Former Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor dead at 74

Retired jurist, who was serving as head of state commission of inquiry into Meron disaster, remembered as ‘one of the titans of Israeli law’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Then-outgoing Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor speaks during her a farewell ceremony in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2017. (Flash90)
Then-outgoing Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor speaks during her a farewell ceremony in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2017. (Flash90)

Former Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor died on Monday at age 74. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

Naor, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2003, served as head of Israel’s top court from 2015 to 2017, when she retired.

In recent months, Naor was serving as head of the state commission of inquiry into last year’s Meron disaster, during which 45 people were killed in a crush at a religious festival, in the worst civilian disaster in Israel’s history. It was not immediately clear how the state commission will move forward; initial reports indicated that Supreme Court Chief Esther Hayut is expected to select a new chair for the committee in the coming days.

The Judicial Authority said in a statement that it was “shocked with grief and pain” at news of Naor’s death.

Naor was born in Jerusalem in 1947, and received her law degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1980 she was appointed as a judge on the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, at age 33, and in 1988 she became a judge in the Jerusalem District Court.

During her 14-tenure on the Supreme Court, Naor oversaw some of the most significant cases in Israel’s history, including striking down legislation that sought to delay drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army; barring the state from deporting African migrants against their will; allowing mini-markets in Tel Aviv to operate on Shabbat; and forcing the government to recognize private conversions to Judaism for the sake of citizenship.

Then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, August 31, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Upon retiring after 38 years in the justice system, Naor urged Israel to safeguard its democratic nature.

“Even today, as the decades have passed and I have served in all the courts, I am grateful that my path led me to being a judge,” she said during her parting speech.

“The State of Israel can be proud of the independence of its judiciary, who fear nothing but the law,” Naor said. “Judicial independence, however, should not be taken for granted. We must protect it. If we do not protect democracy, democracy will not protect us.”

An array of politicians and government officials expressed sorrow at Naor’s sudden death.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called Naor a “respected jurist” who was always “careful to maintain the required balance between the variety of values ​​in Israeli society, and to strengthen the national and Zionist character of the State of Israel.”

“Above all, she was a person of the people,” said Bennett. “She treated every individual with respect and made sure to use her words calmly.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, right, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Naor for her “deep commitment to the State of Israel and the world of law, to which she contributed so much throughout her life.”

President Isaac Herzog said Naor “will be remembered in Israeli history as the queen of justice and as one of the titans of Israeli law — a wise, knowledgeable, sensitive, strong, and independent woman, who remained modest even as she sat on the highest courts in the land.”

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Naor was “a judge with every fiber of her being” and “an excellent judge and jurist, analytical, thorough, hardworking, and in control of details.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, a former justice minister, called Naor “a beloved friend,” who did not “leave a stone unturned” in her pursuit of justice. “Thank you for dedicating your life to the State of Israel,” said Shaked. “Your work will be etched forever in the annals of the State of Israel.”

Members of the Meron disaster commission (L-R) former Bnei Brak mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz, Commission chair and former chief justice Miriam Naor and former IDF planning chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai seen during the commission’s opening session in Jerusalem, on August 22, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Naor was “an exemplary figure, a beacon of justice, wisdom and values, whose contribution to the world of law was invaluable.”

Right-wing Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich, meanwhile, said he found it difficult to eulogize Naor.

“I will remember Miriam Naor as someone who insisted on demolishing homes in [the West Bank settlements and outposts of] Ofra and Amona and Netiv Ha’avot,” Smotrich told Radio Galey Yisrael. “In short, just another [Supreme Court] president in a long line of those… who destroyed a once glorious institution… it’s hard for me to be hypocritical.”

In 2017, Naor came under fire for refusing to send a Supreme Court representative to a state ceremony marking 50 years since the beginning of the settlement enterprise, saying the court should not take part in a “controversial ceremony.”

Naor is survived by her husband, Arye, and her sons, Michael and Naftali.

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