(photo credit: Noy Photography and Rachel Hermeti)
With resonant timing, Moshe Landau, the fifth president of the Supreme Court and an Israel Prize laureate, died on Sunday, only two days after his 99th birthday, and 50 years after presiding at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Born in Danzig, Germany, on April 29, 1912, Landau came to British Mandate Palestine in 1933, almost immediately after completing his law studies at the University of London, where he graduated cum laude.
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Admitted to the Palestine Bar in 1937, he rose rapidly in the judicial system, and in 1940 was appointed a judge in the Haifa Magistrate’s Court. This was followed by a promotion to the District Court in 1948, and the Supreme Court in 1953.
He put in more than 20 years of service at the Supreme Court, before becoming its deputy president in 1976. He then had to wait another four years until his appointment as president, a position he held for only two years before reaching retirement age.
He was also the first chairman of the Yad Vashem Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Other posts he held include chairman of the World Zionist Congress Tribunal, chairman of the Advisory Commissions on Israel Land Laws Reforms, Criminal Procedures and Administrative Tribunals, and honorary chairman of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Board of Governors.
The Eichmann trial in 1961 could well be considered the most significant in his career, which he treated with characteristic cautious methodology.
A Time magazine account of the trial offered this testament to Landau’s no-nonsense style: “The crowd expected to hear first a detailed, legalistic defense of Israel’s right to try Eichmann. Instead, Presiding Judge Moshe Landau (like his two colleagues, a refugee from Nazi Germany) ordered Eichmann to attention in his glass, bulletproof cage, and bluntly told the accused: ‘The court finds you guilty.’” Landau also delivered several important rulings which were regarded as groundbreaking in their time.
In 1957, he had to determine what constituted lawful orders when sitting in the Criminal Court of Appeals at a court martial of soldiers who killed 30 Arabs in the village of Kafr Kasim.
In 1962, he overruled a censor’s decision, thereby setting a precedent for freedom of information and the public’s right to know.
In 1965, as chairman of the Israel Central Elections Committee, he set
another precedent by disqualifying the Socialist List, which he said was
subversive to Knesset elections. The party’s platform was the
destruction of the State of Israel. Landau made it clear that democratic
procedures could not be used to undermine a democratic regime.
While still on the bench, Landau served as a member of the Agranat
Commission that was set up to investigate the lack of preparedness of
the IDF in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
In 1979 he ruled against the settlement of Elon Moreh, saying that the
land had been requisitioned by a belligerent occupier, which contravened
Five years after his retirement, Landau headed a commission that probed
the methods of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and found the
organization to be riddled with corruption that included frequent cases
of perjury, exaggerated use of force and other legal violations.
In 2000, after then-prime minister Ehud Barak offered major concessions
to the Palestinians, Landau came out strongly against him and voiced his
fear for the state’s survival. He saw not only external dangers, he
said, but also internal ones.
President Shimon Peres eulogized Landau in a statement on Sunday evening.
“Judge Landau left his mark in the public sector, where he set
precedents that accompany us to this very day – and are the foundations
of Israeli democracy. Judge Landau saw his role as a primary public and
social mission for the benefit of his people, and the State of Israel
will remember him as a role model for courageous leadership,” the
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