Sunday’s Mass Prayer Gathering

The Sunday, 14th February, prayer gathering of a broad cross-section of Orthodox Jews — media estimates of the crowd ranged between 250,000 to 500,000 participants — and was descibed by the Israeli media as the largest such gathering in the Israel’s history. The widespread predictions of possible violence and bloodshed proved to be utterly baseless. The gathering, which lasted more than two hours, passed without incident, and when it was over the huge crowd dispersed quietly.

The prayer vigil was called against a backdrop of escalating hostility to religious observance in Israel and the usurpation of representative government by the judicial branch, in particular the Israeli Supreme Court.

I. The World’s Most Activist Court

In the opinion of many commentators, there is no more powerful supreme court in the world than the Israeli Supreme Court. No other supreme court has assumed such responsibility for resolving all the problems of society, says Hebrew University’s Ruth Gavison, one of the directors of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. There is no area, in the words of another leading commentator, “too political, too contentious, or too trivial to escape [the Supreme Court’s] vigilant eye.” In recent years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly entered areas in which there are no traditional legal materials to guide it: neither statute or judicial precedent.

‘The Barak Court’s judicial activism has thrust the Supreme Court into the center of many of the value conflicts that divide Israeli society, a role for which it is completely unsuited. The Supreme Court is totally unrepresentative of Israeli society. In a country in which over 50% of the population is of Middle Eastern origin, there is not one justice of Middle Eastern descent. In a country, in which 20-25% of the population is religiously observant, only one permanent member of the 15-member Court is religious. (Justice Barak and his colleagues largely control the selection of their successors, with little input from the Knesset and the executive branches.)

Not only is the Supreme Court highly unrepresentative, but it has followed an explicitly elitist vision in its value choices. In Justice Barak’s words, a judge should be guided in those cases involving broad value choices by the values of “the enlightened society in whose midst he dwells.” “The values of the enlightened society,” he has made clear, does not mean a social consensus, but only those values which are, in his words, universal — i.e., neither Jewish nor non-Jewish — progressive, and worthy of enlightened nations.

In no area involving conflicting societal values has the Court’s unrepresentative nature and its elitist vision been so keenly felt as that of religion and state. The Barak Court has consistently failed to acknowledge that the affirmation of Israel as a “Jewish state,” in both the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Laws is not meaningless verbiage. Rather Justice Barak has simply defined “Jewish” as synonymous with “democratic,” which he then defines in terms of rights, both enumerated and unenumerated.

Justice Barak’s vision, while consistent with that of a very small minority of Israeli society, which would define Israel as merely a “state of its citizens,” is far from that of Ben-Gurion and the other signatories to the Declaration of Independence, as well as the majority of citizens today.

Israel’s founders viewed the creation of the State as the fulfillment of a 2,000-year-old dream. And they recognized that Jewish identity would be the glue holding society together. To preserve a single Jewish identity, for instance, they placed all issues of personal status under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate.

By refusing to treat the term “Jewish” as an independent source of values, the Supreme Court has left itself vulnerable to the charge, voiced most recently by former Justice Tzvi Tal that it “has completely cut itself off from the tradition of the Jewish people.” Under Justice Barak, every aspect of the fifty year status quo arrangement on matters of religion and state has been eroded, with a resulting loss of identifiable Jewish character to the State. Laws against commercial activity on the Sabbath have been undermined, the jurisdiction of the religious courts restricted, the importation of non-kosher meat permitted, and the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over conversions dramatically reduced.

The Supreme Court has ordered hearings on a suit to bar ritual circumcision in Israel. Over the ages, tens of thousands of Jews have died rather than give up circumcision, the first commandment given to the Jewish people. Yet for the Israeli Supreme Court it is not unthinkable that the first self-proclaimed “Jewish state” in nearly two millenia might outlaw ritual circumcision. Nor has the Court acknowledged that it has no authority to prevent parents from circumsizing their children.

Here are a few other examples of the Court’s appropriation of broad policymaking functions from the Knesset and the executive branch and of its creation of new rights out of whole cloth:

  • Two years ago, the Supreme Court overruled the decision of the Supervisor of Traffic to close a two-block stretch of Bar Ilan Street in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Such routine decisions about the direction of traffic are never subjected to judicial review. Justice Barak then went on to appoint a commission to study the entire issue of Sabbath street closings on a national level, a remedy far beyond the narrow case in front of the Supreme Court and involving the type of policy-making normally associated with the other branches.
  • Last year the Supreme Court ordered Educational TV to screen a film celebrating teenage homosexuality, without citation of one statute or judicial precedent mandating such a result. The Supreme Court thereby effectively created a new right to promote one’s lifestyle on public broadcasting.

II. Delegitimization of the Religious Population

As part of an escalating campaign of delegitimization of religious Jews and religious observance, major parties have based both local and national campaigns around the slogan “Stop the Chareidim” or “Stop the Blacks.”

In response to the opening of a national religious kindergarten in Kfar Saba, signs appeared advocating “exterminating the chareidim at birth.” Yet no protest was heard. Ssimilarly Justice Barak himself did not protest when a Beersheba magistrate likened religious Jews to “huge lice” in his presence. Indeed Barak praised the speech, and only three weeks later, after complaints from religious leaders, was the magistrate reprimanded.

A leading journalist savors the idea of tying the beards of all the “weird chareidi rabbis together and setting them on fire” and another — a former Knesset member — declares his greatest national service would be to go into Mea Shearim with a submachine gun to “mow them all down,” and again there is no outcry.

In Tzoron a new religious school opened last September, with twenty first-graders. For more than a month, these little children had to run had to run a daily gauntlet of forty to sixty demonstrators, some accompanied by attack dogs, to enter the school. The school building was regularly pelted with stones, with the children inside, and defaced. These demonstrations were encouraged by Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, who came to Tzoron to urge the local population to resist the scourge of religion.

Am Echad is an umbrella organization designed to ensure an accurate portrayal of Orthodox Jews and Judaism in the media and to serve as a resource for journalists seeking a greater understanding of the Orthodox community.
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