A public servant for life

After nearly four decades on the bench, retired Supreme Court judge Jacob Turkel is presiding over a completely new enterprise: the EMET Prize.

FORMER SUPREME Court judge Jacob Turkel has built a reputation of going against the grain with compelling dissenting opinions. Now, he serves as the chairman of the EMET Prize committee. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
FORMER SUPREME Court judge Jacob Turkel has built a reputation of going against the grain with compelling dissenting opinions. Now, he serves as the chairman of the EMET Prize committee.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
‘I was notified that the prime minister appointed me to be the chairman of the EMET Prize and I accepted,” former Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel said matter-of-factly when asked how he came to serve on the Prize’s committee.
His role heading the Prize committee is only the latest in a series of examples where Turkel has willingly fulfilled his duty to the Jewish state.
Professionally, from the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court, to president of the Beersheba District Court and, finally, the Supreme Court, Turkel has spent nearly 40 years of his life on the bench.
His distinguished career is marked by frequently going against the grain – most notably for writing many compelling dissenting opinions.
When asked which ones resonated with him the most, Turkel hesitated. “I wrote judgments in almost every subject imaginable. So, I can’t really point to a specific judgment. But I will try anyway,” he said honestly.
One that has remained close to his heart is a Supreme Court ruling against Ehud Barak’s government: A motion was filed calling for Barak to halt negotiations with the Palestinians as they were occurring so soon before an election.
“There were people who thought it wasn’t right for a prime minister to hold negotiations that could have grave ramifications on the next government and that these negotiations should be suspended until after the election,” Turkel recalled. He was the only judge who ruled in favor of halting negotiations, the other six believed the court should not interfere.
Looking back at that judgment and his career in general, Turkel understands the gravity of his decisions and the awesome responsibility that comes with sitting on the Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court decides the direction of all laws in Israel. It forges our path. Of course, I feel a deep sense of responsibility,” he said.
During the course of our conversation, that sense of responsibility and duty resonated throughout.
So if his response as to why he’s on the EMET Prize committee seems detached, it is actually anything but – it is part and parcel of his long and esteemed career in public service.
“The Prize wants the committee to be headed by a former Supreme Court justice, and I suppose this is a simply a continuation of my duties as a judge.”
Turkel was appointed to the committee this summer after his predecessor, former Supreme Court justice, Jacob Kedmi, died.
“Every single one of the committees and boards I sit on are important to me. But this one gives recognition to the best of the best in a variety of fields,” said Turkel, whose other volunteer work includes chairing Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations and is on the board of governors and executive council of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“The prize is of the utmost importance and I don’t take being the head of the committee lightly. In my opinion, it’s the most important prize given out in Israel along with the Israel Prize,” he said.
“It shows a younger generation that there is hope for the future and there is something to aspire to. It shows that advancement and progress are not only possible, but necessary. Every EMET Prize winner is an example of greatness in their field,” he added.
At 82, that sense of duty to his country shows no signs of abating. So much so that he still proudly serves in the reserves at the Military Court.
“I could have stopped years ago, but they allowed me to continue to serve,” he said, though admits he’s not called often because the court is embarrassed for him to preside over “silly and small” cases.
“It still gives me a good feeling to serve. To be a military court judge is not as hard as being an officer in my youth, but this is what I can do at my age,” he said.
“For my whole life, I saw myself as a Jewish Zionist. I always saw it as an honor and duty to serve the country.”
This article was written in cooperation with the EMET Prize.