The roads not taken – with no regrets
Eminent law professor, former minister and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Shimon Shetreet turned down a place on the Supreme Court when he was only 33 years old.
Shimon Shetreet Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
IN THE game of “What if…,” eminent law professor, former government minister and
former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Shimon Shetreet might have made history by
being the longest serving justice in Israel’s Supreme Court.
have succeeded Aharon Barak as its president instead of Dorit Beinisch and would
have held the position for twice as long as she did, because he has another four
years to go before he turns 70.
Shetreet was offered a place on the
15-member Supreme Court bench in 1979, when he was only 33 years
Flattered though he was by the invitation, Shetreet thought that he
was too young for such an elevated position and politely declined. There were
still unfinished projects on his academic agenda that he wanted to pursue, and
he had just begun to test the political waters to see if he could
It wasn’t the first time that Shetreet turned his back on a leap to
prominence. While studying law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – where he
now teaches – he was active in the students union and had a good chance of
becoming its chairman. Shetreet refused, however, to even sit on the executive
committee, let alone take on the responsibility of chairmanship. He had strongly
determined academic ambitions, and he knew that if he took any executive role in
the students union it would be too time consuming and would detract from his
As a young boy, the Moroccan-born Shetreet had learned the
importance of immersing himself in study. In 1959 he spent three weeks in
self-imposed isolation focusing entirely on the Bible. The upshot was that he
became the nation’s first Junior Bible Quiz Champion.
The first Bible
Quiz for adults had taken place a year earlier, in celebration of the 10th
anniversary of the establishment of the state, and the winner was Amos Hakham,
30, who had a speech impediment – the outcome of a head injury from a fall he
suffered as a child. Although his speech was affected, his memory was not.
Hakham died this past August.
The Adult Bible Quiz was discontinued in
1981. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert tried to revive it five years ago, but
without success. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose father-in-law was a
great Bible scholar and teacher, and whose younger son Avner won the National
Bible Quiz for Youth in 2010, was inspired to ask Education Minister Gideon Saar
to revive the adult quiz, the finals of which will be held at the Jerusalem
International Convention Center on December 12 in the presence of both Netanyahu
After Shetreet – one of 11 siblings – won the junior quiz,
then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion, a great Bible enthusiast himself, paid a
visit to the Shetreet family home in Tiberias.
Shetreet’s father, Yihye,
who had been an affluent supplier to the French army in his native city of
Erfoud in Morocco, had been reduced to being a manual laborer in Israel and was
employed as a road builder by the Public Works Department.
When some of
his former neighbors chided him about his loss of status and prestige, the
devoutly religious Yihye Shetreet would reply that it was better to be a laborer
in the Holy Land of Israel than to supply the soldiers of the French Army in
When Ben-Gurion entered Shetreet’s 38-square-meter apartment he
was greeted by the senior Shetreet with the words: “Who am I that the monarch
comes to my home?” “You are the father of someone who is cleverer than I am,”
Soon after the visit, the family moved to a 61-sq.
m. home, not exactly large enough for 11 souls, but since everyone else was
poor, no one felt superior or inferior to anyone else.
but has no proof, that the move was instigated by Ben-Gurion after seeing the
extremely cramped conditions in which the large family lived.
Shetreet family arrived in Israel on the ship Negba in September 1949. They
docked in Haifa, were transferred to Pardess Hanna, where they were placed in a
transit camp, and from there they were sent to Tiberias where they were
temporarily housed in another tent city until they were allocated tiny, boxlike
aluminum huts that were boiling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. There
was no electricity and the toilet was outside.
And yet they were happy,
because Tiberias is an important holy city for Moroccan Jews. It is the burial
place of Maimonides and of other great sages such as Rabbi Akiva, Hillel the
Elder and Shammai.
“None of us had anything,” Shetreet recalled when
interviewed in the spacious and luxurious lounge of a Jerusalem
“We were all Zionists who were simply grateful to be in
The Shetreet siblings comprised eight sisters and three
brothers. Their father was well versed in Jewish studies; their mother was
illiterate, but appreciated the value of education and made sure that all her
children went to school. There had been no school for girls in Erfoud, and
considering that he’d sired a nucleus for a school, Yihye Shetreet opened one
for his daughters, who were soon joined by other local girls. By the time they
came to Tiberias, the two eldest daughters were married, but there were still
nine children at home.
While Moroccans were prominent among the
immigrants in Tiberias, they were not the only ones, and when the young Shimon
started school, it was with a mix of locals and newcomers. Discrimination was
minimal, because most of the veteran Jewish families in Tiberias were Sephardim.
The humiliations borne in some places by Sephardi youngsters today were not
imposed on Shetreet and his schoolmates.
Shetreet attended regular state
school as well as a yeshiva in the afternoon. After he won the Bible Quiz, the
head of the yeshiva sent him to Jerusalem to study at yeshiva high-school Netiv
Meir, but the environment did not suit him.
Following a brief period, he
returned home to Tiberias.
In the army, Shetreet served in the
Intelligence Corps, attaining the rank of sergeant. Before entering the army he
had set himself two career choices – electrical engineer or judge. He opted to
study law at the Hebrew University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in
1968 and his master’s degree in 1970. He subsequently received a doctorate from
the University of Chicago’s School of Law.
Shetreet’s area of expertise
is public and international law, and he holds the Greenblatt chair of public and
international law and is head of the HU’s Sacher Institute of Legislative
Research and Comparative Law. He is also president of the Israeli Chapter of the
International Association of Constitutional Law.
He has been a visiting
professor at various universities in the United States and Europe, and although
he never actually became a Supreme Court, magistrate’s court or district court
judge, while studying for his first law degree he did clerk for justice Alfred
Witkon of the Supreme Court, and for seven years served as a judge on the
standard Contract Court.
Admitted to the Israel Bar Association in 1969,
he appeared before the Supreme Court in a number of landmark
Inasmuch as he loved to study, teach, write about and defend the
law, Shetreet also wanted to be a lawmaker.
Returning to Israel from his
studies in the US, Shetreet became active in the Jerusalem branch of the Labor
Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he headed the Ombudsman’s
Office in the Labor Party and was elected to the chairmanship of the Association
of University Lecturers.
He quickly became chairman of Labor’s Young
Guard in Jerusalem, balancing his political commitments with those of his legal
At the behest of then-Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, Shetreet
also launched a new political group called Kivun Hadash, (New Direction) which
comprised a healthy mix of different sectors of Israeli society including a lot
Most politically minded immigrants of North African origin
were inclined towards Likud because then-prime minister Menachem Begin treated
them with far more respect and dignity than they usually received from most of
the Labor leadership.
Looking back, Shetreet says that ideologically he
was actually more attracted to Likud than to Labor, and for three years he
faithfully participated in Begin’s 40-member Bible study circle, which
congregated at three-week intervals on a Saturday night at the Prime Minister’s
Shetreet was enormously impressed with Begin’s integrity, his
ethics and his modesty, as well as his ambitious Project Renewal plan, which
upgraded the homes of people living in tenement areas throughout the country.
Yet in 1981, when Begin offered him a place on the Likud Knesset list, Shetreet
refused, even though his inclination was to do otherwise.
He did have a
brief fling with Tami, the dominantly Sephardi breakaway from the National
Religious Party, which eventually merged with Likud. The reason he didn’t stay
with Tami was because he didn’t want to play the ethnic card. Shetreet sees
himself as a universalist, while making no attempt to hide his Moroccan
However, the ethnic aspect does occasionally come to the
Noting that even today so many heads of local councils in
peripheral areas are of North African birth or descent, Shetreet says that it
was because their families, on arrival in Israel, were dumped in the middle of
nowhere by representatives of a Labor administration. If any credit is to be
given to anyone for the building up of development towns, it should be to these
North African immigrants.
But that was not the case he fumed, recalling
that in 1988 Arye (Lova) Eliav, a Russianborn diplomat, politician, educator and
pioneer who had spirited illegal immigrants into the country during the British
Mandate, had been awarded the Israel Prize for his special contribution to
society and the state in recognition of his work in development towns. Shetreet
says that Gabi Sebag, the founding mayor of Dimona, should have received the
In 1988, when Shetreet was elected to the Knesset it was on the
Labor Alignment list. From the age of 13, he explained during his interview with
The Jerusalem Post, he had been emotionally attached to Ben-Gurion, idolizing a
prime minister who would make the then-arduous journey to the home of a poor
immigrant family in Tiberias whose adolescent son had won a Bible
It was an act that had symbolically bound the young Shetreet to
Ben-Gurion for life.
During his two terms in the Knesset, Shetreet served
as economics and planning minister, science and technology minister and
religious affairs minister.
He failed to be elected for a third term, but
undaunted he returned to local politics and became active in the Jerusalem
Municipality, becoming a deputy mayor under Ehud Olmert.
Jewish as well as secular law, Shetreet, when questioned by his interviewer as
to whether Jewish Law should have precedence over secular law in the State of
Israel, says that where applicable it should – because there are many fields of
Jewish law which are compatible with modern life – but when that compatibility
does not exist, then secular law must be the rule.
Asked about the
dominance of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate over the lives of individuals in
Israel, Shetreet, speaking as a former religious affairs minister, replies that
there is a clever minority of extremists who impose rules that often run counter
to Jewish tradition, but the majority does not know how to cope with these
Most of the people within the religious sector are rational
and know their limits, he says, citing as an example gender segregation, which
is not advocated beyond the synagogue by most religious groups, but has been
taken to illogical lengths by the extremists, who, he charges, have eliminated
tolerance from Jewish tradition.
Strong leaders from the mainstream
religious sector, he opines, should be able to expel the extremists from their
midst and thus build a better society.
Speaking from the perspective of
his two other former ministerial positions, Shetreet underscores that the secret
of Israel’s economic success has always been in entrepreneurship and innovation.
These two national characteristics should be encouraged and supported,
regardless of any economic crisis, he says, because in the final analysis they
will prove themselves in the future as they have in the past.
Israeli economic policy is, in his view, “freezing initiative.” He also thinks
that there should be more legislation with regard to the legitimacy of profits.
Mark-ups on many goods and services are far too high, he says. “There has to be
Only now is Israel beginning to understand the extent to
which tycoons have abused the system, says Shetreet, who also sits on the boards
of directors of various commercial institutions.
On the other hand he
noted, Israelis have to learn to be better consumers and to realize that
designer labels are nothing more than a form of snobbery and should be
Similar well-made items without the label cost far
And lastly, Shetreet’s advice to the government is to be more
modest about Israel’s achievements.
A prolific writer and editor of books
and essays on various aspects of law including talmudic law, he has been
published in numerous legal journals in Israel and around the world. He is in
frequent demand as a lecturer and he is president or chairman of a number of law
societies and organizations and institutions dedicated to peace, democracy and
Does Shetreet have any regrets about not accepting the
offer to become a member of the Supreme Court? None whatsoever.
“If I had
become a judge when I was 33, I would never have done all the other things that
I was able to do,” he says.