Netanyahu: 'One of the greatest jurists in State of Israel'

Former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, Israeli judicial giant, dies at 94

Rivlin mourns a ‘founding father’ of legal system; he served on Israel’s top court for over 20 years, was also attorney general and IDF’s top legal official

Former chief justice Meir Shamgar at the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, May 19, 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Former chief justice Meir Shamgar at the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, May 19, 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, one of the giants of the Israeli judiciary, died Friday. He was 94.

Israel’s leaders hailed him as one of the country’s most important and respected jurists. “He was the figure we all followed,” said Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

Shamgar joined Israel’s top court in 1975 and eight years later took over as chief justice, a position he held for 12 years until 1995.

Prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court, Shamgar served as attorney general from 1968 to 1975 and before that was Military Advocate General, the top legal official in the Israel Defense Forces.

Shamgar was born in 1925 in Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, and moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1939.

Meir Shamgar, pictured in a detention center in Eritrea in 1946 (Public domain)

He served in the pre-state Palmach and then the Irgun paramilitaries — and was arrested for anti-British activity and sent to a detention center in Eritrea — and then in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 War of Independence.

He was granted the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society in 1996.

“I espouse that it is not only the right of the court to intervene, but is rather its duty to be the center of gravity for the creation of norms for the public,” he once said of the Supreme Court’s role.

In a short biography released Friday, the judiciary noted Shamgar issued numerous rulings expressing a “firm stance” in favor of the right to freedom of speech.

It also highlighted his 1995 ruling that anchored the court’s right to conduct judicial reviews of Knesset legislation and review whether laws conform with the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

As the military’s chief legal officer, Shamgar laid the groundwork for the legal infrastructure of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Mideast war. As attorney general, he made the landmark decision to allow Palestinians in these areas to appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

The announcement of his death was met with eulogies from numerous politicians, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and New Right MK Ayelet Shaked, a former justice minister.

Netanyahu expressed “deep sorrow” at Shamgar’s death, mourning him as “one of the greatest jurists in the State of Israel.”

“Meir Shamgar played an important role in shaping Israel’s jurisprudence, including the legal policy in Judea and Samaria,” added Netanyahu, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

Rivlin hailed Shamgar as one of the “founding fathers” of the Israeli legal system.

“A possessor of judicial courage who fully believed in the court and the legal system but also knew the limits of his power,” Rivlin said in a statement.

President Reuven Rivlin (L) and retired Supreme Court chief justice Meir Shamgar. (Mark Neiman/GPO)

“Meir Shamgar was one of the pillars of Israeli law and one of its architects,” Edelstein wrote on Twitter. “With his integrity and exalted knowledge, he was one of the most influential presidents of the Supreme Court.”

Shamgar headed the Supreme Court panel that in 1993 overturned the conviction of John Demjanjuk, a Nazi guard at the Sobibor death camp who was facing the death penalty having been found guilty of crimes against humanity as a Treblinka death camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible.”

In addition to a number of influential rulings while on the court, Shamgar also headed several official commissions of inquiry, including into the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.

He also headed the eponymous Shamgar Commission, which in 2012 opposed mass prisoner exchanges such as the 2011 deal with the Palestinian terror group Hamas for captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

Shamgar’s casket will lie in state on Tuesday morning at the Supreme Court, before his burial that afternoon at Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul cemetery.

AP contributed to this report.

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