11 Sep Lessons about the Rule of Law
Where do you find first principles for the rule of law and governance? The Bible has a lot to say on that subject. When you line that up with another nation’s history – Israel – we see some lessons that America could well heed in this time of rising lawlessness and contempt, in some quarters, for constitutional guardrails. Here is an excerpt from my chapter on that topic (viewed through the grid of international law) in the recently released Israel, the Church and the Middle East (Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser, editors) published by Kregel Publications –
The requirement of a functioning government as a prerequisite for a nation’s “statehood” under settled international law does not mandate that such a government function perfectly, or even fairly, although the stated goal of the UN is to encourage and persuade nations to aspire to, and practice, universal norms regarding human rights. For instance, in 1981 the UN issued a declaration setting out those basic human rights, which all nation states are encouraged to recognize, and protect. Its Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief requires, among other things, the “right to freedom of thought conscience and religion,” and proclaims opposition to any “coercion” against any person “which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.”
Regrettably, most of us can rattle off the names of countries, many of them neighbors of Israel, which are members of the UN and yet openly violate with impunity those fundamental rights of their citizens and of others.
Israel, on the other hand, has a long history of protecting freedom and liberty. Its courts regularly render decisions designed to enforce human rights standards rather than to satisfy political ends. As I wrote this chapter, Israel’s High Court issued an order temporarily halting the enforcement of an Israeli law that would have favored Israeli settlors who had built homes on the private lands of Palestinians. Such a “pro-Palestinian” decision by an Israeli court is a hallmark of a nation with a respect for the rule of law, regardless of the political outcome.
Israel’s respect for fundamental human rights is so well known that even a Saudi Arabian journalist has praised it, writing that the high standard of “justice” in Israel is the “secret of the Zionist entity’s advantage over his neighbors,” where “injustice” is too often the norm.
Respect for the rule of law within the court system in Israel and which flows all the way to its Supreme Court, is on a par with the American judiciary. Though Israel has no written constitution, its “Basic Law” provides the foundation for the protection of fundamental liberties. As the U.S. State Department has noted: “The Supreme Court [of Israel] has repeatedly held that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects freedom to practice religious beliefs, and its rulings incorporate the religious freedom provisions of international human rights agreements into the country’s body of law. The Basic Law describes the country as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’ and cites the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which promises freedom of religion and conscience and full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation.”
Media reports of violence between Israeli security forces and Palestinian insurgents or Hamas terrorists often place the moral responsibility on Israel. The sad reality is that terror attacks are a fact of life in Israel. As the U.S. State Department noted in its 2016 report on Israel’s human rights record: “[A]ccording to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Palestinians committed 12 terror attacks within the Green Line that led to the deaths of seven Israelis and one foreign citizen, as well as injuries to 62 Israelis. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Palestinian militants fired 46 projectiles into Israel, and there were 21 incidents of mortar fire or cross-border shooting from Syria.” Tragically, 2017 saw several Israeli police murdered by Palestinians.
Despite this, the U.S. State Department describes how Israel continues to grant Palestinians access to the Israeli court system for legal redress and relief: “By law, Palestinians may file suit to obtain compensation through civil suits in some cases, even when a criminal suit is unsuccessful and the actions against them considered legal.”
Israel’s record for protecting civil rights may be the reason why oppressed persons seek sanctuary there. When Iranian journalist Nada Amin, who was stationed in Turkey, was about to be deported back to Iran where she would almost certainly face the death penalty for her writings critical of the regime, she sought asylum in Israel, where she was welcomed with open arms.
In June of 2017 I witnessed firsthand Israel’s regard for civic inclusion when my wife Janet and I visited a session of the Knesset in Jerusalem – Israeli’s legislative congress. At the time, a member of the Knesset at the podium was arguing passionately for added police protection in his city. What struck me as remarkable was the fact that this Israeli citizen who was addressing the one hundred twenty seat Knesset that day was not only a full, participating member of the Israeli legislature, he was also an Arab. Arab and Muslim citizens have been permitted to serve in the Knesset from its inception. In 2013 there were twelve Arab MKs (Members of Knesset). Currently there are seventeen Arabs serving there.
In Israel, organizations like the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, a legal group dedicated to protecting the rights not only of Jews, but also of Christians, Muslims, and Druze, flourish and operate openly. Contrast that with other nations. In Egypt, civil rights lawyer Karim Hamdy was tortured to death in a Cairo police station by police officers, and dozens of other attorneys have been arrested because of the controversial clients they represented. In Iran, lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, who defended a woman sentenced to death by stoning, had his family arrested and his office ransacked. In China, the government has rounded up and subjected to interrogation dozens of human rights attorneys.
Israel’s high regard for the rule of law and justice is no accident. It is impossible to understand Israel without grasping the notion that its history, people and nation, are tightly bound to the rule of law. The Pentateuch speaks exhaustively about the need for a practical application of justice within the Jewish people, and for an orderly administration of law. Deuteronomy 16: 18-20 addresses the appointment of “judges and officers” who are to “judge with righteous judgment,” meaning that in the process of judging they must avoid “distort[ion]” and shall not be “partial.”
These Old Testament mandates are not just abstract principles. God’s declaration to Israel about the rule of law was fixed to the very land that God had given to his people. The process of judging was to take place “in all your towns which the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes …” Deuteronomy 16: 18. The overall description of that land that God granted to the Jewish people is exacting and precise: 1:7,8. Numbers 34: 1-15. Deductively, this means that God’s rule of law that the Jewish people were to administer was to be implemented in the context of a precise territorial (i.e. land-based) jurisdiction.
So, we have seen that the Jewish people exist, that they are divinely and historically connected to a specific land, and that even their rule of law and form of government harken us back to God’s pronouncements about their land.