Court shows supreme arrogance in ban on spanking

A large number of Israelis are probably criminals now — even though they weren't a few weeks ago.

Last month, Israel's Supreme Court decided that spanking a child is a criminal offense. Not merely cruel or excessive punishment.

As of now, all corporal punishment is "completely unacceptable — a residue of a social-educational outlook that has become obsolete." Such punishment "distances us from our aspirations to be a society free of violence. Therefore, the use by parents of corporal punishment…is forbidden today in our society."

Does this seriously mean that a parent who gives his child a light slap on the rear is a criminal?

The court asked itself this question and responded as follows: "We live in a society where violence is spreading like a plague; a permit for 'minor' violence is likely to deteriorate into very serious violence. We must not endanger the physical and emotional integrity of the minor by any corporal punishment at all. The yardstick must be clear and unequivocal, and the message is that corporal punishment is not permitted."

Of course, not every parent who spanks his or her child will actually be prosecuted. The justices comfortingly explained that many instances of corporal punishment will never be reported to the police and even among those that are, the prosecution has the authority not to press charges in cases that are "trivial" or "lacking in public interest." But such parents will still be criminals — and they'll never know when the ax might descend.

What makes this verdict breathtaking is not only the fact that at one fell swoop it turned half the parents in Israel into criminals.

Equally audacious is the fact that it did so without the slightest sanction in law.

Some countries, such as the Scandinavian nations, have laws explicitly forbidding corporal punishment. In other places, such as Britain, Canada, and several states of the United States, the law explicitly permits corporal punishment by parents as long as it is moderate and reasonable.

Israeli law does neither. Existing legislation against assaulting and abusing children neither criminalizes nor exempts corporal punishment explicitly.

The logical presumption, therefore, would be that these laws are intended only to criminalize actions that meet the commonly accepted definitions of "assault" and "abuse." And given the fact that many parents do still occasionally spank their children, it seems hard to argue that spanking falls within the commonly accepted definitions of these crimes.

But the fact that a majority of the country might disagree has never stopped the court from declaring itself the sole arbiter of society's values. With supreme arrogance, a panel of three people — Dorit Beinisch, who wrote the ruling, Aharon Barak and Itzhak Englard — decided that it knows better than the majority what is "forbidden today in our society;" that it knows better than the majority which "social-educational outlooks" are "obsolete."

They do not even have the justification of being our elected representatives. Yet they believe they are qualified to declare by fiat how our entire society should feel about this issue.

What makes the verdict even more presumptuous is that the sweeping ruling was completely unnecessary to resolve the case at hand: an appeal by a mother convicted of abusing her children.

This mother's disciplinary methods, in addition to frequent spankings, included throwing shoes at her children and hitting them with rubber clogs. The children's teachers testified that the youngsters exhibited both physical signs of abuse — bruises — and emotional signs — terror when adults approached them. The lower court therefore rejected the mother's argument that her actions were "educational," ruling succinctly that "violence" is not an educational method.

The Supreme Court could have left it at that. Whether or not reasonable corporal punishment is permissible, this woman had clearly exceeded the bounds of the reasonable and was guilty of "violence."

But instead, the court took the totally unnecessary step of declaring that all corporal punishment, no matter how mild, is illegal. Though Englard did write a dissent, it dealt only with his opinion that the woman should have been convicted of the lesser offense of assault rather than abuse. About the majority's sweeping ban on corporal punishment, he said not a word.

This is hardly the first time the court has ruthlessly rewritten Israel's legal system to suit its own "enlightened" values. But it is the first time such a verdict has had potential consequences for such a large number of ordinary, law-abiding Israelis.

Perhaps, at long last, the ruling will awaken the country to the dangers of letting the court usurp the legislature's role.

If not, perhaps Israelis deserve to be made into criminals.