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 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Shimon Shetreet 521
(photo credit: 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.
He would 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 old.
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 swim.
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 studies.
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 and Saar.
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 Morocco.
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,” responded Ben-Gurion.
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.
Shetreet suspects, but has no proof, that the move was instigated by Ben-Gurion after seeing the extremely cramped conditions in which the large family lived.
The 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 hotel.
“We were all Zionists who were simply grateful to be in Israel.”
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 cases.
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 Party.
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 career.
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 of Sephardim.
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 Residence.
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 identity.
However, the ethnic aspect does occasionally come to the fore.
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 prize.
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 contest.
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.
Familiar with 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 extremists.
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.
Current 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 a balance.”
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 eliminated.
Similar well-made items without the label cost far less.
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 social justice.
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.