The death of a giant of the law

Our friendship grew when he became a justice of the Supreme Court and then its president.

Former chief justice Meir Shamgar (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Former chief justice Meir Shamgar
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
One of Israel’s most influential founding fathers, though relatively unknown, has recently died. His name is Meir Shamgar. Shamgar, who passed away at age 94, participated in virtually every aspect of Israel’s development from a pre-state Jewish community to the powerful economic, military, diplomatic and moral force it has become.
Shamgar fought for Israel’s safety and independence, first as a member of the Palmah and later the Irgun. He was arrested by the British and detained in Africa. During his detention he studied law by correspondence. Following Israel’s independence, he became one of the most influential lawyers and judges in the country’s history.
I first encountered him when he was the advocate-general of the IDF. A few years later, when he was attorney-general, I interviewed him for an article on administrative detention, which he had himself experienced in the pre-state era. I found him to be one of the wisest and most thoughtful Israelis I have been privileged to meet. Though his early identification was with Menachem Begin’s conservative Irgun, he was a moderate with a strong commitment to civil liberties and human rights.
Our friendship grew when he became a justice of the Supreme Court and then its president. He molded that great court into a major force for balancing civil liberties and the war against terrorism. His pragmatic civil-liberties approach influenced generations of judges and justices. He was respected by lawyers and judges throughout the world.
After he retired from the court at age 70, he began a new career. In his capacity as a private citizen, he became a major force for human rights. It was my privilege to work closely with him for Soviet refuseniks and prisoners of conscience. We also worked on behalf of Ethiopian Jews. His wisdom and guidance were invaluable assets in helping to bring Soviet and Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Following the tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel needed a trusted figure to head up the commission of inquiry: Shamgar was selected. Meir Shamgar represented the best of what Israel stands for. He fought when fighting was necessary to secure Israel’s independence and to prevent the slaughter of its citizens; he supported peace with security when Israel became strong enough to take risks for peace. He understood the need for stringent measures against terrorism, but he also understood the overriding need not to compromise Israel’s moral standards.
Even toward the end of his life, he was indefatigable in his quest for justice. He lived by the biblical command: Justice, justice must you pursue. In addition to his professional achievements, Meir was always a gentleman, a mentor and a real mensch. He had a profound influence on my career and priorities as well as on those of many lawyers of my generation. We were very different in our styles but not in our substance. He spoke softly and rarely had a bad word to say about anyone.
There will never be another Meir Shamgar. He was a righteous man not only in his generation but judged by any universal standards. I will miss him both professionally and personally. Whenever I visited him in Israel, he made my spirits soar, because in him I saw everything good in the world and in the nation-state of the Jewish people. Israel and the world need more men and women who follow in the large footsteps of Meir Shamgar.
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