Judging social justice

Dalia Dorner on why Holocaust survivors are struggling to live out their final years in dignity.

Holocaust survivors 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Holocaust survivors 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It’s early Sunday morning and the corridors of the Supreme Court are eerily quiet. Up on the third floor, tucked away in an off-limits-to-thepublic corner of the building’s legal library is the office of former Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner. Soft classical music wafts out from behind the closed door and I hesitate for a second before knocking and entering. Despite my interruption of what is so clearly her thinking time, Dorner, 78, welcomes me with a smile and a joke about her need to hear classical tunes as she works.
Even though the music creates a relaxing and serene atmosphere, as we start the interview it quickly becomes clear that this high-power career-driven woman lets little slow her down.
“After I retired from the courts, I started my second career,” says Dorner, who left the court circuit in 2004 and, among various projects, has served as a chairwoman on several governmental commissions investigating social issues. Most notable among these is the 2008 panel looking into the dire living conditions and abject poverty of Israel’s estimated 215,000 Holocaust survivors.
Pointing to a cluster of framed certificates on her wall next to a packed bookshelf and photos of her grandchildren, Dorner explains, “I have a cabinet full of professional certifications but it is those three of which I am most proud.”
One comes from Akim, the Israel Association for the Habilitation of the Intellectually Disabled; another is from an organization for the mentally ill, and the third, which she says brings her the most pride, is from the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, awarded in recognition of her work with survivors.
“All those things happened to me after I stopped being a judge,” she says, making it very clear that despite a long and illustrious career presiding over some of the country’s most controversial legal cases, it is her work to improve conditions for survivors that has now become an issue intrinsically close to her heart.
“Listen, I sat on that committee [on Holocaust survivors] and I listened to people’s stories,” she begins. “Like most Israelis I was already very aware of what went on during the Holocaust; I’d been a judge in the [John] Demjanjuk trial and I even have a husband from Krakow who lost his brother and father in Poland during the war. But during my time on that committee I became disgusted.
“It was clear to me that our society should be ashamed of itself. Our society, our state, the Jewish state – that was created in the shadow of the Holocaust by those who had survived it – was now forcing these people to choose between a slice of bread or medicine!
“Of course, I do not want the public to think that survivors are a sad community – they are not! They are amazing and they fought for this country; at night they screamed but during the day they built,” she says poetically. “They worked and created new families and populated this country, and what did we do for them? Not enough.”
Dorner’s commission on the government’s treatment of Holocaust survivors was the first official recognition in 60 years of the plight facing those who suffered atrocities at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Her recommendations included increasing financial support to those who arrived in Israel following the fall of communism in the Eastern bloc and cutting back on the bureaucratic process required for them to obtain certain benefits.
Three and a half years later she says: “Most of the recommendations have been adopted but the state still needs to do much more for them. Survivors in Israel are very poor.
“Even though I got letters from people who were very happy with our recommendations and I know that a lot has changed since we completed our research, there are still so many people who have not yet received any additional support, and others who, because of the law, are still not entitled to compensation,” continues Dorner, pointing out that it is all a matter of political prioritizing.
“The law needs to be changed,” she says, explaining that there are so many different definitions of who is a Holocaust survivor and of who qualifies for aid that even two people from within the same family could end up receiving varying levels of assistance.
“Despite the economic problems around the world, Israel is doing well and the law needs to be expanding to include all survivors,” says Dorner emphatically.
“There are not that many survivors left and every day many of them die,” she continues.“I am sure that the State of Israel could support all of these people in a generous way.”
Asked why she thinks the issue of support for survivors in the Jewish state has been ignored for so long, Dorner answers simply, “There are different theories but basically, in the end, it all comes down to political power and priorities.”
DORNER, WHO was born in Turkey and immigrated to pre-state Israel as a child, is no stranger to political power. During her 25 years as a judge she presided over some controversial and well-known cases.
One case with which Dorner will always be connected is that of John Demjanjuk, an American national accused of being Ivan the Terrible – the man responsible for the murder of some 28,000 Jewish inmates at the Nazi death camp of Treblinka.
Israel’s Supreme Court notoriously overturned Dorner’s 1988 guilty verdict and set Demjanjuk free, but when a Munich court found the same man guilty for those crimes earlier this year Dorner famously stated that this verdict was a way to “close the circle.”
In her capacity as a judge, Dorner was also involved in several other landmark cases, including a ruling that would allow personal epitaphs on soldiers’ tombstones; changes to the Special Education Law to enable children with disabilities to be integrated into ordinary education frameworks; and forcing national airline company El Al to allow a cabin attendant to receive the same employee rights for his homosexual partner as other couples receive for their spouses.
In addition, this tireless woman who makes a point of taking her grandchildren individually to visit iconic locations across the globe also serves as president of the Israel Press Council and is vocally passionate about upholding press freedom; lectures in law at Bar-Ilan University; and has published extensively on subjects ranging from affirmative action and women’s equality to constitutional protection of human dignity, medical ethics and child and parental rights.
However, despite her historic contributions to the State of Israel, Dorner waves a hand in the air when asked to pinpoint what she believes are her greatest achievements.
“There is so much written about me; do you have to ask me about my career?” she asks, turning back to the subject of the Holocaust.
In a few weeks she will be the keynote speaker at a conference in Germany tackling the subject of “guilt and atonement,” and she wants to share with me the wisdoms shewill pinpoint in her speech.
Proudly, she hands me a copy of the words she has prepared in English and highlights the concluding paragraphs: “The Holocaust is a warning to humankind. It’s the world’s duty to keep its memory alive so that it will not be lost as mere text, and so that its memory and the lessons learned from these atrocities remind us to vigilantly oppose transgressions in the future.
“To avoid another Holocaust, we must understand the sacred need to remember and this sacred duty must be passed on from generation to generation in Berlin, in Jerusalem and all over the world.” “That is the point that I plan to make,” she says, adding “I know that most judges who sit on these commissions present their findings and then move on, but on this topic I cannot stop – I have to continue to speak out about it.
“There is so much we should have learned from the Holocaust, but since the end of World War II in which so many people died and despite the fact there has been a universal agreement on human rights, the murders continue in this world in places such as Darfur and other areas where there is ethnic cleansing. We did not learn anything.” ■