Trump Officials Offer Conflicting Views on Israel Policy During Transition

The Worst Appointment

Instead of strengthening democracy and promoting human and civil rights, Yaakov Neeman behaves like a minister who represents only one narrow sector.

The appointment of Yaakov Neeman as justice minister has turned out to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's worst error in assembling the government. This non-politician and expert jurist is misusing his position in the cabinet, and behaving like the ultimate intriguer and populist. Instead of trying to ease social tensions, Neeman starts fires and provokes disputes. Instead of strengthening democracy and promoting human and civil rights, Neeman behaves like a minister who represents only one narrow sector.

After failing to split the functions of the attorney general, Neeman has now chosen to challenge democratic governance. His declaration at a conference of rabbis and rabbinic court judges - "Step by step, we shall confer the laws of the Torah on the citizens of Israel and make halakha the binding law of the state" - attests to his estrangement from the fundamental values of Israeli nationhood. It is the right of Citizen Neeman to dream about the establishment of a theocratic state. But Justice Minister Neeman must preserve the basic principles of the government and the law of the state, and these are founded upon civil, secular principles and not on the halakha of the Shulhan Arukh. There is no room in a modern state for the discrimination against women and minorities that is mandated by Jewish religious law.

As there are no grounds to suspect that an expert jurist like Neeman is not familiar with Israeli law and its sources, his statement is particularly worrying. As chairman of the Cabinet committee on legislation, and by virtue of his status and his closeness to the prime minister and the foreign minister, Neeman has great influence over Israeli law. His speech has aroused the suspicion that he wants to gradually, stealthfully introduce religious law and to shove aside the universal values of equality and civil liberties. His backing for the "Nakba Law" early in this government's term is evidence of his inappropriate attitude.

Neeman's explanations in the wake of the backlash against his remarks have not dissipated the apprehension. Neeman said that the state's laws should not be altered "at this time," but rather gradually, starting with the transfer of civil property suits from the "overloaded" civil courts to rabbinic courts. Instead of acting to reduce the load on the court system, as his position obligates him to do, he is proposing handing judgment over to the rabbis. This would be a bad way to go about the task.

Netanyahu must clarify that his government is committed to the fundamental values upon which the state is founded, and not to the establishment of a theocratic state, against the wishes and interests of the majority of the population.