draft of haredi yeshiva students, the court threw out a political deal based on inequality of citizenship. The law discriminated against the country’s youth who do not claim to be entitled to an automatic deferment from the duty to defend the country for the purposes of a course of study, whether religious or secular.
The ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – backed by pragmatic cabinet ministers keen to retain their jobs, are now lobbying for an override clause in new legislation to prevent the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, from exercising its democratic role.
UTJ chairman Ya’acov Litzman said his party wants to restore the government’s ability to grant mass exemption from military service to haredi yeshiva students. Litzman and his partner in bullying, Shas chairman Arye Deri, claim a right of exemption because they believe religious study is more important than national defense.
On Thursday night they were joined by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
It appears that the last time the Jewish people valued its survival over the obligation of Torah study was when the nation was called to war on its way to the Promised Land. The Bible records the first imperative of national service in Numbers 1:45:
“All the Israelites aged 20 years and over, enrolled by their ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms” are obligated to serve. However, in a following verse God created a catch, telling Moses: “Do not on my account enroll the tribe of Levi or take a census of them with the Israelites.” The tribe of Levi was exempt due to its duty of attending to the Tabernacle.
Millennia later we are without a Tabernacle or its successive temples, but faced with a similar but less clear-cut problem. This is apparently due to the ultra-Orthodox politicians’ identification with the tribe of Levi. Do haredi Jews honestly believe that they alone in Israeli society qualify for military deferment due to their commitment to religious study? Is there a rabbi in Israel who sincerely believes that a yeshiva student has the moral right to study while even his fellow Orthodox citizens can combine religious study and military service in the so-called hesder yeshiva movement?
Kulanu MK Roy Folkman told The Jerusalem Post he denounced attacks on the High Court as dangerous and harmful to the country and called for “serious” and meaningful legislation on the haredi-enlistment issue. “We want to help integrate the haredim into the army in a reasonable manner while preserving the principle of yeshiva study exemptions to some extent,” he said.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman asserted that the High Court decision is a golden opportunity to correct “injustices” in the lack of draft equality. It would be “a mistake to talk about an override clause,” he insisted. Rather, he said, “we need to talk about real change.”
Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuly accused Shaked and Bennett of “trolling the courts,” deriding their press release that claimed that passing laws the courts cannot strike down is a recognized practice worldwide. “Only in a dark dictatorship is the Supreme Court subjugated to political gimmicks,” he said.
Meanwhile, Deri called the Supreme Court “disconnected” from the Jewish people, while Litzman called the decision “discriminatory against haredim.”
The real issue is the fact that the Supreme Court is our democracy’s essential watchdog against corruption, whether civil or religious. Unlike politicians, it is not motivated by politics but by an agenda to guarantee that Israel shall remain a pluralistic society where all citizens have the same rights.
While Jewish tradition guides the Jewish state, it must work in harmony with the rule of law.
Without the law, the only democracy in the Middle East would face the abyss of theocracy or worse. The Jewish state can survive only if it is both democratic and Jewish. To ensure that balance the court needs to remain independent.