The political landscape of Israel has been anything but typical these days, particularly following Minister of Justice Yariv Levin’s speech on the reform of the judicial system. The nation has long been divided into political factions, with the divide widening due to frequent election campaigns.
However, the proposed judicial reform has taken this division to new depths, polarizing supporters and opponents. Broadly speaking, the reform aims to curtail the powers of the Supreme Court and transfer some of that authority to the government. Key components of the reform include changing the committee responsible for appointing justices to give the government a majority, altering the method of electing the president of the Supreme Court, and reducing the court’s ability to invalidate laws. Supporters of the reform, largely aligned with Benjamin Netanyahu’s political bloc, find resonance with these changes, while those opposing the reform are mainly from the bloc opposing Netanyahu.
Consequently, a majority of the ultra-Orthodox community (though not the entire population) favors the reforms.
One significant reason for ultra-Orthodox support of the legal reform is the inclusion of the “superseding clause,” a condition set by the leaders of the United Torah Judaism party for their entry into the government. This clause grants the government the power to override rulings made by the Supreme Court. Ultra-Orthodox proponents seek to use this clause to address the issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription into the IDF.
Currently, ultra-Orthodox individuals can be exempted from military service by studying in a yeshiva until the age of 26. They argue that the study of Torah protects the nation more effectively than military service, viewing yeshiva students as defenders of the people. They equate their service to that of the priests in the ancient Temple who did not engage in warfare. It is important to note that this exemption for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students has existed since the days of David Ben-Gurion, who initiated it to revitalize yeshiva learning that had nearly disappeared during the Holocaust.
Opponents of the reform contend that it is possible to combine Torah study with military service, as religious Zionists have done. The current situation, they argue, creates a sense that non-Orthodox lives hold less value than Orthodox lives.
Another main argument put forth by the ultra-Orthodox and other supporters of the reform is that the court has been governing the state in place of the government. Prior to the reform, the Supreme Court held the authority to strike down laws and government decisions that contradicted Israel’s Basic Law. Reform supporters assert that the court’s interpretation of these laws always trumps that of the government, leading to a perceived imbalance of power. The ultra-Orthodox community has a long history of disputes with the Supreme Court, viewing it as biased against their interests and as a symbol of the left-wing establishment in Israel. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a prominent Sephardic religious leader, even issued a halachic ruling stating that those who turn to the court (rather than a Torah-based authority) have no place in the world to come. On the other side of the debate, it is argued that the High Court has demonstrated a relatively balanced approach in rulings involving the ultra-Orthodox. Examples include permitting ultra-Orthodox schools to forego teaching core subjects and safeguarding the budget for the children of yeshiva students.
A third reason for the ultra-Orthodox community’s discontent with the Supreme Court centers on the lack of representation for various segments of Israeli society. It is not so much about the absence of ultra-Orthodox representation on the bench, as the ultra-Orthodox prioritize the study of Torah over academic pursuits or public careers. Instead, their concern lies with the Mizrahi (Eastern Jewish) population, who feel underrepresented in the court.
Members of the Shas party, which represents Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox Jews, claimed that the court ruled against their leader, Aryeh Deri, due to his Moroccan surname. They contend that if his surname had been Rubinstein, he would have been acquitted. This claim is related to another aspect of the legal reform—the “reasonableness doctrine.” Some judges cited this doctrine in their rulings against Deri. If the reasonableness doctrine were abolished, Deri would be able to resume his ministerial position in the government. It is worth mentioning that there have been ongoing efforts to address the historical underrepresentation of Mizrahi and Sephardic communities in the Supreme Court, although critics argue that progress has been slow. Interestingly, one of the judges who ruled against Deri is of Iraqi origin, which falls within the Mizrahi category.
In conclusion, the ultra-Orthodox community feels a lack of representation in the Supreme Court and believes that their way of life is not adequately respected. The crux of this issue lies in the contrast between the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and the modern Western lifestyle prevalent among the secular population. The ultra-Orthodox seek autonomy in their educational practices and desire to dedicate themselves solely to the study of Torah without engaging in work or military service. For them, the paramount goal is the study of Torah and the sanctification of God. Until a balance is found in Israel that addresses both the needs of the state and the needs of the ultra-Orthodox, the community’s dissatisfaction with the High Court and feelings of deprivation are likely to persist.
Israel Today Membership
Save 18% Per Month.
Six Months Membership
Save 9% Per Month.