In a democracy there are many institutions that are important for its functioning, but I believe that a strong and independent justice system is what allows for the existence of all the other institutions in a democracy.
[Translated from Hebrew]
Our President mentioned our forefather Moses, the Ten Commandments and the fact that Churchill thought that legislation had not been improved upon since then, and that it certainly not been outdone. I am sorry to tell you that I also think that legal bureaucracy has not been improved upon since then because in the weekly Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 18:21), Jethro laid out a simple idea. He said: "…you shall appoint them leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds…", and they will judge the small matters, and you, Chief Justice, will judge the weighty matters. Here in our Supreme Court, a justice is as great as a bridegroom. He has a lot of work; he does tremendous work, both in terms of importance and in terms of scope; and we are all full of appreciation for the tremendous work, for the position, for the sense of mission and for the importance of the Supreme Court and the legal system in a democracy in general, but especially in our democracy.
We can get a good indication of this importance by looking at the vicissitudes our region is experiencing. It is no small matter that, for the first time, tens of millions of people, soon perhaps hundreds of millions of people around us have earned the right to vote in free elections and choose their leaders. The ability to vote for a country’s leadership in repeated free, fair, clean and confidential elections is a fundamental building block of democracy. I emphasize the matter of repeated elections because it cannot be that the first free election is also the last free election, and therefore we will see how this develops in our region.
We can only wish our neighbors a continued path of freedom – genuine freedom. This building block, free elections, is a necessary one for every democracy, but it is not enough on its own. A democratic society must preserve those same freedoms and rights that are essential for existence of free life – freedoms such as freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, defense of private property, defense of workers’ rights and defense of the credibility of contracts. There are others, but these are the building blocks and they are what provide meaning to a free life.
These freedoms and rights can be promoted by many bodies: through parliaments legislating good laws, through authorities that enforce those laws, through a media that exposes violations of these laws. However, I believe that, of all the bodies in a democratic country, it is the courts that defend and preserve these freedoms and rights. The Romans had a saying: distinguished people have many qualities, but bravery is a unique quality that defends other unique qualities; it ensures them.
In a democracy there are many institutions that are important for its functioning, but I believe that a strong and independent justice system is what allows for the existence of all the other institutions in a democracy. It is easy to see this. We all know that there are non-democratic regimes that passed laws and constitutions, and still do so today, that are very finely worded. They speak highly of human rights, but are human rights respected in practice in those countries? The answer is no.
I ask you to show me one dictatorship, one non-democratic society where there is a strong and independent justice system. There is no such thing. Wherever there is not a strong and independent justice system, rights cannot be defended. In fact, the difference between countries in which there are rights on paper and countries in which there are rights in fact is a strong and independent justice system. This is the reason why I have done and will continue to do everything in my power to safeguard a strong and independent justice system. That is why I appreciate everything you did, Justice Beinisch.
Honorable Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, first and foremost we are gathered here to thank you and to wish you good luck. Someone whispered to me that today is your birthday. The President uncovered this happy fact. For five and a half years, you stood proudly at the head of the judicial authority of Israel. It was a difficult period. The judicial system came under attack more than once, and at times, the arrows were directed at you. These attacks were unsuccessful, both against you and against the court. The court is strong and stable. Nothing was allowed to harm it. Even during the past several months, I put aside every law that threatened the independence of the system: from the attempt to hold hearings for judges in the Knesset, to the attempt to limit petitions before the court, to the changing of the composition of the Committee for the Selection of Judges.
I will continue to act in this manner, and any time something crosses my table that may harm the independence of the courts in Israel, we will remove it. Recently the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar, said: "Good things will last, while things that are not good are destined to fall." I would like to add: things that are not good will fall right away.
We all know there is a stormy debate regarding the role of the courts in Israel. I do not believe that it will disappear. It raged long before Dorit Beinisch’s tenure. There is a debate, and debate is natural in any democratic society. Debates take place in the greatest democracies in which the various branches of government frequently try to change the balance of power in their favor. This happens everywhere, and there is nothing illegitimate about this debate, but it must take place within acceptable boundaries, boundaries in which a person can disagree with a verdict, but it must be obeyed; boundaries in which criticism of a court’s decision is never used to undermine the very legitimacy of the court and the rule of law; boundaries in which personal attacks against judges are never part of the rules of the game.
Finding the right balance between the branches of the government is a challenge democratic governments must face. In this, Israel is no different than the United States or Britain or other European countries. However, I do believe that Israel is different in light of the kinds of challenges our judges face when finding the right balance between rights that compete with one another.
For 63 years, judges in Israel have had to balance between individual rights and minority rights and the right which is perhaps most important – the right of the country to defend itself. If I said earlier that there was one right, one unique characteristic that defended all the rest, it is the right of self-defense, because if there is no country, there can be no rights inside the country.
Finding the balance between these two poles is democracy’s most difficult task. I believe it is a very difficult task. In difficult and challenging times, in times during which there was a threat to national security, other democratic societies took extreme steps that pushed individual rights to the side. We did not do so, but in the United States during Lincoln’s time, when Roosevelt established the detention camps, with the steps Churchill took in Britain during the Second World War, they did so. They did so in order to assist the justice system in most cases, but not in all cases.
These days, something else sometimes occurs. In the face of the scourge of terror and new threats to national security in some of these countries, the balance has been tipped to the other side and national security is shoved aside as if it has no importance. This too is dangerous. Several decades ago, the American judge Robert Jackson warned against the danger of tipping the scales excessively in the direction I just described. He said, "If the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional bill of rights into a suicide pact." People reference this all the time, but I believe that, in fact, the Supreme Court of the State of Israel has a record that it can be proud of in finding this proper balance.
Perhaps the reason that we are so good at finding the right balance is that, unfortunately, we are rich in experience, given the fact that we never even had one day of quiet and peace.
I believe that Israel serves as a role model to the entire world regarding the way in which these rights can be balanced. From the day the State of Israel was established, and during the past several years, under your leadership Justice Beinisch, the court has defended the rights of individuals while providing the State with the means to defend itself. This is a great accomplishment for the State of Israel, but I believe it is a greater accomplishment for the democratic world – the fact that Israel serves as a role model, I would even venture to say "a textbook solution" to a problem that is complex and cannot be resolved by textbooks, but rather by the life experiences and wisdom of the justices.
Dorit Beinisch, you broke new ground when you were appointed the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. You are also the first native-born Israeli to serve in the post. I am familiar with the wonderful home you grew up in, the Zionism your parents instilled in you, the values you learned from them regarding contributing to the country. As the granddaughter of Holocaust victims, you are familiar with the profound value to the Jewish people of establishing a home. Moreover, I value your special personality, your intelligence, your insight, both intellectual and emotional, your rationalism alongside your humanity, and I learned something from every conversation we had, and they were numerous. I think I managed to impress on you how committed I am during my recent, and very moving visit to the Supreme Court. I think Israeli democracy is committed to serve as a protective wall for the Supreme Court, which protects our democracy and its developed worldview. It did so in the past; it does so at present; and will continue to do so in the future.
You recently said that you think that our democracy is stronger than people think, and that you believe with all your heart that our democracy will be preserved and that the court will preserve it. Well, I agree wholeheartedly with you on this matter.
I appreciate all you did in the Supreme Court to preserve a strong and independent justice system, and we will continue to work to ensure that it stays that way. We are responsible for ensuring that there will be no threat to the independence of the courts in Israel. This will continue during the tenure of the new Chief Justice.
Chief Justice Grunis, allow me to congratulate you. I hope that you fan the flame of democracy and increase its spread. I know you have all the necessary characteristics to lead the court and the Israeli justice system during this important time. On my behalf and on behalf of the Government of Israel, I wish you great success. I promise you any assistance you may need. We will help bureaucracy with all material resources at our disposal. I am certain that under your leadership, the Supreme Court of Israel will continue to serve as a beacon of freedom for the rest of the world, one that the State of Israel and those who sanctify justice and freedom can be proud of. Congratulations.
President Peres, PM Netanyahu, Justice Minister Neeman and Knesset Speaker Rivlin
with the justices of the Supreme Court (Photo: GPO)