Former Supreme Court justice Yaakov Turkel dies aged 88

Turkel authored several important rulings upholding freedom of expression, and commissions he headed bolstered gay rights and exonerated the IDF over a deadly Gaza flotilla raid

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Portrait of former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel at his home in Jerusalem, April 17, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Portrait of former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel at his home in Jerusalem, April 17, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Former Supreme Court Yaakov Turkel, who served with distinction in the judiciary for 38 years, passed away on Monday afternoon at the age of 88.

Turkel was known for rulings he made in several landmark Supreme Court cases, including regarding public performances of the music of Richard Wagner, as well as his work on two public commissions — one dealing with inheritance rights for gay couples and one examining 2010’s deadly Israeli raid on a pro-Palestinian flotilla headed for Gaza.

Turkel was born in Tel Aviv in 1935 into a religious family that immigrated to Mandatory Palestine from Austria.

He studied law at the Hebrew University and in 1967 was appointed to serve as a magistrate court judge in the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court, at the young age of 32.

Just six years later, in 1973, he was appointed to serve as a judge on the Beersheba District Court, and became president of the court in 1981, serving in that position for 14 years, excluding a two-year period in which he served as an acting Supreme Court justice.

And in 1995, Turkel was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Former Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel poses for a portrait at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, July 23, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A strong proponent of freedom of expression throughout his career, one of Turkel’s prominent decisions was his rejection of a petition by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and several Holocaust survivor groups in 2000 demanding that a performance by the Israel Symphony Orchestra of antisemitic composer Richard Wagner’s work Siegfried Idyll be canceled.

In another important ruling in 2004, Turkel issued an order in favor of a petition against the removal of 3,000 tons of dirt and debris dug up from the Temple Mount by the Jordanian Waqf and dumped into the Kidron Valley in East Jerusalem and at a local garbage dump. The ruling enabled the initiation of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which allowed archaeologists to sift through the rubble, eventually uncovering ancient finds from the First and Second Temple eras.

Turkel was noted for frequently adopting a minority position in cases that came before the court. One notable minority opinion he authored argued against the conviction of Benjamin Kahane, the head of the far-right extremist Kahane Chai organization, for sedition, on the grounds that it impinged freedom of expression.

In 1999, Turkel was tasked with heading a public commission to examine Israel’s inheritance laws, which at the time prevented gays and lesbians from inheriting from their partners.

The commission recommended in 2006 that the law be changed to alter the definition of a couple under the law from husband and wife, so that it would also apply to gay couples.

Judge Yaakov Turkel (center) holds a press conference of the public commission of enquiry into the Gaza flotilla raid, along with Professor Shabtai Rozen (left), and former army Major General Amos Horev, June 28, 2010. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

And in 2010, Turkel chaired the public commission to investigate Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and the government’s response to the 2010 Gaza flotilla and the capture of the ship Mavi Marmara, during which nine activists were killed and which generated intense international criticism.

The Turkel Commission, which included four other Israeli members and two international observers, concluded that the naval blockade against Gaza was legal, and that the raid on the Mavi Marmara had also been legal, since the activists on board had engaged in violent resistance against the Israeli forces taking control of the vessel.

Following his retirement from the Supreme Court, Turkel also served as the chairman of the Advisory Committee for the Appointment of Senior Officials in the Civil Service from 2010 to 2018, and as chairman of the Commission for Designation for the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, among other public positions.

Numerous public figures paid tribute to Turkel following his death, including President Isaac Herzog and several government ministers.

Herzog said Turkel had dedicated his life to administering justice and protecting the rights of citizens.

“He will be remembered in the history of Israeli law as an opinionated and hardworking jurist, a man of Hebrew law, who was always concerned for Israeli society,” stated Herzog.

Herzog said the roles Turkel took up following his retirement from the Supreme Court “reflected his deep love for the country and his concern for its future.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich lauded Turkel’s influence and impact on Israel’s legal system.

“With his intelligence and integrity, he made his way through the intricacies of Israeli society while leaving a legal and moral mark throughout his life,” said Smotrich.

“His defense of IDF soldiers and Israel’s right to defend itself was profound and extremely significant. His legacy and commitment to the truth will serve as a compass for those who cherish his memory.”

Turkel will be laid to rest in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria cemetery on Tuesday.

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