What Aharon Barak Leaves Behind

When Effi Eitam's trucks show up to expel the Palestinians, it's unclear whether the Supreme Court will protect them.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Aharon Barak leaves behind a legend: the last of the active giants, apart from Shimon Peres, he advanced the fundamental values represented by the founding fathers of the Zionist movement. They dreamed of a free and enlightened, secular, Ashkenazi, Jewish state governed by civil law. That was the feeling in the 1950s in the Rehavia neighborhood and at the Hebrew University, from which Barak sprang, and where he first imbibed European cultural values.

The people who made up the professional elites in Israel tended over the years to adopt the values of American society as well; Barak is no exception. One of his most important rulings even reflected the political correctness of the American language. This is the ruling that was supposed to permit Adel and Iman Kaadan to purchase a house in a communal settlement, Katzir, that was planned solely for Jews. Barak obliged the state to "reconsider" the family's request. In doing so, he based himself on American rulings that, beginning in the 1950s, were meant to eradicate discrimination against blacks in the school system. In one instance, Barak used the term "Afro-Americans," a phrase that is not standard in Hebrew and would only be used by someone with an American mindset. His worldview and the dominant stature that Barak imparted to the Supreme Court are among the welcome influences that Israel received from the United States.

Barak led the Supreme Court on a strongly conservative path, in the spirit of democratic Zionism. As the years passed, he tried to arrest the changes that occurred in Israeli society and the "liberal" values that he sought to promote sometimes appeared outdated, almost reactionary: Because Israel became less Ashkenazi, more religious, more right-wing, more violent, more corrupt and less sensitive to the rules of democracy. Barak tried to halt this process; he and his colleagues defended civil liberties, but the chasm between the Israeli ideal he represented and the reality only deepened further. This happened to a large extent as a consequence of the oppression of the Palestinians; paradoxically, Barak is one of the people chiefly responsible for this: His court repeatedly authorized the injustices of the occupation and gave short shrift to the Palestinians' human rights. The more this went on, the farther Israeli society moved away from the fundamental values that Barak sought to bequeath to it.

If ever called upon to defend himself, Barak could say, as judges in tyrannical countries have said before him, that all of the terrible actions in the territories were legal, that all was done to defend state security and that a majority of Israelis acquiesced in the occupation and oppression: They could have decided on a different policy had they wanted to and he tried to do right by the Palestinians as much as was possible. But Barak was not the type to stick to the narrowest definition of his job.

He believed the court was entitled and obligated to examine the legality of laws; he was not reluctant to impose on the state arrangements that went against the conscience of many Israelis. He was also capable of acting energetically against the manifestations of oppression in the territories - and generally chose not to do so.

Therefore, he ought not to be remembered as one of the few courageous judges who dared to revolt against oppressive and despotic regimes. On the contrary: Barak began his tenure as Israel's Supreme Court president when it seemed that many countries were entering an era of relative freedom, with the collapse of the Communist empire and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The situation in Gaza and the West Bank, by contrast, persistently worsened; the Palestinians' human rights were increasingly eroded. Again and again they appealed to Aharon Barak's Supreme Court and usually did not receive the succor they sought. When Effi Eitam's trucks show up to expel them, it's unclear whether the Supreme Court will protect them.

An eminent, liberal, sympathetic and paternal jurist who didn't hold himself above the people, Barak also gave the horrors of the oppression a legitimate front; decent people can tell themselves that if Barak could live with the occupation, then so can they. His guilt is therefore greater than that of the people doing the dirty work out in the field.

Regards from Herzfeld

Avraham Herzfeld was a man whom the Israeli newspapers used to describe in a slightly mocking, but mostly affectionate way. Herzfeld, who spent 16 years in the Knesset, was considered the epitome of the Mapainik wheeler-dealer, with his shock of white hair and heavy, Yiddish-sounding accent - a sort of poor man's Ben-Gurion. The actor Shaike Ophir was an expert at impersonating such characters. Born in Ukraine in 1891, he was among the founders of the Achdut Ha'avoda Party and of the Histadrut and a leader of the Agricultural Association.

"Who's Who" published by Am Oved states that Herzfeld "was renowned for his ability to lift his comrades' spirits during times of hardship, due to his sensitivity, his effusive love and his abiding fondness for Hasidic tunes." Mostly, he was famous for his habit of bursting into song; on more than one occasion, he did so in the midst of giving a speech.

Herzfeld is currently rising up from oblivion thanks to one of his descendants, a fellow named Greg Schechter. His wife's grandmother, Goldie, was Herzfeld's sister. She lived most of her life in San Francisco and corresponded with her brother, in Yiddish. The letters, some on official Knesset stationery, were passed down through the generations and now Schechter has decided to see just what's written in them. There's only one little problem: he doesn't understand Yiddish. He scanned some of the letters onto a special Web site he set up, and added an appeal for help: Who knows Yiddish? Who can tell us what Grandpa Herzfeld wrote? (See: http://www.schechterfamily.net/harzfeld).

The letters don't contain any historic scoops or surprising revelations. Mostly they deal with family matters. But Herzfeld was right on the money concerning at least one historic moment: Shortly before Rosh Hashanah of 1947 he predicted that in 1948, the dreams would come true. Here and there he mentioned the speeches he gave at various congresses and his work on the "Finance Commission," i.e., the Knesset Finance Committee: We're overseeing the budget "fun der medineh" he explained to his sister. His letters occasionally offer a glimpse into the daily routine of the leaders of the governing party: Herzfeld spent the Seder night at a convalescent home in Arza; president Shazar and his wife were there, too, he reported to Goldie.

Eventually, he had to make way for younger folk, when he still felt so healthy and strong that he continued to erupt in song just as in his youth. He devoted the rest of his life to caring for the needs of the elderly, and died in 1973. If he were alive, he might be sitting on the "Finance Commission" today as the Pensioners' representative, at age 115.

Only good things

For as long as I can remember, I've been going to concerts at the YMCA auditorium in Jerusalem. I was about 8 years old when I heard Mozart's "A Little Night Music" there for the first time, with an explanation by someone who made a big effort to convince all the kids that a concert is fun. He succeeded, in my case, but I still can't remember who it was. My wish for the children who hear Mozart this week, said Daniel Barenboim, is that they don't forget him.

The bells at the top of the tower (they were recently repaired) are ringing today in honor of those coming to the International Chamber Music Festival. The audience is asked to turn off all cellular telephones and some in the audience applaud in gratitude for the reminder; when I was a kid, most of the people in the auditorium didn't even have a telephone at home. In those days, when it drew near 10:30, people started to fidget in their seats, worried about missing "the last bus." They don't do that anymore.

Otherwise, it's pretty much the same crowd. For half a century I've seen them, between one war and another, meeting at the YMCA, this multicultural, American-Arab-Christian remnant built during the Mandate period; in the ceiling of the arched passageways you can still see bullet marks, from which war is anyone's guess. As has always happened, also for about as long as I can remember, noises penetrate the hall from outside. At the height of the most sensitive andante movement that Robert Schumann ever produced, the wail of police sirens is heard and people nod to each other knowingly: It's Tony Blair; Blair is arriving at the King David Hotel across the street. Not the president of Poland, that twin? Or maybe a terror attack? No, it's Blair, it has to be Blair. There's always somebody there at the King David. And the andante always keeps on playing.

Most of the people are not young. They never were. Secular, Ashkenazi people, many of them "public figures," many of them former public figures: people who were once Supreme Court justices and government ministers, professors and lawyers and teachers, lots of teachers. Jerusalem looks so shabby these days it's a little hard to believe it could still fill this hall and I find myself suspecting that many of the people have come from Tel Aviv. Yet they still project a relaxed, bourgeois, Jerusalem-like air - not wealthy, not really. They don't get any more dressed up than they would to go visit friends for coffee on a Shabbat afternoon, because they're not here to be seen; they're here to hear music. Some even bring along a musical score.

Somehow nearly everyone knows everyone else, or could know them. If the program features an Israeli composer, then they're knowledgeable enough to say that he went to the Gymnasia kindergarten, and point at the lady who is standing half-hidden among the folds of the curtain, either supervising the young violinist or just admiring him. His name is Michael Barenboim - yes, yes, the son of - and she is his mother.

When they have something to say they grab one of the buttons on the shirt of Yehezkel Beinisch, the attorney (yes, yes, her husband ...), who is largely to thank for the existence of this festival. The tickets are put on sale and snatched up three months ahead of time, the ensembles are incredible, the performances are breathtaking. Many of the musicians have come from abroad; others are Israelis, and here and there one can perhaps identify the next up-and-coming Barenboim or Salim Abboud-Ashkar. Some of the concerts are also broadcast in the United States; the words "live broadcast" send a shiver through the crowd and boost its musical patriotism, that remnant of a fading Israeli-ness, and they grab onto it and try to prolong its life.

Outside, the bagel vendor is waiting. Once he was an Arab boy who kept the indispensable za'atar seasoning wrapped in pages torn from a phone book. Now it's a grown man and he uses pages torn from Philharmonic programs. Only good things can be said about this festival.

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