A tale of two courts

On Sunday I went to visit the Israeli Supreme Court. It’s an unusual birthday activity, I’ll grant you, but Israel’s Supreme Court is one of my global favourites. Its judges force the state to uphold the values it professes — Jewish and democratic, human rights and equality — and regularly strike down laws which offend these principles. Britain could do with such an enlightened senior judiciary.

Its building, too, reflects its place as one of the world’s foremost constitutional courts. A huge, sweeping window represents the need for transparent justice; a narrowing flight of steps denotes the logical legal reasoning process; the walls resemble the Kotel, harking back to the Sanhedrin the first Jewish ‘supreme court’ and representing the way that its present day judges infuse their decisions with Jewish values.

The courtrooms themselves are beautiful spaces, all the lawyers sitting round a table together (collegiality and consensus-building) and the architecture conspicuously drawing on Jewish, Arab, Christian and Roman traditions. Any civilised country would be proud to have this as the pinnacle of its legal system.

Then today I visited the military court at Ofer in the West Bank. This was different in several ways. Firstly, and unusually in a Jewish state, its clientele was exclusively Arab: Jewish residents of the West Bank face trial, on the rare occasions when they face criminal charges, in civilian surroundings.

The judges were all Jewish though — and unusually for judges in a democracy, they felt no need to recuse themselves from cases where a conflict of interest might arise, such as when the victim lived in the same settlement as them.

Hearings took place in Hebrew as well, although the incomplete translation for defendants (and the fact that many had already been forced to sign a confession in a language they couldn’t read) might be seen as detracting from the fairness of the proceedings.

Unfortunately, the public is now excluded from the trials of children: a recent change in the law makes young people’s right to privacy paramount. How touching that a country which is happy to interrogate children in the middle of the night without their parents present is sure to preserve their human rights when international observers begin to show an interest.

A sign in the waiting room (a ‘room’ in the loose sense of being a swelteringly hot square contained within chainlink fencing) announced: “To improve service, it is now possible to pay military court fines online.” The occupation of the West Bank: continually striving to improve its efficiency. Little wonder that our guide, Gerard Horton from Military Courts Watch, warned us against falling into the trap of trying to create a “best practice occupation” rather than ending it altogether.

To take just one of the fifteen or sixteen aspects of what I saw which horrify me: have none of these people ever heard of Judaism?

Judaism is the religion that introduced an almost farcical number of safeguards into criminal proceedings to avoid imposing the death penalty; Judaism is the religion which exhorted its judges not to favour the poor nor be deferent to the rich. Yet in Ofer, judges sit under the crest of the Israel Defence Forces, wearing the same martial epaulettes as the prosecution, ‘impartially’ dictating the fate of Palestinians accused of throwing stones at, erm, the Israel Defence Forces.

In more recent times, the Jews are the people who suffered when we were singled out as an ethnic group, surrounded by barbed wire and detained on trumped-up charges.

How can we now be the ones oppressing others? How any self-respecting Jewish lawyer can act as prosecutor or judge in a system of military courts so obviously riddled with pro-military bias, with their 99.74% conviction rate, is utterly beyond me.

And this is why Israel receives so much media coverage. It’s not bias or anti-Semitism or double standards. It is simple human bafflement that a state which can get it so right — look at the Supreme Court, with its multicultural architecture and courageous libertarian judges — can also get it so wrong.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London