Photo: Brian Fink
It’s easy to forget but important to remember that Israel is a bastion of Western democracy, the rule of law and impartial justice, where even presidents, prime ministers and cabinet members are not beyond its reach. This is unique in a region of the world not usually noted for upholding these ideals. With this in mind, ESRA Karmiel, in association with Nefesh B’Nefesh Go North, arranged a day trip to Jerusalem. That day, appropriately enough, was the one following Yom Yerushalayim, and the purpose was to visit the home of two of the three branches of government, the Knesset (Legislature) and the Supreme Court (Judicature).
Thirty five people (including six who boarded at Yokneam) set off in the early morning and travelled down Highway 6 to Israel’s capital. As we approached the city, traffic got heavier and heavier and anxiety began to creep in. Would we miss our 10.30 slot, seeing that we had to log-in with Security not later than 10.00? However, we had reckoned without our bus driver and human ‘Waze’, who knew a thing or two about avoiding bottlenecks into the city. He took us on a circuitous route which miraculously was largely traffic-free. Nevertheless, we arrived at the Knesset not a moment too soon.
Groups visiting the Knesset must prebook, and the organizer must obtain all of the participants’ full names and Israeli ID card numbers (or passport numbers for non-citizens) and submit these in advance. On arrival the organizer must show his/her ID card and once validated can then authorize the individual members of the party. There is also a strict dress code and details are forwarded on booking. With our newly-issued authorization stickers in plain view, we marched boldly past the security posts and armed guards across the forecourt and into the iconic building. We logged-in with reception and were told to wait in a designated area until our assigned guide arrived.
The guide, a native English speaker provided a comprehensive overview of the history and workings of Israel’s Parliament, and explained where we would be going and what we would be seeing. After supplying us with headsets he was off, and with our party trailing in his wake we were shown around the building with a wide-ranging narration of everything we saw.
Of particular interest were the Chagall Hall with its magnificent tapestries by the late artist and the Plenum where the 120 MKs pass the laws that regulate the lives of all Israelis. The weight of history was palpable when we were shown the dais where President Anwar Sadat of Egypt had stood and addressed a plenary session, thus changing the course of history. The peace treaty between Israel and the largest and most powerful Arab state may at times be cold but it has endured for more than 30 years.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence is displayed within a protective glass case and it purposefully alludes to the three bases which underpin the country’s legal legitimacy - the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine of 1922 which recognizes the "historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine" and the "grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country", and the UN Security Council partition vote of 1947 dividing Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.
After the 90-minute tour, we lunched in the Knesset’s dairy restaurant (very slow service despite having been prenotified of our party’s attendance) before taking our bus on the short journey to the adjacent Supreme Court. As in any democratic country which enshrines the Rule of Law in its ethos, the Israeli Judicature is a wholly separate branch of government. It is the highest judicial authority of the State and its decisions are binding not only on all lower courts (Magistrates’ and Districts’) but on all state institutions and ultimately on every citizen.
The Supreme Court also functions as the High Court of Justice for Petitions of Right brought by individuals against acts or decisions made by the State, local authorities or public servants. It has the power to order the release of those unlawfully detained or restricted and can review the decisions of all lower courts - a vital safety valve against the might of the State.
Our conducted tour took us around the building and we could have sat in on a trial had any been taking place while we were there. As it was, we sat in an empty courtroom while the court’s proceedings were explained to us. As with the Knesset tour, we were also shown the many artworks in the building.
A new Supreme Court had been proposed by Dorothy de Rothschild in 1984 and financed by the Rothschild Foundation. Mrs de Rothschild stated that it had been a dream of her late husband, James de Rothschild (son of Baron Edmond, referred to as HaNadiv HaYadua - the Known Benefactor) for Israel to have its own new Supreme Court and not to sit in a rented building as it had until then. The Rothschild Foundation had also donated the funds to build the Knesset in 1957.
The dominant architectural themes are (1) lines, this being inferred from Psalm 119:137” You are righteous and Your laws are straight” and (2) circles, from Psalm 23:3 “He leads me in circles of justice.” At the center of the complex is an open-air and stone-paved area called the Courtyard of the Arches symbolizing the desert conditions which border Jerusalem on its eastern fringes. This is relieved by a narrow water channel which bisects it. The locally-quarried stone paving and the water which reflects the sky were inspired by Psalm 85:12 “Truth will spring up from the earth and justice will be reflected from the heavens”. Everywhere there are allusions to the deep roots of Hebrew culture in this ancient land.
Our day ended with some light relief after such momentous and weighty considerations - at the First Station which had been the Jerusalem terminus of the Ottoman-era Jaffa-Jerusalem railway line until closing in 1998. It had lain disused and derelict for some years until it was refurbished and is now home to cafes, entertainment places and shops.
We spent 90 minutes there enjoying the stores and taking refreshments before boarding our bus back to Galilee. It had been a long and tiring day but very worthwhile and gave us all a deeper appreciation of this country and its institutions wherein we dwell by choice and not by accident of birth.