Without Sword or Purse

Even though it is wrapped up in heartwarming ideological arguments, everyone knows that if the treasury were to meet the teachers' financial demands, the strike would end immediately.

While Ran Erez, head of the Secondary School Teachers Association, is being lauded for his cause's public support shown in Saturday's protest rally in Tel Aviv, the Supreme Court justices are conducting a campaign no less important, but which has failed to touch the people. The teachers have stirred up great support for their demands, while Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and her colleagues are conducting themselves like a closed guild - as if the judiciary's future and its ability to retain its independence is the sectorial affair of a small professional fraternity.

At the root of the teachers' demands lies the aspiration for higher wages. Even though it is wrapped up in heartwarming ideological arguments, everyone knows that if the treasury were to meet the teachers' financial demands, the strike would end immediately. This observation is not meant to play down the righteousness of the demand to lower the number of pupils per class, or to improve the teachers' working conditions and their general status. But it is also clear that if the government had reached an agreement with Erez and his colleagues, the strike could have been avoided, or at least shortened.

It is still possible today to end the dispute immediately by accepting the teachers' wage demands. The pedagogical banners lifted during the strike will get the requisite lip service and be put away. Still, and despite the materialistic essence of the protest - "give the teachers more money" - the message has managed to reach the public. Not only are the teachers contributing to create a supportive atmosphere, so are intellectuals, artists, academics, and even their consumers - the pupils. This is a huge army the teachers union has rallied through its public relations agents to effectively pressure the government.

The Supreme Court lacks the sword and the purse, to paraphrase the American statesman and intellectual Alexander Hamilton. It also lacks a fan base. From the start, and based on the definition of the justices' role and their guiding ethos, the justices are aloof. During the swearing-in ceremony at the President's Residence in May 2005, then Supreme Court president Aharon Barak reminded his colleagues that being a judge is not a function but a way of life. "It is a way of life that is somewhat seclusive, which requires dislocation from social and political struggles, which restricts the freedom of expression and response, and which to a great extent is lonely and introverted," Barak said.

The justices are now conducting themselves according to this tradition, while finding it hard to stand up to Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's efforts to challenge the Supreme Court's standing. They are behaving like people who are unable to stir public opinion by the rules of the game: They cannot hold rallies, they cannot openly form coalitions to promote their struggle, they are prevented from being too blunt.

They are working differently: Retired justices, headed by former Supreme Court heads Barak and Meir Shamgar, are trying to convince the justice minister to voluntarily cease his legislative initiatives. The retired justices are participating in a public dialogue on Friedmann's viewpoints. Once in a while a retired justice (and maybe even an acting one) expresses his concerns to a journalist about the justice minister's conduct. And there are stories that a public relations expert has volunteered to help the justices.

These are the efforts of a boy trying to stop a dam with his finger. The struggle for the Supreme Court's defense deserves sweeping public support; it is not only the affair of a group of justices. It is strange to witness authors, artists, academics and legal experts who have all been involved more than once in some type of public dispute, but who are not joining in to publicly and unequivocally support the justices. The Supreme Court's struggle against the justice minister is not about wage benefits or improving work conditions. It is about the country's soul and preserving it as a state of law.