In memoriam: Meir Shamgar: 1925 – 2019

In the army, he met his first wife, Geula Naveh. They got married in 1955. In 1956, he was appointed deputy military advocate-general, and became military advocate-general in 1961.

Meir Shamgar (photo credit: DAVID VAAKNIN/ FLASH 90)
Meir Shamgar
(photo credit: DAVID VAAKNIN/ FLASH 90)
Meir Shamgar’s life encapsulates the story of the State of Israel. He was born as Meron (Meir) Sternberg in 1925 in Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, and grew up in this “free city” where the majority of people were Germans. Things changed for the worse when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. In 1938, Shamgar’s parents decided to leave. At that time, this was still possible. The destination was Palestine. The Sternberg family arrived in Haifa in 1939. Young Meron felt that he had come home; this was the right place for him.
In Israel, Meron preferred to be called Meir. He had grown up in a revisionist home and was active in Danzig’s Beitar movement – so when schoolmates suggested that he join the Irgun underground, Meir had no hesitations. In 1944, he was arrested for anti-British activity and was sent to a detention center in Eritrea. There he started to study law via correspondence with the University of London.
Years later, Shamgar told me that he had an ambivalent view of the British. On the one hand, he hated them. They deprived him of liberty and exiled him to Africa, away from his family and home. On the other hand, they enabled him to study what he always wished to study – law – and equipped him with a life-long profession in which he excelled. The fact that he was a prisoner did not make any difference to the university authorities. They were fair. Exams were the same ones as those in London. Grades were unbiased. Shamgar appreciated this quality in the British.
In July 1948, Sternberg and his fellow prisoners were freed. They returned to the newly founded State of Israel. Meir joined the Israel Defense Forces as a military prosecutor. Joining the army was a dream come true. The IDF provided structure, hierarchy, security and opportunities for Sternberg, who later changed his name to Shamgar in order to progress in the legal profession (Shamgar ben Anat is a biblical figure, see Judges 3:31).
In the army, he met his first wife, Geula Naveh. They got married in 1955. In 1956, he was appointed deputy military advocate-general, and became military advocate-general in 1961. This is the top legal position in the IDF.
In this role, Shamgar’s qualities were recognized, not only by the military elite but also by the political elite: straight as a die; pedantic and thorough; hard working; decisive and fair; a centralist who takes responsibility; a person who does not cut corners and who speaks his mind; honest, measured, and focused; a trustworthy commander who leads by example. In the ever-expanding army tasked to secure Israeli borders during turbulent times, Shamgar had the ability to identify loopholes and then devise mechanisms to close them. His criticisms were always constructive. For him, law was law even when it concerned generals.
In 1963, Shamgar laid the groundwork for the legal infrastructure of Israel in the event that it would occupy the West Bank and Gaza. Some argue that this shows that Israel had long planned the occupation of these territories. In one of our conversations, I raised this issue with him, and he denied that this was the case. He explained that as the head of the military legal apparatus, he made sure to prepare for any development. The documentation he prepared were “drawer plans,” not operative plans; he wanted to ascertain that the military was prepared for any scenario that might develop.
BETWEEN 1968 and 1975, Shamgar served as legal adviser to the government. He reformed the work of this office, made its work structured and streamlined, wrote clear regulations which all legal advisers of government offices had to accept and abide by, scrutinized laws and legal procedures, and provided advice to the prime minister and government ministries. During Shamgar’s tenure, the Office of Legal Adviser to the Government grew in stature and importance. Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Allon and other senior politicians sought his advice. While not always agreeing with Shamgar, they wished to listen to his measured and thoughtful legal opinions.
Shamgar was particularly proud of his decision to give Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza the possibility to appeal directly to the Supreme Court when they had grievances against the state and the army. He saw this as a basic human right. Humans are humans regardless of where they reside. They are entitled to Israeli justice because they are governed by the State of Israel.
In 1975, Shamgar was appointed to the Supreme Court. There was no question about his suitability for the job. Eight years later, in 1983, his wife passed away as a result of cancer at the age of 50. That same year, Shamgar became president of the court, a position he held for 12 years until 1995. He presided over a talented team of justices, who worked together in harmony even when there were disagreements between them. He wrote dozens of judgments on a wide range of issues that touched upon all important aspects of the law.
At the same time, he dedicated much of his time to securing a new building for the court. Shamgar thought that the building of the Supreme Court in the Russian Compound was ill-suited to mete out justice. Its structure and location did not fit the needs of the court nor its special status. Israel needed to have a distinct and attractive building for this important institution.
Under his leadership, an impressive Supreme Court building was built between 1989 and 1992. To my mind, this is one of the most beautiful buildings in Jerusalem. It would be very appropriate to name the building after Shamgar. In 1996, he received the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society.
Shamgar also chaired several official commissions of inquiry, including the ones into the 1994 Hebron Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre; the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin; and the petition against the IDF in 2000 by cancer-stricken naval commandos for ordering them to practice diving in the contaminated Kishon River.
Shamgar’s most important project in recent years was a constitution for Israel. In 2005, following several years of deliberation with many stakeholders, he presented the Knesset with a constitution by consensus, an unprecedented document embodying the difficult compromises necessary for a constitutional order. The idea, however, was not actualized, and Shamgar continued to raise the need for a constitution in every forum until late in life.
I came to know Shamgar in 1996, after he read my 1994 book The Boundaries of Liberty and Tolerance. We embarked on an exchange of ideas that lasted until 2017. He read many of my books and articles on law and Israel studies. Shamgar wrote reviews of two of my books, Speech, Media, and Ethics (2001) and The Scope of Tolerance (2006), and was always happy to assist me in my career. I was very privileged to have him in my life.
IT IS CUSTOMARY to publish a Festschrift – a collection of writings published in honor of a respected person during their lifetime – when a justice retires from the court. When Shamgar retired, his friends and colleagues organized The Shamgar Book, Essays in Honour of President Meir Shamgar, which is comprised of five volumes (2003). I was asked to contribute a chapter that deals with one or more aspects of Shamgar’s contributions to Israeli law. I gladly accepted the invitation and contributed to this immense project.
When I decided to edit two volumes that represent the mainstream of Israeli society (Israeli Democracy at the Crossroads and Israeli Institutions at the Crossroads, 2005), I asked Shamgar to contribute a chapter on one of the subjects of which he was an expert, including the Supreme Court and the Office of the Legal Adviser to the Government.
He opted to write about his “baby” at that time: The Need for a Constitution. Shamgar wrote: “The most perfect way to safeguard in Israel rights and duties, obligations and limitations, prescriptions and norms is by defining them clearly in written form – and in this context, in a written and comprehensive constitution.”
Because Shamgar was at many junctions of Israel’s history, we had fascinating discussions about many of the affairs in which he was involved and I gained important insights into decision-making processes. We discussed freedom of expression, human rights, international law, disqualification of political parties, administrative detentions, Palestinian rights, women’s rights, state and religion, multiculturalism, the SHABAC affair, Arab-Israeli wars, active adjudication, separation of powers, Israeli democracy and many other issues.
Shamgar was candid and helpful. He was always calm and calculated, measured in his speech, articulate and clear. I saw him in his frustrations, for instance, when the prime minister did not adopt his ideas about the need for a constitution. But I never saw him get angry. He would say with half a smile, “What can you do?” and move on.
During the past decade, our conversations became more personal. Shamgar told me chapters of his life, not in a methodological way but as he saw them relevant to our conversations. His stories were fascinating, and I told him time and again, “You need to write your autobiography.” Shamgar just smiled. And then one day he said, “I am doing this now, and you will receive a copy.” He never failed to abide by the obligations he took upon himself. He would say “No” when he saw it as appropriate. But when he said “Yes,” you knew he would do what he had promised. Shamgar’s fascinating autobiography was published in 2015.
Shamgar and I shared passions for music and for travel. He loved jazz and used to attend the annual Red Sea Jazz Festival, and he enjoyed traveling the world with a group of friends, exploring places that most tourists do not visit. We used to compare notes from our respective travels, reminiscing about places, smells, tastes and views. In these conversations, he enjoyed to be carried away in his memories, speaking about life outside the realm of law.
Shamgar was a noble man in his posture, walk and talk. Tall and impressive, measured and thoughtful, he made immense contributions to Israeli law and society. He represented much of what is good and valuable in Israeli society. He will be greatly missed by many who were fortunate to know him. His legacy, I trust, will live on for many generations to come.
The writer holds a DPhil from Oxford University. He holds a chair in politics and is founding director of the Middle East Study Group at the University of Hull, UK.