Salim Joubran was the first Palestinian judge to be named a permanent justice on the Israeli Supreme Court (2004-2017). Last March in New York he derided the law that the Israeli parliament passed this month declaring Israel the nation state of the Jewish people.
“This law is a very, very, very bad law for the state of Israel,” Joubran said. “Today the Arabic language is an official language. And the law comes to say, that from now, the Arabic language should not be official language, it will be a language with a special status. Can somebody tell me what’s different between official and special status? The only thing is to cause damages to the Arab population. The language is part of our traditions as Arabs. For 70 years the language is official, nothing happened.”
I went to hear the lately-retired justice speak at New York Law School because I’d heard an Israeli advocate brag in a speech that an Arab judge, Joubran, was one of three members of the highest court that sent a former president of Israel to jail some years ago. I wanted to hear Joubran to see if he could make me believe in a Jewish democracy.
Joubran is a courtly and humorous man of 71 who says he hates politics and who can’t help throwing in ads for Israel as a nice place; but he also spent a great deal of his time in the appearance downtown New York complaining about the lack of equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“As you may know, equality does not exist in [Israel’s] basic laws,” he said. “We have about 15 basic laws… and as Arabs, we are waiting for many years for a law that all the people should be equal. Even though it is written in the Declaration of Independence, it is only a declaration, that Israel should be democratic state, and give rights to all its citizens. We need a basic law that talks about equality.”
He deplored the law approved by the Supreme Court that bars Palestinians in Israel from marrying Palestinians who live in the West Bank or outside the country. The test case was brought by a Palestinian who cannot live in Israel with his spouse, and the Supreme Court upheld it 6-5 in 2006, with Joubran dissenting.
“I thought that this law is not a good law, it is a bad law, and it should be declared as void…First I cited from international convention of human rights, then the right to family life. You cannot say that in some circumstances the child will leave his father in Israel and go with his mother to the West Bank– this is not normal family life. I cited from Aristophanes also. And then I said that most important thing, it was a matter of equality. Why? Because the purpose of this amendment was against the Arab minority. That’s all. And this is not equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Equality is a fundamental right in every part of the world.”
Joubran was also outspoken about the law that would allow villages to bar the Muslim call to prayer as a disturbance of the peace. “That is against Islam,” he said. “It’s not only against the Islamic minority but Islam in the world.”
Joubran has had some heroic moments on the Supreme Court, too, for instance when he refused to sing the Hatikvah, the national anthem that has a Jewish character, in 2012.
Though he ducked questions that seemed too political. “Thanks god I didn’t go into politics, because I’m not intended in politics. It’s very complicated,” he said, when professor Ruti Teitel asked about the government’s efforts to “Judaize” national identity.
He also ducked Teitel’s question about whether truth-and-reconciliations commission could resolve injustices against the Palestinian people. “I don’t like to talk about this issue because it’s a very controversial and sensitive issue.”
He acted as a cheerleader for Israel when he spoke of the high rates of Palestinian physicians in Israeli hospitals and enrollment in higher education. And when he said that more West Bank Palestinians should be allowed to get medical care in Israel, so they could go back to their village and report: “A Jewish doctor treated me in a very good manner. I am now a healthy man. Maybe this will change the minds of Palestinians toward Israelis.”
Joubran was born in Haifa in 1947. Then the Nakba forced his family to go to Beirut, but the family was connected. “We were refugees for six years. And we came back to Israel after six years. My late father used to work at the district court of Haifa, he had Jewish colleagues. They made all the arrangements for us to come back.”
I asked Joubran whether he felt he needed to represent Palestinian refugees, many of whom were shot trying to do what his family did. He said:
“Actually I’m sad for this of course. At the same time, this is another period. There was a war between the two peoples, and happened what happened. But we should continue. And I hope that some day the Palestinians with the Israelis will cooperate in order to come to a solution which will be good for both peoples. We are praying for peace all the time. I say all the time, once we will have this peace, we will have stability, security and prosperity for all the region.”
Joubran’s view of the matter gets at the issue of Joubran as a representative Palestinian. Thurgood Marshall was representative of American black people because he had a long record of fighting for their rights; that is one reason LBJ elevated him to the Supreme Court in 1967 as the first black justice, as a community representative. Woodrow Wilson rejected Louis Brandeis for Attorney General in 1913 because he was told by Jewish leaders that he was not a “representative” Jew—and Wilson wanted to cultivate the Jewish vote. An assimilated Jew who had expressed views counter to Zionism, Brandeis then became an outspoken Zionist, and he was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1916, the first Jew on the court– and was regarded as a “representative” Jew after all.
By contrast, the Palestinian vote is largely ignored in Israel: Arab parties are not included in the governing coalition, and Palestinians under the 51-year occupation can’t vote for the government that controls their lives. If they could vote, I doubt that the Justice Minister would appoint a Joubran to the Supreme Court because Palestinians would generally see him as too accommodating. Almost everyone hearing Joubran’s talk that night at New York Law School was Jewish or Israeli. I didn’t see any Palestinians, though maybe some were there. Joubran gives Israel bragging rights.
Update: This post originally stated that Israeli consul Dani Dayan has cited Joubran’s role in sending an Israeli president to prison in 2011. I was then told by an informed source that Dayan did not do so. I’m checking my record of his speeches but in the meantime I removed his name.