Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman sought to restore former glory to the legal system last week by making halakha, Jewish law, "binding law of the State of Israel." He didn't mean to replace the country's laws with the laws of the Torah, he says, but rather to encourage litigation of civil matters in rabbinical courts by agreement of the parties involved.
Whatever the justice minister intended, one thing must be clear. The justice minister's role, especially after the tireless battles by his predecessor Daniel Friedmann against the judicial system, is indeed to restore its former glory. This won't be accomplished, however, by imposing religious law on the secular public. Tractate Yoma of the Mishna says the people of the Knesset Hagedolah (or "Great Assembly" of the Second Temple period) were called that because they reestablished former glory and renewed ancient traditions. Neeman will be worthy of his office if he restores the law's trampled glory, because the law is the cornerstone of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
If the minister studies the speech Israel's first justice minister, Pinchas Rosen, delivered at the dedication of the Supreme Court in 1948, he will find Rosen's remarks about "this asset," the Supreme Court, "as dearer than anything dear," an institution that the state bestowed on the public only months after its founding.
In recent years rabbis and others have directed contempt and slander at the Supreme Court, and the justice minister uttered not a word. Friedmann invoked a rule that the justice minister would no longer be a defender of a system that has been described as having "neither the sword nor the purse," and instead became its chief adversary. Precisely against that backdrop, Neeman should have played a role in strengthening the court system, at the top of which is the Supreme Court, and under whose supervision, when the judges sit as the High Court of Justice, the rabbinical courts are also subject. However, the minister has sought to curry favor with rabbis who view the Supreme Court as a thorn in their sides when he remains silent in public and does not speak out publicly to defend the system against constant insults and contempt.
Neeman's public silence remains problematic, even in light of his welcome cooperation with Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and his involvement in the appointment of dozens of judges in all the country's courts. This silence comes against the backdrop of the appeasement of rabbis, some of whom preach draft resistance and resistance to being judged by "the heathens' courts," surely meaning the state courts.
Neeman rightly complains about court opinions that are too long. Using his professional experience, he simplified procedure in civil courts, but there is still much to be done. The return to former glory can be accomplished, for example, by enforcing the requirement for oral argument in court, as once existed, including the stage of closing arguments, which would save huge amounts of paperwork and shorten hearings.
A battle by the minister could help expand staff and budgets in the judicial system. A significant addition to the number of judges and support staff is essential to improving the situation. The senior people in the judicial system took a significant step in recent years in an effort to eliminate delays, shorten waiting times and expedite the granting of judgments. Beinisch made an important admission when she said that "the system is not properly addressing [the needs] of the public." But this is not enough. Whatever is done will not succeed without the support and determination of the justice minister, who has the sword, purse and power to initiate Knesset legislation when needed.
The minister opposed a plan that took shape in the Supreme Court to establish a Court of Appeals; this plan requires study and debate. It was meant to ease the burden on the Supreme Court, a burden that has no counterpart in other countries; the plan's main purpose was to avoid the current circumstance in which rulings on civil appeals can take four years.
Neeman is more conscious than non-professional ministers of the weaknesses in the law enforcement and legal system with which he is charged. It would be good if he devoted his capabilities and energy to what is truly appropriate and avoided unnecessary and damaging comments, which are pleasing to the rabbis' ears but weaken the rule of law, which provides an essential restraint in a divided and polarized society.
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