Judicial Appointment Highlights Dramatic Changes Among Israeli Haredim

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Earlier this month, change snuck in through the back door of Israel's court system when Israel’s first ultra-Orthodox judge was appointed. This article was first published by the Jewish Press.

Two decades ago, Israeli Supreme Court President Prof. Aharon Barak proposed that Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky, a haredi rabbinic court justice, be appointed to the Supreme Court. Barak sought to connect Israel’s haredi Jews to the country’s judicial system in this grand, symbolic gesture. But he came away empty-handed, because Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the leading haredi rabbi of his generation, vetoed the move.

Earlier this month, though, change snuck in through the back door when Israel’s first haredi judge was appointed. This was not the symbolic appointment from above envisioned by Barak; rather, it was an ordinary appointment of a talented haredi Jew to serve as a lower court judge. But this ostensibly ordinary appointment was yet another milestone in the dramatic revolution underway in Israel’s haredi community.

This revolution is already in full swing. Recently, figures were released indicating that the employment rate for haredi men had crossed the 50 percent mark for the first time and the rate for haredi women is approaching the national Israeli average.

According to Dr. Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute, the haredi community is no longer a “society of learners,” as it is traditionally called; it is a “society of workers and learners.” Although haredi leaders deem higher education a “spiritual Holocaust,” the number of haredi students in Israel’s academic institutions has grown exponentially and is now approximately 13,000.

Haredim are also enlisting in the Israeli army and performing national civilian service in increasing numbers, even if the rates still leave much to be desired. And most subversive of all: many haredi Jews have smart phones and Haredi usage of the Internet is on the rise. The walls of hared isolationism are thus quietly crumbling.

And what about their attitude toward the state of Israel? Israel’s haredim today cooperate with government authorities and sometimes even serve as national leaders, both in the Knesset and in the government.

The last bastion of haredi opposition to the institutions of the state is the profound alienation of this community from the Israeli court system. In 1999, half a million haredim demonstrated against the Supreme Court. A decade later, there was a heated conflict over the court’s ruling against ethnic separation in haredi schools in Emanuel. In fact, recent surveys show that over 83 percent of haredi Jews do not have confidence in the Israeli Supreme Court, compared to 30 percent of the general public in Israel.

The dismissive attitude toward Israeli law is related, of course, to the deep moral divide between liberal and secular worldviews on the one hand, and conservative and haredi worldviews on the other. Moreover, almost all the religious authorities of our generation have ruled that litigants should not appear in front of Israel’s state courts, which they call “courts of the gentiles,” warning that anyone who uses the services of these courts “does not have a portion in the world to come.” The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef asserted that “anyone who turns to… the secular courts is raising his hand against the Torah of Moses our teacher.”

But despite these rabbinic rulings and the mindset of the haredi street, haredim in Israel appeal to Israel’s courts as a matter of course. When there is a dispute over who should head a yeshiva they turn to the courts for a ruling. More than 1,000 haredim have qualified as lawyers in Israel in recent years. The appointment of the first haredi judge is in line with this trend and takes it one step further.

Litigants see a judge as a symbol of the authority of the state. Therefore, when a haredi Jew serves as a judge, it breaks stereotypes in two directions and builds an important symbolic bridge of partnership and cooperation.

Moreover, every judge brings the perspective of his or her personal identity into the interpretation of the law, within the limits prescribed by the profession. Liberal judges, Arab judges, and national-religious judges in Israel confront this challenge daily. Haredi judges will thus be able to enrich the complex nature of Israeli law and add an extra dimension of pluralism to it. This will be to the benefit of both the haredi community and to Israeli society as a whole.

Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is vice president of research.

This article was first published by the Jewish Press.