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By Rhonda Spivak,

Prof. Alon Harel  who spoke to a group of the Canadian Friends of  Hebrew U  in Winnipeg and gave a lecture at the University of Manitoba Law School in 2007 was recently in the news in Israel while he was protesting  in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in  Jerusalem (where there have been  Palestinians evicted pursuant to court orders) enabling religious Jews to return to the area where they had property before 1948. The issue has led to ongoing demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah.

By Palestinians and left-of centre Israelis who maintain that this is a blatant attempt  to encroach on East Jerusalem and make it Jewish. Some have argued it is being done to ensure that  Jews will always have control the road to  the  Hebrew University  (where Harel teaches) if there ever should be a partition of Jerusalem giving Palestinians neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Here are the contents of what Harel said while in Winnipeg in 2007 regarding the Israeli legal system. Following this, we are reprinting the open letter Harel wrote in  YNET news about his criticism of the Bible made at a protest in  Sheik

When I grew up in Israel, there was a subtle understanding that the people in charge of the country were secular leftist European Jews, and the rest of the Israeli population had to accommodate to this. But this view of Israel has collapsed”, says Harel, who is currently on sabbatical teaching ethics at the University of Toronto.

“ Israel has been fragmented into five tribes who have to co-exist with each other in an uncomfortable way.  The five tribes are:  Palestinian Arabs, Ultra Orthodox Jews, right-wing settlers, traditional Sephardic Jews, and European secular Jews,” Harel adds. 

According to Harel, prior to 1992, protection of individual rights in Israel was primarily based on the jurisprudence of Israeli courts. “My tribe, the secular European liberal tribe, is responsible for the legal change in 1992 which established two basic laws that have the ability to override statutes.  The first is the Basic Law which provides for freedom of human dignity and liberty and the second is the Basic Law which provides for freedom of occupation,” says Harel.

The Israeli legal system has been heavily influenced by the model of Canada’s  Charter of Rights and Freedoms. .. in taking the approach that there are fundamental rights, but they can be justifiably infringed  in order to reasonably safeguard other core values fundamental to society,’’ says Harel.

“The major difference between Israel’s basic laws and the Canadian Charter of Rights, is that in Israel there was no constitutional moment.  When the Basic Laws were passed by the Knesset, there was no real debate and a lot of people didn’t even know what was being done.  That’s why some in Israel called it the quiet revolution”, says Harel.  But then later on we had people in Israel saying that there was no legitimacy for these basic rights, as the country as a whole didn’t really decide on this”, he adds.

The one thing Harel hopes Israel does not borrow from the Canadian Charter of Rights is the “Notwithstanding clause” which allows a government to override Charter rights.  “A Notwithstanding Clause would not work in Israel because the Israeli Knesset would not hesitate to use it all the time..,” Harel says

Currently, the Israeli Supreme Court is dealing with the issue of whether buses used by the ultra-orthodox can require segregation such that men are seated at the front and women are seated at the back.  “The obvious solution .. is for the bus to be divided between the left side and the right side so that neither men nor women are required to sit at the back… Unfortunately, the ultra-orthodox rabbis have not accepted my solution,” says Harel.

The gay community in Israel has made inroads in advancing the rights of same sex couples.  “Recently, the Israeli Supreme Court has required the Ministry of Interior to register a gay couple married in Canada as being married. The Court said it would not rule on the validity of the marriage, but took the formalistic view that if a Canadian Court granted a marriage certificate it had to be registered.  The effect of this decision is that a gay couple gets about 95% of the rights that a straight couple gets,” Harel notes.

In Harel’s view, the rights of Palestinian Arabs living in Israel have also been advanced significantly by the Israeli Supreme Court.  It ruled that the Jewish Agency was not able to refuse to sell land to Israeli Arabs on the basis that the Agency’s  role was to sell  to Jews only.  “Legally, this was not a difficult decision, but politically it was… Opponents of the decision thought that it was anti-zionist.  But the Court recognized the changes that the Agency had undergone from the days of the British mandate when it was buying land to advance the rights of a struggling Jewish minority to the present time when it is a powerful body that can be used to trample on the rights of other minorities.”

Harel believes that one of the most “radical” decisions made by the Israeli Supreme Court occurred when it ordered that signs in Jewish cities such as Tel-Aviv  had to be written in Arabic,  in addition to Hebrew and English.  In arriving at it’s decision, the Court didn’t emphasize the individual rights of Palestinian Arabs but hinted at the notion of collective rights.  “It emphasized … that the Palestinian community ought to be welcomed as part of Israeli society,” says Harel. 

Harel currently lives in Ramat Eshkol in Jerusalem, but intends to move  to Tel-Aviv and commute to work.   “Ramat Eshkol has become a religious neighborhood.  It wasn’t that way when I first moved in.  I am the only secular Jew in my building. The growing trend in Jerusalem is for secular Jews to flee the city.  I am going to be one of them,” Harel says.

Misusing the Bible
Alon Harel, November 17, 2010,7340,L-3985844,00.html

A video clip published in recent days displays some words I uttered during a protest held in Sheikh Jarrah a few months ago; these words show contempt for the Bible. I will immediately say that I uttered words that should not have been said. I regret it and I wish I didn't say it.
Yet I wish to clarify two things. First, the circumstances my statement was made under: I uttered the words a few minutes after my comrades at the protest and I were told we should go back to Auschwitz. These and other such words were hurled at the Sheikh Jarrah protestors time and again. These statements were not included in the video clip, apparently because they are of no news interest as they are regularly hurled not only at protestors but also at soldiers and police officers.

The second thing I wish to clarify is more important. My blunt statement about the Bible was uttered in direct response to the manipulative, cynical use of the Bible by a prominent settler at Sheikh Jarrah in order to justify the robbing of Palestinian homes. Indeed, my statement, made at a moment of anger, is not the only or common expression of desecrating the holy Jewish book.

The more prevalent expression is the daily utilization of the Bible for political sectarian aims, such as the justification for expelling people from their homes, justification of methodical discrimination against Arabs in respect to housing and employment, and usage of the Bible in order to justify a convenient housing solution in central Jerusalem at the expense of Palestinian families.

Promoting political agenda

It appears to me that declaring that the Bible orders Jews not to rent their homes to Arabs or to remove people from their home just because they are Arab gravely harms the Bible and what it symbolizes, to an extent that is no lesser than my own regrettable statement. After all, the Torah itself rules that both Jews and foreigners deserve to be treated according to the same law. The Torah also orders us to love the foreigners in our midst because we ourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Many people believe that part of the reason for the secular public's alienation from our religious roots has to do with the misuse of religious sources for the aims of religious legislation. This is a controversial issue in Israel yet this claim is not unreasonable and is often reflected in public discourse.
I have no doubt that using the Bible for political-sectarian needs and to promote a political agenda harms not only Israeli society, but also the Jewish people, while pushing the public that does not identify with this political agenda away from the constitutive text of Jewish nationality. Yet despite this, I shall end with the words I opened with – I regret using the hurtful expression.

Professor Alon Harel, Hebrew University Law Faculty



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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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