The courtyard of the Supreme Court of Israel is a dignified and awe-inspiring space. It is surrounded by stone arches in the Mediterranean architectural tradition. It is a mixture of the austere and the agile. The light and open Jerusalem sky give it an airy agility. The courtyard is divided by a narrow channel of water which was inspired by a verse from the Book of Tehillim or Psalms: “Truth will spring up from the earth and justice will be reflected from the heavens.”
The stone arches which come from the desert represent the solidity of the law and the sky reflected in the water, the endurance of justice. The Court itself is an exhilarating building endowed by Dorothy de Rothschild and the Rothschild Family Foundation and designed by Israeli architects, Ram & Ada Karmi; it has been called Israel’s finest public building. It combines “a sense of monumentality with a sense of ease, inviting accessibility.” On the day I visited the Court earlier this year, large school groups and other visitors moved through the open areas with relaxed ease. The five courtrooms of different sizes were all open to the public and we wandered into a few courts and were able to sit in the public gallery and observe the proceedings.
The Supreme Court is deliberately situated adjacent to the Knesset, the legislative and executive branch of the government (reminiscent of the juxtaposition of the Temple and the Sanhedrin). During the planning it was decided the building would express justice, law and righteousness and draw inspiration from Biblical metaphors. I got to think of the Supreme Court because the Parasha or Torah reading this week not only is called “Shoftim” or judges, but also focuses on justice:
“Judges and officers [police] you shall appoint in all your cities… Justice, Justice you shall pursue”
(Deut. 16 18-21)
Judaism is pre-occupied with the pursuit of compassionate justice and expects the highest standards of integrity and independence from the judiciary, well-aware that“bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and makes just words crooked” (Ibid). Justice itself needs to be achieved through the right processes hence the repetition of the words: “Justice, justice”.
The Israeli Supreme Court is expected to take Torah principles and Jewish legal tradition into consideration. It has indeed had several religious High Court Judges including Elyakim Rubinstein who describes himself as a religious Zionist. In an interview in March by the Jerusalem Post he said: “The main thing is to be a Zionist and fair court which sits in Jerusalem (and not somewhere else) that is a universal setting. It lives the life of the nation and tries to help those in need. It tries to help the government, but is also guardian of human rights.”
Elyakim identifies the balancing act that the Supreme Court plays in Israel between upholding the democratic principles of the country while respecting the Knesset and also being true to the Jewish spirit. As with any other institutions that position itself in the middle and also tries to speak truth to power, it draws fire from both the right and the left.
In the 1990’s the Court issued its “Basic Laws for Human Dignity and Freedom” which in the absence of a constitution are especially important. The Court has argued that the Government rather than itself, try and resolve issues around Haredi conscription and the rights of the non-Orthodox movements. It however has also been accused of having an activist position on Palestinian issues. However this itself is arguable. The Court has declared the West Bank Barrier legal, but also endorsed targeted killings as legal.
The current Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has asserted her goal is to shift the court in a conservative direction. Another hot button issue today is whether the Knesset may establish a formal mechanism to override court rulings that strike down a law as unconstitutional. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the Israeli Supreme Court will continue to play a vital role in Israeli society today. It protects basic human rights and it draws on Jewish tradition.
It’s a joy and privilege to have a Supreme Court in an independent Israel in the Jewish capital. Despite its imperfections, it’s a reflection of Israel’s robust democracy and a great vehicle to proclaim “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”