Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

On the 10th Tevet

In my husband’s Synagogue, there is a notice in the women’s gallery which reads as follow:

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES MAY CHILDREN STAND ON THE LEDGE [NEXT TO THE RAILING]. However, in the case that they are standing there, an adult must hold on to them.

At first, I thought it was amusing – typically Israeli. Now, I am not laughing. And it is not just because today is a fast day.

I often bewail the lack of understanding of democracy in this country. Democracy is not just about being elected but involves principles and processes in which respect for the law is at the core. The disregard for the law here is the most serious threat to our future and it is getting worse.

In Jewish tradition the standards for a civilised society are laid out in the seven so-called Noahide Laws. They include “establishing courts of law,” which is credited as the law that the Rabbis added to the six that are found in the first Book of the Torah, on the basis that no laws at all are meaningful unless there is rule of law. The “courts of law” represent the application of the law to everyone and the ability of a society to enforce its laws. There is no civil society without them.

The historian Paul Johnson in his “History of the Jews” observes the survival of the Jewish people in exile with awe and admiration. He surmises that the key to our survival was our voluntary adherence to laws, even without any means to enforce them. When we did not have a State, we agreed to follow certain laws because we knew that they bound us together. We submitted ourselves to Rabbinic authority and the authority of the community, recognising that our continuity as a distinct community relied on it.

Now, we have a State. However, instead of celebrating our ability to create our own laws in a whole range of matters that were previously denied to us, we flout the law.

Ordinary Israelis continue to ignore the laws of the road, with awful consequences, and the laws regarding safety at work, leading to not just injuries but deaths, and the laws regarding smoking and littering, to name just a few. We do what we can to evade taxes and other legislated obligations to society. We have little respect for the bodies who make and enforce our laws. What is worse is that we increasingly give credibility if not honour to those who advocate breaking the law.

Several weeks ago, when he was claiming that he ought to be Minister of Defence, Education Minister, Naftali Bennett made the following statement: “Our soldiers are more afraid of the military courts than they are of the enemy.” He was saying it accusingly, as if it were a problem. My response was “halevai” – if only it were true.

How proud we would all be if our soldiers had the faith and confidence in their work of defending this country that enabled them to operate without fear of the enemy – as the song says, “mishema’amin lo mefached”, “a person of faith is not afraid.” Although the religious community sings with gusto, Bennett’s statement did not disguise the fact that many ARE afraid of the enemy and too often their illegal over-use of weapons is the direct result of fear. Fear in war is paralysing or it produces adrenaline. Either way, it overshadows rational decision-making. To suggest that our soldiers ought to be afraid of the enemy is to work against sensible principles of running an army. It is also against our religious values.

How proud I would be if all our soldiers took the military code called “purity of arms” into their hearts and saw it as the basic, inviolable law for members of the IDF. The code essentially teaches them that the Jewish value for human life is a guiding principle and that weapons are only to be used when there is no other alternative. This is the law. They should be in fear of the law. If our soldiers are not afraid of the enemy but only of the law, they will live up to the reputation that Israel’s army used to have of being the most moral army on earth. I do wish it were true. Too often, fear of the enemy is clouding the law.

The military courts have the difficult duty of enforcing the internal codes of the army and its rules of engagement.  Their bottom line is the same as that in any court – the law prevails over all individuals and in all circumstances. Historically, the military courts were respected and, yes, feared. Soldiers knew that they would get a fair hearing but that in the end they were not above the law. Those not serving did not feel that they could challenge the authority of the military judges but in today’s environment, all judges in all courts are subject to public scrutiny and criticism. This would be a positive thing if the critics knew the law and felt that it needs to be upheld constantly and consistently. Sadly, today even our leaders feel they are above the law. The legal system is fair game. Laws are not to be taken seriously as applying to everyone always.

Yesterday, a party in the coalition proposed a law to the Knesset that the Attorney-General warned was against both Israeli law and international law. On hearing that, they did not withdraw the proposal but pushed it forward. This follows on the heels of the Nation-State law, which is of questionable legality here and certainly is below the standards of international laws on equal rights for citizens. Almost beyond belief is that the Minister of Justice supports both these laws.

“Justice” is a complicated concept. At its core is rule of law – the principle that the law applies to everyone and must be enforced.  In that regard, it is like democracy. We cannot claim to be a democratic and a just society unless we are a law-abiding society. I am fearful that we are eroding the very basis of our justice.

This piece is written on the fast day of 10th Tevet. It is the day that marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians two and a half thousand years ago but it has also been chosen as the day to say kaddish (memorial prayers) for individuals who perished in the Shoa (Holocaust) whose dates of death are not known. Today, we think about those external enemies who have threatened our existence and we think about our internal strengths. We think about our collective destiny and about each individual who has lived and died as a Jew. It is an appropriate time to revisit our core Jewish values.

I have chosen to live in Israel out of religious, Zionist motivations. I won’t be turning around but I am concerned, critical and angry. The disregard here for democratic values, law and justice goes against my Jewish principles and the values with which I was imbued from childhood. It threatens our society internally and leaves us more vulnerable to external threats.

I hope that today we will take stock and realise that we can be unafraid of external enemies but should be extremely fearful of going against our own laws, whether they be divinely ordained or legislated by our human institutions.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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