Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Cardozo Law Professor Suzanne Stone tried to talk about Shmittah and social justice, but the conversation that bubbled up around the issues became far more fascinating. Yeshiva University Museum was privileged to host the two distinguished ladies in late September.
The small and intimate event felt more like a living room meeting than a lecture by a top foreign leader. It is to the museum’s credit that an event like this is open to the public in an informal and beautiful setting. Professor Stone and Minister Shaked began their discussion on Jewish values, especially those pertaining to the idea of allowing the land to lie fallow and the exploration of debt relief.
Minister Shaked opened by talking about a program she has developed to help Israelis trapped in debt by forgiving the loans against them. Although the audience seemed skeptical that the program was fiscally solvent, Minister Shaked assured the audience that the recipients had been thoroughly vetted, that there was no chance of them ever being able to pay back their loans, and that the program had a cap of approximately $100,000 dollars. “If you borrow money in Israel, you still have to pay it back,” she said. While Minister Shaked called herself right-wing and a neo-liberal economically, she maintained that social justice ideas had a firm place in the heart of her party.
There was also a fascinating discussion on what Jewish values really are. Although the minister considers herself secular, she informed the audience that, “Talmud makes people very sharp” and discussed how those in Israel who had a minimal secular education were able to close their gap of knowledge quite quickly and enter into the workforce. She lamented the fact that she herself had never learned Talmud and called on schools in Israel to implement such learning into the national curriculum. “We can get a lot from it,” is her belief.
Minister Shaked also offered a critique of the Israeli Supreme Court, an institution that many Americans do not understand. She explained that in Great Britain, the judges on the highest court are not chosen by the people, but tend to be very conservative about making policy. The
American Supreme Court does set policy, but its justices are vetted by Congress and that system allows for checks and balances. In Israel, Minister Shaked lamented, the Supreme Court embodies the worst of both, as it is a non-democratically elected and extremely activist court.
Professor Stone mounted a spirited defense of the court, describing the important role it plays in maintaining human rights. This debate led to Minister Shaked arguing that the court was heavily self-selected. She chaired a judicial appointment committee of nine, three of whom were former judges themselves. Since there is a required a vote of seven, it meant that the judges themselves had enormous power to decide who would be replacing them. “In a tension between the Knesset and the Supreme Court, the Knesset should decide,” she said, discussing ways of vetoing the Supreme Court’s verdicts by a majority vote in the Knesset.
The discussion then moved on to refugees. What did Jewish values have to say about the African and Syrian migrants? Professor Stone pushed the idea that Israel might have some obligation to those who live within its borders. The concept of “ger toshav” was brought up, an obligation to care for the strangers in our midst.
Minister Shaked pushed back, reminding the audience that the Jewish state’s first obligation is to its security and safe borders. While she supports giving medical care to Syrians approaching Israel’s borders, she reminded Professor Stone that the Syrian refugees do not want to come to Israel. “They have been brainwashed for so long, they think we would eat them.” As for African migrants, Minister Shaked maintained that they were economic migrants coming to the only Western country with a land bridge to the regions affected by high unemployment. “We just can’t absorb them.”