Who needs parents anyway
by Jonathan Rosenblum
April 2, 2000
Our Supreme Court has once again experienced an infusion of the god-like wisdom to which it is periodically subject. The court last week declared a zero-tolerance policy for any physical punishment of children by their parents. Every spanking is now a criminal assault.
Justice Dorit Beinisch correctly noted that the legitimacy of physical punishment is a product of societal values, and that such values change with time. Yet she made no attempt to demonstrate that the majority of Israeli citizens view any form of physical punishment of children as illegitimate - nor could she have done so.
The court felt little need to justify the norm it seeks to impose on Israeli society. It was apparently enough to label its views as "modern" and their opposite as "old-fashioned" to settle the issue. Beinisch offered up a potpourri of reasons why all physical punishment should be forbidden, virtually without any citation of expert opinion. Indeed Yael Dayan, who decries "medieval conceptions" of child-rearing, is the "expert" quoted at greatest length.
The entire Anglo-American legal system still clings to the old-fashioned view that some forms of parental physical punishment are reasonable and legitimate, but the court prefers the model of a handful of Scandinavian states, which ban all physical punishment.
Yet even in those few countries which have banned all corporal punishment, the decision to do so was one of a democratically elected legislature, not imposed by judicial fiat. Our Supreme Court, however, takes for granted its "duty to establish norms and values." Justice Beinisch did not explain why the court - and not the Knesset, which has the ability to conduct extensive hearings and which more closely reflects the values of Israel's citizens - should be the body to establish those norms.
Just as it did last year, when it recognized the right of children to sue their parents for emotional deprivation, the court takes pains to assure us that we have nothing to fear from the golem it has created. Parents will rarely be subjected to the full force of the law for a one-time spanking, we are told.
But announcing a legal standard and simultaneously suggesting it will not be enforced makes an ass of the law. It also opens the way for arbitrary and unequal applications of the law.
Social workers, for instance, will now have a tool with which they can institute proceedings to remove virtually any child they want from his home. The court will end up driving an even deeper wedge of hostility between social workers and those they are supposed to help.
Even as an essay in pedagogy, the court's decision is incoherent. A narrow exception is carved out permitting spanking to protect a child or others from harm. If a two-year-old runs out into traffic, or an older sibling attacks a young infant, parents may still emphasize the seriousness of their actions with a potch on the bottom.
But if a potch is an effective way of conveying that message, why cannot it not convey other educational messages: Don't take money from Mommy's purse; Don't lie; Don't smash the good china.
THE court took note of the high rate of violence in Israeli society and decided that banning all spanking is necessary to uproot that violence.
One could argue, with at least equal plausibility, that a lack of any sense of limits and respect for authority has as much to do with the violence of Israeli youth to one another and their teachers as do parental spankings. Teaching children that their parents are criminal aggressors will do little to restore respect for parental or any other form of authority.
I was recently told by a British educator of the amazement of visiting Israeli teachers who heard him tell a pupil to sit up straight in class. If we did that, the Israeli teachers said, we would be told, "Who are you and what right do you have to tell me what to do?" This comment would then be followed by a class walk-out.
Most religious Jews would likely be numbered among the skeptics when it comes to the absolutist position against any physical punishment. A parent who as a matter of philosophy refrains from ever spanking his child, Proverbs teaches, hates his child. According to the court's theory of the etiology of violence, then, religious schools should be particularly plagued by student violence.
Yet the opposite is the case. The comparative safety of religious schools is one of the prime reasons so many secular parents are attracted to the religious school system.
Children are not the property of their parents to do with as they please. In Jewish thought, even one's own body is not his to do with as he wishes. And no doubt much, if not most, parental spanking, even by good parents, represents a momentary failure of parenting. (For that reason, some leading rabbis have taught that today no one has the ability to spank effectively.)
By labeling all physical punishment as criminal assault, however, the court unwittingly undermines the efforts of all those fighting against the scourge of child abuse. Its absolutist pronouncements will cause others who warn of the dangers of physical punishment to be dismissed - wrongly - as lacking all connection to reality and common sense.
Spankings, even unjustified spankings, are only one of the many forms of injuries inflicted by parents on children, and not necessarily the worst. Verbal humiliation, parents too busy to spend time with their children, the sense of abandonment and responsibility caused by parental divorce, can all inflict lifelong damage. Certain language in Beinisch's opinion suggests the court may one day address some of these affronts to the "dignity of the man" as well, though it will likely be more reticent when it comes to the perceived failings of its own social class.
Pretty soon we will be told that the only protection for our children - helpless victims all - is that they be raised by the benevolent state, according to pedagogical principles certified by the court as suitably up-to-date.
Then we will be able to decide whether the wisdom of our justices is really the blessing it's cracked up to be.
Related Topics: Israeli Supreme Court
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