The late justice Meir Shamgar: Integrity, patriotism, Jewish values

Genesis Prize Committee honors life of Israeli justice.

Committee members at the 2013 inaugural meeting of the Genesis Prize Committee (photo credit: NATASHA KUPERMAN)
Committee members at the 2013 inaugural meeting of the Genesis Prize Committee
(photo credit: NATASHA KUPERMAN)
Meir Shamgar, who passed away last month at 94, served in nearly every top role in Israel’s legal establishment. Throughout his long and distinguished career, he was the president of Israel’s Supreme Court, attorney-general and IDF military advocate-general.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized the man he described as the “torch bearer of the Israeli guard,” he said that Shamgar’s legacy would be felt for many generations.
Yet the prominent justice’s humanitarian impact goes far beyond the legal field. It is also apparent in his contribution to selecting Genesis Prize Laureates and the organizations that benefit from Genesis Prize grants.
Shamgar was an early supporter of The Genesis Prize, and a founding member of The Genesis Prize Committee, the body that plays a crucial role in selecting the Genesis Prize Laureate since 2013. The Genesis Prize seeks to foster Jewish identity, inspire Jewish pride and strengthen the bond between Israel and the Diaspora.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, committee members shared their admiration of Shamgar and noted the depth of thought that went into every decision. They praised Shamgar’s vision and his profound impact on the work of the Prize Committee, beginning with the decision to name former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg the inaugural Laureate.
 “He was a breath of life,” said justice Tova Strasberg-Cohen, who sat on the committee with Shamgar.
Jill W. Smith, committee member and senior adviser to The Genesis Prize Foundation Chairman, recalled the inaugural Prize Committee meeting, which included Strasberg-Cohen, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the late Elie Wiesel and Shamgar.
“He fully embraced the concept of focusing attention on a world-renowned individual as a means to demonstrate the power of Jewish values,” Smith said. “He saw that young people could be inspired by a famous person who draws strength from his or her Jewish heritage. He understood the potential of the mission and gave great thought to making the concept a reality.”
Strasberg-Cohen expressed similar sentiments, noting that in life Shamgar was “on top of everything,” and the GPF committee was no different. Even in his older age he would come to every meeting well prepared and he took the challenge of selecting the Laureate very seriously.
But he also left room for an open mind and debate. His values of service, showing respect for every person, and celebrating freedom of expression emerged during the deliberations, according to Strasberg-Cohen. She explained that GPF provided the criteria for the award, but the committee would deliberate for hours to consider nominees who not only met the criteria on paper, but who also espoused values that could be shared with the Jewish world.
In the past six years, The Genesis Prize Foundation has become a pioneer in shining a light on important issues in Israel and across the global Jewish community that were not receiving enough attention and funding. This was Shamgar’s way, too.
The Laureates of the Prize, called “The Jewish Nobel” by Time magazine, receive a $1 million award and are honored at a prestigious ceremony in Jerusalem. However, it is after the ceremony that the real work begins. The Prize provides a platform for the laureate to exert impact in the field of the chosen philanthropic theme. The Foundation gives the honoree an opportunity to ‘re-gift’ the funds to a worthy cause of his or her choice; to date, all the Laureates have chosen to do so.
Genesis Prize laureates have included former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, actor, producer and peace activist Michael Douglas, virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman, sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor, actress Natalie Portman and businessman and philanthropist Robert Kraft. In 2018, The Genesis Prize Foundation also honored US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.
Smith said that as the committee deliberated the list of nominees, Shamgar’s thought process was always consistent and his words were always powerful.
“It was clear that his life experiences and profession greatly influenced his world view. Meir Shamgar only wanted to consider candidates who were strong in their feelings about Israel or whose selection would deliver positive results throughout the Diaspora for his beloved country,” she said.
Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn, who joined the Genesis Prize Committee in 2018, shared a story about Shamgar that illustrates his desire for justice.
Kahn became aware that many young Navy divers were dying of cancer and it was suspected that the illnesses were tied to IDF training in the Kishon River. Kahn and others lobbied for the creation of a government commission to investigate the link between the illness and the polluted river.
Shamgar was appointed to head the body, which became known as the Shamgar Commission. The investigation found a link between the pollution and the cancer and, as a result, stopped all IDF diving in the river.
“While not everyone involved believed that there was a link, Shamgar did and persisted in proving the causality,” Kahn told the Post. “Additionally, the commission decided that the government would pay for all medical expenses of the men with cancer and would reimburse the families of those who had died.”
This is Shamgar’s legacy: integrity, patriotism, ability to listen and compromise and, of course, universal Jewish values. Smith said she hopes that the next generation will continue to learn these lessons from Shamgar.
Strasberg-Cohen believes that Shamgar’s spirit will live on – through Israel’s legal system and the country’s Basic Laws, and through the ongoing work of Genesis Prize Laureates.
This article was written in cooperation with The Genesis Prize.