Ruling Through Law
[In reponse to the film, The Law in These Parts]
By Nicholas Blomley
The Law in These Parts takes an original and creative angle on Israel’s role in the ‘Occupied Territories’, such as the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz places the judges and legal advisors who developed and administered the law of the Occupied Territories on the symbolic witness stand. Normally, we do get to enter the mind of the judge. But judges play a crucial role in making the world for us, though countless acts of categorical distinction. This is a rights violation; that is an unfortunate personal injury, they tell us. That person is a citizen; this other is a criminal, and so on. Much of the judge’s work in the Occupied Territories turns on such distinctions. Sometimes, the film notes, this is fairly mundane work. But in other cases, more profound distinctions have to be drawn and sustained. But this is no normal space. Law ‘in these parts’ is military law. The judges and legal advisors operate, as one notes, in a ‘grey world’ in which they do not simply deliver justice. They must also act on behalf of a military system, governing a people in a bizarre status of notionally temporary occupation that has now endured for nearly fifty years.
Judges rule through law. What does that mean ‘in these parts’, the film asks? The rule of law, it seems, is a particularly fraught one. On the one hand, it would seem to entail the actual enforcement of the law as codified. On the other, it requires respect for basic liberties and due process. The famous statue of Lady Justice shows her with sword and scales for good reason. The obvious problem, as one of the Israeli judges notes, is that order and justice don’t always go hand in hand.
Much of the film emphasizes the role of the judge in organizing space and people so as to make possible what appear to be invidious distinctions and state actions. Israeli citizens and residents are treated very differently. Land becomes reallocated. Armed opponents are legally designated as terrorists, not POWs. What, then, are we to make of the rule of law in this context? It is tempting to simply dismiss it as a convenient shield, a window dressing, that allows naked forms of oppression to be put to work.
But I am also reminded of the stirring words of the Leftist historian, E. P. Thompson, who concludes his wonderful ‘Whigs and Hunters’. His book convincingly demonstrates the ways in which eighteenth century elites and landed interests used legal forms to oppress, control and curtail. Yet, his closing words are strikingly optimistic: ‘We ought to expose the shams and inequities which may be concealed beneath the law. But the rule of law itself, the imposing of effective inhibitions upon power … seems to me to be an unqualified human good. To deny or belittle this good is … a desperate error of intellectual abstraction.’
Nicholas Blomley, critical legal geographer and Chair, Department of Geography, SFU