One of the country’s legal giants, former Supreme Court vice president Mishael Cheshin, died Saturday at the age of 79 at his home in Herzliya after a long struggle with cancer.
Justice Cheshin was known as somewhat more conservative than the left-wing former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, though not all of his decisions could be easily categorized as liberal or conservative.
While Cheshin came out to the right of Barak on some notable decisions, including balancing security versus human rights, he fiercely defended the Supreme Court from attacks from former justice minister Daniel Friedmann and was ready to declare the “Tal Law” – that in practice allowed haredi men to indefinitely defer military service – unconstitutional years before the court finally struck down the legislation.
A wide range of the country’s most senior politicians commented on his death, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said, “I express condolences to the Cheshin family on the passing” of Cheshin, “who was one of Israel’s greatest jurists.”
Cheshin “had a sharp, original and compassionate mind,” the prime minister continued. “I saw him at his peak and in his great suffering when his son, Shneur, of blessed memory, died. He was knowledgeable and a lover of the Bible and the Hebrew language, which he knew extensively.”
He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and three children.
Shneur was killed as an adult in a hit and run accident while riding a bike in 2010.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog called Cheshin a giant of the Israeli legal system.
Cheshin’s “integrity and his inspirational writings are among the cornerstones of justice in Israel that “taught us about safeguarding human rights, equality, and freedom of expression, while at the same time ensuring the Israel’s security and its identity as a Jewish and democratic state,” Herzog said.
“In times like these, when there is a battle over the independence and freedom of the Supreme Court, [Cheshin’s] rulings and judicial legacy echo and show the brave and correct way to act,” Herzog added.
Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi) said Cheshin “had great and deep knowledge of every issue he dealt with. His creative and unique style left their mark in the rulings he left as a legacy for future generations.”
Former justice minister MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said Cheshin left behind “sharp, direct, uncompromising rulings wrapped in nice literary words, with which he designed, filled with content and protected Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Livni referred to Cheshin’s well-known saying that “Whoever raises his hand against my house, the Supreme Court, I will cut off his hand.” She said that at the time, she thought it was too severe, but now she thinks it must remain as a commandment.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On said Cheshin led a revolution in defending women in the Shomrat rape case, in which he ruled that there is no need to prove that a woman resisted her attacker, rather, that it is enough for her not to have said she agrees to have sexual relations with him.
Supreme Court President Miriam Naor gave an emotional reaction to Cheshin’s passing, because of her close personal connections to him.
She said, “He was relieved of his suffering.... He was one of the foundational pillars of the Supreme Court... I did my judicial internship with judge Cheshin when he was the head of the Solicitor-General’s Department of the State Attorney’s Office, and he taught me always to place digging for the truth and justice at the center of our actions. I mourn his death."
“His decisions had a huge impact on the shaping of judicial thought” in the country “even when he was in the minority,” Naor added.
“All of the judges of Israel are mourners at his death and are pained together with the Cheshin family,” she said.
Cheshin was a member of the huge Rivlin clan. In eulogizing him on Sunday night, President Reuven Rivlin said: “Misha is no longer. My teacher, my mentor, my friend has gone to his final resting place. He was a man whose judicial robes reflected not only his brilliance, his sharpness and his clarity of thought, but also the warmth of his heart and the integrity of his conscience."
“Misha was one of the great legal geniuses of his Israel who stood firm on all that was related to Israel’s right to defend itself and its duty to protect the rights of all those who live within her borders. He used to get angry when the situation merited his anger, but he also had a gentle soul. In recent years Misha was also a father whose big and strong heart was broken when his beloved son Shneor was taken from him.”
Rivlin expressed sympathy to Ruth Cheshin, whom he called “a builder of Jerusalem” who over the past few years dedicated herself to her husband’s welfare.
Retired Supreme Court president Barak told Channel 1 that Cheshin was one of the most exceptional of judges, and in fact a legal genius.
Although they disagreed on many things, said Barak, they were soul mates, and the more they disagreed, the closer their friendship became.
Cheshin was born in 1936 in Beirut and he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1992.
He was the first lawyer to be appointed to the Supreme Court without first serving on a lower court. In 2005, he was appointed the vice president of the court and one year later at the age of 70 he retired, as is mandatory for judges.
His father, Shneur Zalman Cheshin, was one of the first five justices appointed to the Supreme Court in 1948.
In 1953, at the age of 17, he began his law studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his degree with high honors. Already at the age of 26, Mishael Cheshin received his doctorate in law and for a number of years he was a lecturer at the law faculty in Jerusalem.
In 1962, he joined the State Attorney’s Office, where he advanced until he was appointed in 1973 to be the deputy to then attorney-general Meir Shamgar, who himself went on to be one of the country’s most influential jurists for several decades.
In 1978, subsequent to Barak having been chosen over him to succeed Shamgar as attorney- general, Cheshin went into private practice, where among others he represented the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) defendants in the Bus 300 affair that involved the controversial beating to death of two Palestinian bus hijackers after they were in custody.
Cheshin was known for his unique style and his long decisions from the bench in which he quoted traditional Jewish texts and general literature.
He was head of the Central Elections Committee in 2003 for the election to the 16th Knesset and is also remembered for his decision to stop the broadcasting of a speech by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon for contravening the Elections Law.
His funeral will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday at Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha.Lahav Harkov and Maariv contributed to this story.