Ultra-Orthodox men at a High Court hearing on segregated West Bank school
Ultra-Orthodox men attending a High Court hearing on ethnic segregation among girls at a religious seminary in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel. Photo by Emil Salman
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Only 36 percent of the general Jewish public - meaning those who are neither ultra-Orthodox nor settlers - expressed great faith in the court system this year, down from 61 percent in 2000, a multiyear study has found.

Among the ultra-Orthodox public, only 9 percent trust the court system, down from 14 percent last year and 15 percent in 2000. Nevertheless, this community's trust level does not seem to be particularly affected by any specific ruling; it has remained far below that of the general population throughout the decade, the study concluded.

The 10-year study, which also surveyed trust in the police, was conducted by Prof. Arye Rattner, a sociologist and criminologist at Haifa University.

Aside from the Haredim, the other group with very low levels of trust in the courts is the settlers. Only 20 percent currently say they trust the courts, down from 46 percent in 2000.

The Supreme Court still outpolls other courts. This year, 56 percent of the general Jewish public expressed great faith in that court, along with 51 percent of Israeli Arabs and 25 percent of settlers - though only 9 percent of Haredim.

But while the figure for the general Jewish public represents a slight uptick from last year's 53 percent, it is still a steep decline from 80 percent in 2000. The same goes for the Arab public, where about two-thirds had great faith in the Supreme Court 10 years ago, and even the Haredi public, where the figure was 19 percent a decade ago.

Rattner noted that the public does not always distinguish between the Supreme Court and the lower courts, so greater distrust of one easily translates into greater distrust of the other.

Complex proceedings

The main cause of the decline in the courts' standing is the length and complexity of legal proceedings, which many Israelis have experienced personally, Rattner said.

Indeed, one thing almost all Israelis agreed on is that the courts are inefficient. When respondents were asked to rank the courts' efficiency on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, the average score was only 2.25 - though Israeli Arabs gave the courts a higher rating of 3.

Another factor contributing to the decline, Rattner suggested, was the Supreme Court's "excessive involvement" when sitting as the High Court of Justice in controversial religious, social and defense issues. This has made the court itself controversial, he said.

Examples of such controversial rulings include a 2006 decision that the Interior Ministry must register gay couples as married if they were legally married overseas, even though Israeli law does not permit same-sex marriage, and a 2009 decision to open Route 443, a major Tel Aviv-Jerusalem artery, to Palestinian traffic.

Several public spats over Supreme Court appointments that seemed to have personal rather than substantive motives have also not helped, Rattner added.

Regarding the Haredim, Rattner said their distrust is deep-rooted and lacks any objective cause. Indeed, based on their respective communities' treatment by the courts, Arab Israelis have far more grounds for complaint than the Haredim do, he said.

"It's possible to say that the Haredi sector's attitude toward all elements of the justice system is consistent and almost totally negative, without any connection to this or that incident," Rattner concluded.

In contrast to the courts, the police have a poor image among the entire the public. Only 24 percent of the general Jewish public expressed great faith in the police. This is up from 19 percent last year, but is still below the 2000 figure of 32 percent, Rattner said.

Among Israeli Arabs, the figure was 20 percent, down from 23 percent last year, while among Haredim and settlers, it was only 15 percent, compared with 14 percent last year.

The study also found a sharp decline in the proportion of people who deemed the courts fair. Among Haredim, the number fell from 22 percent in 2000 to 13 percent this year, and among settlers, it fell from 58 percent to 32 percent. For the general Jewish public and Israeli Arabs, this year's figures were much higher, at 53 and 51 percent respectively, but still down from 71 and 60 percent in 2000.

This year, for the first time, the study also asked respondents to rate the courts' legitimacy on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being highest. The Haredi public gave the courts' legitimacy a score of only 2, compared with 3.5 among the general Jewish public.

The 10-year decline in faith in the courts "constitutes a grave blow to one of the most important foundations of the legal system in a democratic society - legitimacy," Rattner concluded. "Our specific question on this issue in 2010 indicates that the legal system's legitimacy has indeed been damaged in the eyes of various sectors of Israeli society."