Listening to some supporters of Israel’s new right-wing government, the casual foreigner could be forgiven for imagining that the country’s Supreme Court is modelled on a Dickensian opium den with a touch of John and Yoko’s Bed-In thrown into the mix for extra psychedelic peace and love.
Alas, as witnessed by a non-headline grabbing judgment this week, the real world, like the exegeses of government, is rarely so straightforward.
The case before the judges was an appeal against a lower court decision to deny the right to a class action against the Israel Tax Authority on behalf of a crowd of specially imported seasonal Thai agricultural workers. The Israeli employers had, in accordance with the law, deducted tax at source from the workers’ wages as they cut away at fields in the Jordan Valley.
The claim of the appellant (only one, as it was the class action that needed approving) was that, as foreign residents, the workers were not liable to Israeli tax since the Jordan Valley is part of the territories not deemed part of the State of Israel even by the State of Israel (How’s that for Orwellian Doublespeak?). The Israel Tax Authority – which has so far not been accused of being in bed with the loony left, and despite its money grabbing-at-all-costs image – agreed with the claim. But then the fun started.
The tax authority pointed to a simple clause in the law that says, if you don’t normally file a tax return and you want to reclaim over-paid tax, do what all bureaucracies tell you to do – fill in a form. Now, the form is in Hebrew which, like the Thai alphabet, is not as simple as ABC. What is more, the form is two pages long. Realistically, it needs an accountant. And accountants are expensive, and casual labour salaries are low, and the tax – when push comes to shove – is only worth reclaiming as a group.
So, John Doe (he was anonymous, his strings presumably being pulled by his lawyers) went to court in 2020 claiming that the form shouldn’t be necessary because there was no right to tax in the first place, and that a class action should be recognized.
Mr Doe was metaphorically sent packing (he had probably been literally sent packing some time earlier when he had finished his picking).
The Supreme Court this week agreed with all the findings of the lower court judge. It was a very reasoned technical ruling that simply explained why none-of-the-above applied under Israeli law, and – if the worker wanted a refund – implied that he should stop moaning, file the form, and tell his friends to do the same.
What was interesting was the lack of any emotion or value judgement in the conclusion (unanimously agreed by the three judges).
Dickens, through the mouth of bumbling Mr Bumble, might reasonably have said that ‘the law is an ass – a idiot’. The country recognizes the need for foreign workers, but then the authorities (in this case the tax authority) do too little to make the process workable. There are similarly bureaucratic obstacles in dealing with the pay of foreign care workers that either require the geriatrics they were brought to care for to look after them, or for the foreign carers to abandon their charges to do battle with the authorities. Something (like a regulation giving simple instructions to employers) needs to be done.
The important thing here, though, is to note that the Supreme Court stuck firmly to the law despite the negative social impact on a weak sector of society, as is its remit. Could it be that its vocal detractors are missing a point of law?