You be the judge

‘There are judges in Jerusalem’: A famous Begin quote or misquote?

As discourse over the judicial system reaches a fever pitch, the former prime minister’s purported words echo louder than ever – even if he never said them

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Then-prime minister Menachem Begin during a debate in the Knesset on March 20, 1979. (AP Photo/Max Nash/File)
Then-prime minister Menachem Begin during a debate in the Knesset on March 20, 1979. (AP Photo/Max Nash/File)

“There are judges in Jerusalem!”

This quote attributed to prime minister Menachem Begin has become an oft-repeated rallying cry in Israel over the past half century. The phrase is regularly utilized by politicians across the spectrum to respond to court rulings that bolster their own viewpoints.

In recent weeks, the phrase has been circulating more than ever as the government’s plan to radically overhaul the judicial system dominates headlines and the national discourse.

The only problem? There is no proof Begin ever said it.

“We don’t know if he said ‘there are judges in Jerusalem,’” said Dror Bar-Yosef, director of the department of liberal-nationalist policy at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. “Many times he said ‘there are judges in Israel’… and many other variations. But there is no documentation that he ever said ‘there are judges in Jerusalem.’”

Nevertheless, the misquote has definitively entered the Israeli zeitgeist as some form of false collective memory.

Bar-Yosef said researchers believe the misquote can be traced back to a 1979 article written by former justice minister Haim Zadok, seemingly erroneously quoting Begin as saying “there are judges in Jerusalem.”

“That is the first written record I have seen of the phrase ‘there are judges in Jerusalem,’” said Bar-Yosef.

Zadok’s misquote, which appears to have become a collective one, refers to a 1979 speech Begin gave in the Knesset lauding a High Court decision justifying West Bank settlements as contributing to national security needs.

“This is a principled, precedent-setting ruling,” Begin told the Knesset, as opposition MKs interjected. “If anyone will ever say to me that Jewish settlement in the land of Israel is illegal – no matter who says it – this is how I will answer him: there are judges in Israel.”

This was a court ruling that Begin heartily approved of, said Bar-Yosef, although the longtime Likud leader also spoke approvingly of the court system and its judges even when he vehemently disagreed with them.

Begin spoke and wrote definitively and repeatedly throughout his life about the importance of a strong judiciary and respect for High Court rulings. Nevertheless, said Bar-Yosef, it is impossible to speculate how the former prime minister would react to today’s planned judicial overhaul.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin appears on the ABC program ‘Good Morning America’ on November 16, 1980. (AP)

“I can only tell you what he said then,” said Bar-Yosef. “But any use of [his words] in connection with current politics changes the context… I can’t tell you what he would say today.”

However, he said, over decades of writings, Begin never seemed to waver from his belief in the need for a strong judicial system to protect the rights of all citizens.

Begin, said Bar-Yosef, long argued that “the judicial system must be supreme to the lawmaking system — that’s a principle he said constantly, he repeated it many times.”

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