Supreme Court President Aharon Barak argued recently that it is in the interest of the haredi population to support expanded powers for the Supreme Court. As a religious minority, he said, haredim will someday need the protection of the court.
His message contained a veiled warning of what the haredim can expect if they don't go along.
Last week, Justices Dalia Dorner, Dorit Beinisch, and Tova Strasberg-Cohen gave a clear indication of the type of protection Barak had in mind. The panel declared that Rehovot's allocation of a plot of land to a non-profit organization associated with the Lev L'Achim Jewish outreach organization was unreasonable. The allocation was initially approved by the Rehovot city council's allocations committee, including its Meretz members, and subsequently ratified by the full city council. The location of the site in Rehovot's Ramot Yigal neighborhood was chosen by the city engineer after a lengthy review, which was not requested by Lev L'Achim.
Like every other neighborhood in Rehovot, Ramat Yigal is home to a mixture of religious and non-religious residents. Rabbi Zvi Schwartz, director of the local Lev L'Achim branch, has been active in outreach work in the city for 30 years. Classes and lectures sponsored by the organization draw over 1,000 people every week in the city and its environs.
Soon after construction began on the outreach center in early 1999, Ornan Yekutieli of Am Hofshi and Yossi Paritzky of Shinui began to organize neighborhood residents against the project. Residents were falsely told that the building would be a shelter for Jewish girls married to Arab men, and would thus bring Arabs and drugs into the neighborhood.
When the municipality refused a request by some residents of Ramat Yigal to halt construction on the outreach center, a group of 18 neighborhood residents, joined by Am Hofshi and the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center, petitioned the High Court of Justice.
The court issued a temporary injunction against further building pending Interior Ministry approval of the project, despite being informed that neither Rehovot nor any other municipality in the country has requested such approval for any of the thousands of parcels of land allocated since 1948. Nevertheless, Interior Ministry approval was obtained.
The court responded by erecting another hurdle and required the Rehovot city council to reconsider its decision in light of the objections of Ramat Yigal residents.
When the city council voted 11-3 to approve the allocation, the court was still not satisfied. This time it required an absolute majority of the full city council (in which religious parties hold only three seats) to approve the project.
The same High Court that claims constitutional status for a Basic Law passed in the middle of the night with only 23 Knesset members (19%) voting requires an absolute majority to give a piece of land to a haredi institution.
Nonetheless, the center passed that hurdle as well. By a vote of 17-3, with three abstentions, the city council again approved the allocation. Prior to the vote, every member of the city council received a copy of all the objections to the proposed building raised in the High Court, and visited Lev L'Achim's current building in Rehovot, which is also located in a mixed neighborhood.
Opponents of the allocation never alleged that Rehovot had violated any city or national ordinance, or that it had deviated in any way from its usual procedures or those followed by other municipalities around the country.
Despite the lack of any legal basis for the suit and despite the attorney-general having informed the court that there was no basis for retroactive application to the Rehovot case of any national standards for municipal land allocations that may be developed, the court last week ordered a stop to all building.
As for the $300,000 Lev L'Achim had already invested in construction, the organization was told: Tough luck.
For good measure the court socked Rehovot with NIS 25,000 in costs for not getting the hint: No land for religious community centers.
Other municipalities considering allocating land to religious institutions will not miss the point.
LAST WEEK's decision highlights everything that is wrong with the Barak court. The court is not a trier of fact, which hears witnesses under cross-examination, and was in no position to make factual determinations on crucial issues in the case: the character of the Ramat Yigal neighborhood, the factors considered by city council members, and the likely impact of the project on the neighborhood.
Once again the court revealed its total contempt for representative democracy and the wisdom of any other governmental body than itself. The elected city council of Rehovot has the responsibility for the allocation of public lands in its jurisdiction. It is made up of city residents with an intimate knowledge of the city and its needs. It is the council members who will be punished by the voters if they act against those voters' interests. Yet the court rode roughshod over the city's decision, as well as that of the interior minister and the attorney-general. The court was willing to let the city council vote three times, but would only accept a result in line with its own prejudices.
That's democracy for you. Finally, the court revealed how seriously it treats the role assigned to it, not as the defender of democracy or of civil liberties, but as defender of the secular public against contact with religious Jews.
In effect, it granted any secular resident a veto over having any religious institution near him. (Over 200 Ramat Yigal residents signed a petition in favor of the proposed center.)
In 1947, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was discriminatory state action for courts to enforce the private contracts of a homeowners association banning resale of homes to blacks and Jews. Today the Israeli High Court writes its own restrictive covenant banning religious institutions from mixed neighborhoods.
A few months ago, the court ruled the Jewish Agency cannot use funds raised from Jews around the world for Jewish settlement to create Jewish-only communities. But the same court creates rules to bar religious Jews from anywhere outside of the preserves set aside for them in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.
If all those who speak of the rule of law and the defense of democracy do not protest the Rehovot decision, they stand revealed as prattling hypocrites.
Meanwhile, at least the religious community understands well: With protectors like these, who needs enemies?