Painting the Grass Yellow

In 1966, the country held its breath as it read reports about a trial against Judge Eliezer Malchi, who was charged with taking bribes. It was a scandal unheard of at that time: The Holy of Holies had been blemished.

In 1966, the country held its breath as it read reports about a trial against Judge Eliezer Malchi, who was charged with taking bribes. It was a scandal unheard of at that time: The Holy of Holies had been blemished. A judge had been put on trial.

The case acquired extra spice due to the use of wiretaps, and the fact that the indictment was based mostly on the testimony of a woman who had clerked for the defendant. Her testimony suggested that there had been a romantic liaison between the two. At the end of an intensive trial - the panel headed by Judge Zvi Eli Becker held hearings several times a week, every week - Malchi was acquited of all charges.

Since that case, it is hard to remember any other cases of judges being tried for bribery or other blatant forms of corruption. Yet recently published polls show that there has been a sharp drop in the public's trust in the judiciary, and there is a sense that it is deeply corrupt.

There have been occasional cases of unacceptable behavior, and even criminal behavior, in the judiciary: preferential treatment and nepotism in selecting clerks for the Supreme Court; puzzling behavior by two judges in the Tel Aviv Traffic Court; forgery of court transcripts by a Haifa Municipal Court judge; a Be'er Sheva judge who acquired the log of her husband's cellular telephone conversations because she wished to keep tabs on him. But even if there have been other cases of unacceptable - perhaps even criminal - behavior by judges (these examples are not meant to be exhaustive), the judiciary has no significant criminal record. On the contrary, as far as is known, the judiciary is exceptional in its ethical cleanliness, certainly when compared with the government and Knesset, a troubling number of whose members have been indicted or investigated under suspicion of being involved in serious corruption.

Nonetheless, the Israel Democracy Index, a summary of which was published Monday by the Israel Democracy Institute, shows that there has been a 7 percent drop in public trust in the Supreme Court. According to another poll published three weeks ago - alongside data on corruption levels worldwide - 49 percent of Israelis do not believe the judiciary is fair, 37 percent believe that it is corrupt, and 24 percent claim that only through bribery can an individual receive a fair trial.

There is more than one possible reason for the gap between the judiciary's proven honesty and its corrupt image, as reflected in these polls. Perhaps the public knows things that the media and law enforcement agencies do not know. In other words, perhaps people's personal experiences have led them to the conclusion that the judiciary is corrupt, even though this conclusion has evaded the media, the police and the State Prosecutor's Office. Or perhaps the media is thought to be in cahoots with the law enforcement agencies in order to hide the rot that has overcome the courts. Or maybe the public is superimposing its view of the ethical state of the executive and legislature on the judiciary as well. In other words, since public service is indeed corrupt, the common citizen has concluded that the halls of justice must also be tainted by corruption.

But there is also a different explanation: that politicians are systematically and consciously trying to undermine the public's faith in the judiciary, the police and the State Prosecutor's Office. This tactic has been used by the president, the prime minister, ministers and MKs whenever they are under investigation; it is used by well-known politicians when the court's position is not to their liking; it is used by senior officials when they are caught in the wrong; it is used by local authority heads and their employees when they are required to answer for offenses they have committed.

Israelis always compare what happens in their country to what is normal in "properly run countries." It is doubtful whether such countries actually exist; each has its own troubles and shortcomings. In one area, the judiciary, our grass is greener - but the politicians, with the help of pollsters, talkbacks and also a few journalists, are doing their best to paint it yellow.