An exemplary judge

former Supreme Court president Moshe Landau honed the notion that the powers-that-be aren’t above the law and that the law isn’t obliged to bow to their interests.

311_gavel (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There was seeming symbolism in the fact that former Supreme Court president and 1991 Israel Prize laureate Moshe Landau died, at age 99, on the eve of Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Memorial Day. He, after all, was the judge who presided half a century ago at arch-murderer Adolf Eichmann’s trial.
It was Landau who oversaw that proceeding with doctrinaire legal discipline to keep it from descending into a show trial. It was he, too, who pronounced the only death sentence ever carried out in Israel’s history.
Nonetheless, it does Landau an injustice to remember him only by that most important and most challenging of the trials he handled.
Current court president Dorit Beinisch was right to argue, during a rare radio interview in his memory, that Landau’s founding generation “protected the citizen from the arbitrariness of the sovereign, at a time when Israel was facing many existential challenges.”
In his 30 years on Israel’s highest court, Landau handed down dozens of landmark rulings, many of which might appear contradictory. Some are eagerly quoted by the Left, like Landau’s decision against the Elon Moreh settlement, because it was constructed on private Arab land. The other side of the political arena points to his ruling against the el-Ard Arab party which vied for the Knesset while declaring that it didn’t recognize the state of Israel. Landau invoked the concept of a “self-protective democracy,” which “must prevent the sort of travesty that felled Germany’s Weimar Republic.”
Landau is correctly perceived as a courageous judge who dared challenge the ostensibly then-limitless power of prime minister David Ben-Gurion. This was evident in cases where Landau ruled against censorship and in the groundbreaking case of Shurat Hamitnadvim – the group which accused Ben-Gurion’s son Amos, then-deputy police commissioner, of corruption.
Landau lashed at the authorities for “consistently and vigorously obfuscating the truth.”
That became a watershed. Thereafter public figures evinced greater circumspection about their conduct and more wariness about issues of personal integrity.
Landau forcefully honed the notion that the powers-that-be aren’t above the law and that the law isn’t obliged to bow to their interests.
LANDAU HIMSELF was as good as what he demanded of others. He practiced the scrupulous honesty he expected from all holders of public office. Indeed, he did so to an extreme. Nobody today can imagine the president of the Supreme Court commuting to work by bus. But that is exactly what Landau did each day, carrying his heavy court files. He never owned a car and for most of his adult life resided in his father-in-law’s apartment.
Beinisch described Landau as a very strict judge, unrelentingly mindful of every detail. As a young lawyer at the state attorney’s office, she recalled, “it was stressful going into his courtroom. You got a nervous stomachache.”
But Landau’s pedantry denoted objectivity. It was only long after his 1982 retirement that he allowed himself the liberty of expressing himself on political issues.
While he was on the bench – from age 28 in 1940 as a magistrate’s court judge – nobody had a clue as to Landau’s own leanings. Only almost two decades post-retirement did he begin voicing opinions.
He criticized court president Aharon Barak for the sweeping judicial activism the latter had instituted. He recalled, in 2000, that “Plato proposed entrusting governmental power to an echelon of scholars who had been especially groomed for that role. Sometimes I think that most of our Supreme Court judges consider themselves to be those very empowered scholars.”
In April 2003, Landau also published a scathing oped in Ma’ariv against the government of Ariel Sharon for accepting “America’s Road Map to supposed peace.
By deciding in the Map’s favor, the government announced the demise of Israel as an independent state, made it a lackey who obeys its American masters and made Sharon Powell’s poodle,” he charged.

Yet while on the bench, as Beinisch attested, “Landau’s political worldview was never an issue. He treated every case on its legal merits. Many years passed between his retirement and when he first expressed his opinions publicly.”
We can only wish that his successors would be as impartial, prudent and principled as Moshe Landau was. It isn’t for nothing that he was described as the “last of the great.”