Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Adar 5766 - March 29, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Stealing the Gavel from the Judge!

by Chaim Arbeli

Part II

The chareidi community quite frequently finds itself trapped between the hammer of the judges of law and the anvil of the dismal reality. The Israeli courts are well known for their "objectivity," and the community of Torah- faithful Jews has found itself to be on the raw end of the legal rulings. As a consequence, Betzedek was founded, which aimed to utilize "their" tools and, while triggering the mechanisms of law and justice, take care of the interests of the vulnerable sector—the Torah Jews..

Just as the gedolei hador dispatch rabbinical delegates deep inside the legislative system—the Knesset— to rescue a drop from the ocean, so Rabbi Mordechai Green, as a rabbinical delegate in the judicial system, acts with his legal expertise to save what he can—and from the power of those who sent him come the legal successes of the organization.

In the Betzedek offices, we got together attorneys Mordechai Green and Uri Steinmetz. We wished to understand the way in which the Betzedek organization functions today under the encouragement and direction of Israeli gedolim from all circles and communities, and why the Council for Legal Protection of Jewish Values has pulled out of the fray. Attorney Green is now the director of Betzedek, while Attorney Steinmetz is primarily in private practice.

In the first part, Attorney Steinmetz noted that the prospects of achieving anything in the Israeli court system are very daunting. He quoted Rabbi Simcha Meron who wrote two articles, thirty years apart, in which he brought clear evidence: there were cases on the very same legal issues— and on the very same particular points—where the left and the secular were found by the courts to be in the right, while the chareidi and religious community were found wrong! He said that it was good that a new, younger generation was there to take up the challenge.

Attorney Green said that the situation now is different from twenty and thirty years ago. The High Court, especially under Chief Justice Barak who holds that everything is justiciable, is involved in many aspects of life. This is a complaint not only of the chareidi community, but of many secular people as well. This makes it much harder to ignore the Court. However, Betzedek can point to a long list of successes, despite all the difficulties and obstacles.

The final question asked was: Why not try to overwhelm the High Court with dozens of petitions? Attorney Green admitted that there are many issues in which they decide not to file with the Court. The perspective of the decision whether or not to go to court is often much broader than the case at hand. It relates to legal consequences of the decision in the case, of course, but also to the consequences for other parts of the population. Even in cases where, from a short-term perspective, it might well have been in the interests of chareidi Judaism, out of concern for the general population they decide not to act.


Attorney Steinmetz listens. He does not argue that one should not attempt to fight in the courts, but he does stress that other channels should not be ignored. For example, he relates the following:

The chareidi community was certain that the heter isko of the banks for ribis could be relied on for everything. Recently, there was a court hearing in regard to a certain claim against one of the banks. In its defense, the bank recruited an opinion of the inspector of the banks, in which it was written that the heter isko was a mere ceremony, just a religious formality that carried no legal weight. This was backed up with the opinion of a most senior judge, one of the judicial leadership in the country. They claimed that the heter isko which depends on banks in a prominent location is a laughing stock.

How was the problem solved? The chareidi community stayed away from the bank. They made clear to the bank in no uncertain terms that "if the heter isko had no legal footing nor any meaning for them, they would go to a bank where the heter isko was effective, and where any charge of it being a laughing stock would not be acceptable. Those other banks were happy to receive thousands of new customers, while the other banks had no idea how to stop up the pit they had dug for themselves.

A few days later, the inspector of the banks hurried to write a completely different opinion, in which he left the whole matter to "market forces" . . . He himself became a laughing stock. This example is a fine illustration of how sometimes it is better to make a decision outside the courtroom, and it is preferable to let the "market force" of the chareidi community take effect. It is definitely a substantial power. According to professional estimations, observant Jews (though not all of them are chareidi) make up 40 percent of the population!

Attorney Green: "In my opinion, this episode is not necessarily a legal-religious issue. I do not agree that this is definitely an anti-religious ruling. The term heter isko was simply foreign and alien to them. They related to it from the perspective of the laws of contracts, to what extent would they stick to their decision, and how much of a transaction was there between the individual and the bank. It does not have to be connected to religion."

Attorney Steinmetz: "Who are we talking about here? The inspector of the banks, no less! It is a basic term that he has to know!"

Attorney Green: But on a certain level, the outcome of that incident was positive: In the end, the heter isko was secured, and obtained validity from a legal standpoint. I think that this is actually a classic example of how a legal problem ended up with a positive outcome.

My colleague, Attorney Steinmetz, argues that we must not stop lobbying, and I am also convinced of that! We work in full collaboration with the public activists and politicians. We do not follow a separate road, disconnected from them, but we serve as a second arm with pincer movements, as a parallel and coordinated arm. The politicians apply to us, they keep us up to date and bring up problematic issues—and wherever there is a legal ground, we go into action.

Besides that, our operation entails lobbying. First, you appeal in writing to the relevant body and point to a certain discrimination. In your letter you present the legal claims, check the relevant materials and present it all to them. After additional correspondence, when the legal disagreements remain as a block, you state in no uncertain terms: "Please see this as a preliminary to an application to the High Court for relief—if we do not get an answer we will be forced to apply to the courts."

Just having recourse to the High Court — does that not involve a certain recognition?

Attorney Green: We heard an abundantly clear message from the rabbonim with regard to the relationship between us and the courts. After we had presented a certain ruling to HaRav Eliashiv, he told us: "What do you expect from the judges? Would you have expected anything different from them?" And he added, ironically, "Actually, the judges should disqualify themselves every time they have to judge a religious issue — since they are biased. Just as a person will disqualify himself from judging a case that involves his own relative, they ought to disqualify themselves from judging any case related to religion."

HaRav A.Y.L. Shteinman told us: "They are the law! We cannot have anything to do with them! They are on a different path! They do not think as we do! And whenever we apply to them it is not because we recognize their authority, choliloh, but we do so out of compulsion. We are attempting to save ourselves and that is the route of our hishtadlus, but absolutely and in no way do we place any reliance on them [as having any intrinsic value].

"We do not recognize the High Court. We do not recognize the laws of the country [as being eternally valid]. We do not identify with any of the scale of values that the State represents. When we come before the High Court, it is not because we recognize the authority of the law nor what they do—we are merely coming to speak to the courts in their legal language."

Today, I appeared in the High Court on the issue of the right to demonstrate against missionaries in Arad. And this is how I expressed myself in front of the judges: "I am a believing Jew who completely and totally negates the activities of the missionaries which damage the foundations of Judaism. But I come to you according to the rules of your game: Let us corroborate what you define as a basic law—the right to demonstrate."

We use their language, since the courts do not understand us nor do they understand our language. We are foreign to them. They have no understanding whatsoever of where we come from nor what our values are.

Is it that they do not understand, or they do not want to understand?

You see, they really do not understand. The extent of their knowledge of the Torah is scant. It is almost equivalent to what one of our children knows. They simply do not know much. Like any other person in the country, they are fed with a little media, a few reports from the Knesset, and so on. They do not understand our overall values at all.

From their perspective, everything about us is political. It is hard for them to understand that there exists a clear and solid system of values that we represent, and from which we cannot budge.

On this issue, there is no place for ambiguity. Things have to be very clear. In no way do we recognize their authority! All we are doing is saying here: "According to the rules of your game, even though we do not recognize you, it is appropriate and correct to rule in such and such a way. Even though we do not recognize their values, as citizens we have the full right to demand equal rights."

Is the High Court intimidated by Betzedek?

Attorney Green: That is a very important point. In many cases we apply to the powers that be — such as the municipality, the Ministry of Education or Treasury, or others — and the problems are solved before we get to the High Court. For the most part, it is better that way. It seems to me that the powers that be have already taken in and internalized the fact that there is an organization that represents chareidi interests, and that it might, in cases involving discrimination or perversion of justice, appeal to the High Court.

We are certain that, in more than a few cases, the ruling parties have given in without a fight out of an awareness that an organization exists that could take action on the legal plane.

The classic example of this is the issue of teachers' continuing education courses. The Ministry of Education contributes funding for these courses. They suddenly stopped funding the chareidi courses. The reason given was that only those who belonged to the national Histadrut Hamorim (Teachers' Union) could get funding.

We pleaded discrimination, threatening to appeal to the High Court. The result was that, after urgent consultations with their legal department, they were forced to retract their decision and we got our equality without recourse to the High Court.

We serve as a deterrent. As long as they know that they will be criticized, and that they might have to face a legal critique later on, they know that they must be careful and give the matter more thought, before things go too far. In such circumstances, they have to restrain themselves ahead of time. And if we can achieve those results without going to the High Court, all the better. It is usually preferable, too.

The mass demonstration that was held here below, on the steps of the building — did that affect the conduct of the High Court?

Attorney Green: First and foremost, that enormous rally was not geared to that purpose. That rally was the cry of a Jew who was touched in the place where his tefillin are. Did that collective cry from the heart have an effect? In Judaism, actions are examined according to how much you invest and not according to the outcome: "Man darf to'en—nisht oyfto'en."

Aside from this, we do not have the tools to measure the extent of the impact. However, it is obvious that such an event could not pass by without leaving a scar. It is etched in the heart of the people. I would say that it caused them a shock, or at least a shake up. They realized that the chareidi community had lost all shred of faith in the legal system. It is hard for me to assess whether or not it brought about any specific results in the field. As far as the current situation is concerned, the rulings still do not reflect an appropriate sensitivity to the chareidi community.

Attorney Steinmetz: Barak's method, while he was still the attorney general for the government, was not to get worked up. He related to the outbursts and the criticism as a kind of muddy wave which sends up a foam and eventually passes. Even faced with fire from the secular people who did not favor his legal proceedings, he never got upset. As I said earlier, the way everyone sees it, the game is predetermined. I must say that I am a little `biased.' My late father studied under HaRav Yoel, the Satmar Rebbe. The way I see it, in fifty years time, even the Mizrachi circles will be walking around with the label, `We're all Satmar' . . . "

Attorney Green: The Satmar approach to the whole subject is legitimate, but what will happen in another fifty years is only a matter of conjecture. You have to understand, that from a value perspective, there is no argument whatsoever between us and Satmar. A Jew is a Jew, and the law is the law!

The value-based rejection of the law as it is based on non- Jewish law is a complete rejection. There is no room for compromise, no breaks, no concessions involved. The question does not even come up for discussion, since we are talking about a full wagon set against an empty one. Truth to tell, it is barely even a wagon and the tires are already flat. If the wagon is actually loaded, it is full of muddy values that are reflected in the generation . . .

Therefore, there is no value consideration here at all. The question is only one of tactics.

The Chazon Ish once explained that every generation has its battlefront. Our generation has a battle that never was before. It is the battle against the High Court, which establishes people's overall values and permeates all of society. We act from lack of choice, out of a sense of persecution, out of a feeling that if we do not protect ourselves we will remain trodden on. Should we fight for our rights according to their rules? It is not a question of principle. It is rather a question of tactics, of weapons.

Do they relate to a chareidi attorney who appears in court in a different way than they relate to a secular attorney?

Attorney Green: Not too much, I think. In general, there is a kind of psychological barrier in relation to a chareidi person. The judges know very little about the Torah, and the way of life of a chareidi Jew. There is definitely a feeling of strangeness and alienation. But it is different when it comes to an attorney who uses their legal language.

If a legal question is brought up in a hearing, such as removing a balcony on a house, then the fact that the litigant is a chareidi does not necessarily have an influence. But in any case where there is someone who embraces or is connected to our lifestyle, overall values or way of conducting ourselves, there is a definite alienation.

If tools are lacking to present the subject in a way that they can understand the world-perspective of the person in the case, then the psychological barrier could affect the outcome. And that is the abysmal difference between a system of legislation that is manmade and given to interpretation by succeeding generations, and zos HaTorah lo tehei muchlefes, a Divine system of Law.

And how is an Arab who appears in court treated?

There is a marked favoritism. There is a distinct attempt by the courts in general—and the High Court in particular—to get to know the Arabs, and to increase their status. More and more, the court rulings are creating a situation in which the country is being stripped of its Jewish identity and is becoming a State for all citizens. They are looking for opportunities to raise Arab rights.

Could it be that the time will come when they will do reverse discrimination against the chareidim?

That is the aim. But we will be quite happy just to get a relationship of equality, even without the reverse discrimination.

Do you also deal with the legal problems of individuals?

An individual who is being persecuted for his religion, such as a worker who was fired because of his refusal to work on Shabbos, will obviously be taken care of. But we will not intervene in a private quarrel between two parties, where one of them happens to be a chareidi.

The Establishment of Betzedek

The establishment of Betzedek, an institution of Agudas Yisroel of America, can be credited to Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, executive vice president of Agudas Yisroel of America. Rabbi Bloom knows the judicial front very well from the activities of the legal division of the American Agudas Yisroel. After consulting with the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel, a group of activists was formed to serve as members of the association. Additionally, a core group of baalei batim and community figures was set up overseas who, side by side with the Israeli group, would support the activities of the organization.

Members of the association in Israel are Rabbi Yaakov Warjavinsky, Rabbi Avrohom Rubinstein, Rabbi Ron Sharon, Rabbi Sholom Katzover, and Rabbi Shmuel Narkiss and Rabbi Mordechai Bruner, who are Gerrer Chassidim, Rabbi Moshe Baryash, a Belzer Chassid, Rabbi Nisan Zwibel, a Sanzer Chassid, Rabbi Berish Daskel, a prominent Vishnitz activist. The organization's activities center on legal protection for institutions and individuals who have been harmed, or discriminated against, because of their observance of Torah and mitzvos. These operations are carried out under the professional and dedicated administration of attorney Rabbi Mordechai Green. The organization plans to get involved in other activities in the future. The next branch, soon to be established, is called Tomach, and it will focus on issues of employment.

The Council for the Legal Protection of Jewish Values

In 1985 (5745), The Council for the Legal Protection of Jewish Values was founded. The goal of the Council was to fight for Jewish values using legal tools. This initiative was not the first of its kind, and definitely will not be the last, but it was a determined enterprise, with the backing of senior lawyers.

The council was set up by the Klausenberger Rebbe and its activities were guided by the gedolei hador. Two retired judges, who had served in the High Court, joined: Rabbi Y. Kister and Rabbi Ben Zion Sharshevsky.

At that time, the chareidi community was up in arms over the Shabbos-laws. The courts in Rechovot, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv ruled that municipal bylaws lack the power to force businesses to close on Shabbos. The City Council in several cases pressured the municipalities to appeal the rulings, as it too entered a legal battle itself, which achieved pointed results. In Tel Aviv, the appeal against the court ruling was accepted. In Petach Tikva, the judge ruled that opening the Heichal Cinema, which had become a symbol of the battle for Shabbos, constituted an outright transgression against the municipal bylaw, and he fined the manager of the cinema personally.

And the list goes on. However, despite all this, the disregard for the bylaws began spreading like wildfire, as a result of the disrespect for the laws exhibited by the legal system. In the end, the Law of Arrangements was passed, which specifically empowered the municipal bylaws.

The Council also fought the legal system over the dispersion of shameful and disgusting pictures, as well as other public battles. "We have," says attorney Steinmetz, "packed files of articles—but it is all history."

As a result of transparent maneuvers on the part of the legal system, the Council has ceased functioning. Even during the period when it was active, the Council put in only very few petitions to the High Court, focusing mainly on legal action against government and municipal institutions, in which they had much success.

The Power of the Chareidi Market

"The chareidi community must exploit its power in the marketplace," claims Attorney Steinmetz. "I learned this from the activists' campaigns for Shabbos. They saw how difficult it was to rely on the Shabbos laws that were put out against businesses that opened on Shabbos, and they decided to go for a legal boycott. That was much more effective than a trial."

What embargo can you put on the High Court?

"Well certainly, according to the law, the High Court can do just about anything. But let us look at a different example: The synagogues in Gush Katif stood at the center of a legal dispute. The matter was decided during a moment of successful lobbying. In this case, the High Court defeated itself.

"I am not rejecting legal action, but I think that most of the effort should be invested in lobbying. Obviously, the decision is in the hands of the gedolei hador. One always needs to ask them and those who consult with their rabbis can not fail. The Betzedek organization consults with the Israeli gedolim and, obviously, I do not deny the work they do. But for me, personally, I have given up . . . "

Attorney Green: "The message we heard from our rabbis as to how we should relate to the courts was abundantly clear. After we presented HaRav Eliashiv with a certain ruling, he told us: "What could you expect from the judges? Could we have expected anything different?" And then he added, ironically: "Actually, the judges ought to disqualify themselves every time they have to handle a religious issue— since they are `biased.' And just as a relative will disqualify himself when it comes to ruling a case pertaining to his relative, they should disqualify themselves from any case that relates to religion!"

Attorney Steinmetz: "It is clear that sometimes there is simply no choice and you have to apply to the High Court. That is what happened in 1985 (5745), when we put in a petition against the opening of the stadium in Ramat Gan. I went to see HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, and I heard him say a most pungent sentence in Yiddish that I am not at liberty to repeat. HaRav Shach was in favor of placing a petition that relied on the municipal bylaws that banned the opening of the stadium on Shabbos."


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