Meir Shamgar, modern father of legal system, laid to rest

He served as chief justice, attorney-general and chief IDF lawyer

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz attends the funeral of supreme court president Meir Shamgar (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz attends the funeral of supreme court president Meir Shamgar
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Meir Shamgar, who served as the Supreme Court’s president, attorney-general and IDF military advocate-general, was laid to rest on Tuesday following eulogies from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, top legal officials and family members.
Shamgar died at age 94 on Saturday after a career in which he remade nearly every major legal institution in Israel to have greater authority and independence from the other branches of government.
Netanyahu called Shamgar “the torch bearer of the Israeli guard,” adding that his influence for “strengthening the foundational principles of justice and the law and to guarantee individual and national freedoms” would continue to be felt for “many generations.”
The prime minister also mentioned that there is built-in tension between the judicial branch and the other branches of Israeli government and that push back between the branches is natural as long as the judicial branch’s independence is always defended.
He said that he had always defended the judicial branch’s independence.
Rivlin said Shamgar “broke all of the glass ceilings” in helping several institutions of the Israeli legal establishment to reach maturity and that he was “the architect of the law.”
In a possible veiled rebuke to some of the political class who have still failed to form a government after two elections this year, Supreme Court president Esther Hayut said that Shamgar was a great example for putting mamlachtiyut, dedication to the state and the nation as a whole, above personal interest and ideologies.
She said that Shamgar and his successor, Aharon Barak, had built whole new towers of liberties and law for the Israeli legal system and that her and future judges’ duty was to preserve and add to that legacy.
Barak himself spoke and bemoaned that Shamgar had proposed a draft constitution for the State of Israel, but that it had not been enacted.
He said that he hoped that eventually Shamgar’s dream of a constitution for the country would be realized.
Others who eulogized Shamgar included former Supreme Court justice Edna Arbel, Shamgar’s sons Dan and Ram and one of his granddaughters.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, IDF Military Advocate-General Maj.-Gen. Sharon Afek, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and others laid wreaths by Shamgar’s casket.
Shamgar was born in 1925 in Danzig, now part of Poland, and made aliyah in 1939. He was a fighter in the Irgun, which led to the British arresting him in 1944.
The British sent him to prison in Eritrea, where he studied law by correspondence with the University of London. Following his release, Shamgar completed studies in history and philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
From 1961-1968, he was the IDF’s chief lawyer, during which time he elevated the position and the legal division to being far more independent from the non-legal chain of command. Ultimately, he and other leaders later placed the legal division in a chain of command connected to the attorney-general, rather than the chief of staff, in order to insulate legal decision from non-legal considerations.
He also developed Israel’s “belligerent occupation” concept for holding on to the West Bank from the Palestinians, while also placing significant limits on what Israel can do there. Shamgar also founded the IDF West Bank court system, which to this day deals with suspected Palestinian crimes and has a massive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and relations.
While some, especially outside Israel, criticize him for enabling Israel to hold on to the West Bank through creative legal interpretations, most in Israel credit him with paving the way for creating a system that walked a fine balance between managing the newly conquered West Bank areas without crossing the lines of certain international laws, which would have led to greater global isolation and condemnation.
He famously created a right for Palestinians to appeal IDF West Bank Court rulings to the Supreme Court even though they are not citizens.
From 1968-1975, he served as the attorney-general, once again strengthening the position’s independence from the political class. In later years, he headed one of many commissions which established the attorney-general as the government’s chief legal adviser as well as the state’s chief prosecutor – a move which has been debated in recent years, but has partially held due to Shamgar’s clout with both the political Right and Left.
In 1975, he was appointed to the Supreme Court, eventually rising to become chief justice in 1983, a position he held on to for a record 12 years until 1995. Typically, chief justices serve for around five years – many for even shorter terms.
During that time, he extended the powers of the Supreme Court to judicially review a variety of new government and Knesset decisions.
Following 1995, he directed a wide range of commissions which framed much of Israel’s current legal apparatus, including a hotly-debated but non-political method for selecting judges.
While Barak has become the hero of the Left, in favor of a liberal court – and the scapegoat of the Right, in favor of a conservative court – Shamgar managed to be held up as a leader by both sides, even though his rulings were often as liberal as Barak’s.
Generally, Shamgar was regarded as more low-key than Barak in advertising the liberal trend of his rulings. Whereas Barak came to the court from academia and a liberal reputation, many on the Right cited Shamgar’s past fighting with the Irgun in praising him following his death.