Miriam Naor, New President of the Israel's Supreme Court, Is a Woman With a Mission

Naor's family members represent all parts of the political spectrum, but she has always kept her personal views out of the courtroom. Colleagues and friends paint a portrait of a scrupulous and dedicated judge.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Miriam Naor.
Miriam Naor.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

In May 1989, at age 41, Miriam Naor was appointed to the Jerusalem District Court. Fourteen years later, she officially joined the Supreme Court. The two major cases that paved her way to that illustrious position were the 1990 trial in which she, sitting as a lone judge, had to decide whether Israel’s top bankers were guilty of manipulating prices of shares in their institutions, and the 1999 trial of Aryeh Deri, whom Naor and her colleagues Yaakov Tzemach and Moussia Arad sent to prison for bribe-taking.

Some of Israel’s leading lawyers were involved in the bank-shares trial, but Naor did not hesitate to make them appear in court four days a week and, in some instances, to remain there until late at night.

At one point, a ranking defense lawyer, Jacob Weinroth, and a banking expert were injured in an accident on their way to the court, and requested an adjournment of a few days. Naor, who had herself broken a leg not long before that, in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, rejected the request. If the court has to take into consideration everyone’s personal problems, she said, the trial will last forever.

That trial demanded of Naor – who on Sunday will be sworn in as the new president of Israel’s Supreme Court – that she cope with massive amounts of documents, and also bone up on economics and banking. In the end, she convicted the banks’ top brass and read out the 26-page verdict in full.

“If I were a criminal, heaven forbid, or suddenly got into trouble and had to stand trial before a judge whose integrity and fairness I trust – I would choose Justice Miriam Naor,” says former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, who now teaches law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and at Yale University.

Moshe Landau.Credit: GPO

Barak remembers Naor at the outset of her career as an attorney in the State Prosecutor’s Office. “Judges viewed her as a fair-minded attorney and an excellent jurist,” he recalls.

In January 1980, Naor was appointed a Magistrate’s Court judge at the extraordinarily young age of 33. “Only the very best are appointed judges so young,” Barak notes. Nine years later, she arrived in the Jerusalem District Court.

“When I was president of the Supreme Court, I wanted her there and put forward her candidacy,” Barak recounts. “She did not talk to me about the appointment and did not send an envoy to recommend her. She was a natural candidate. I was on the bench with her in a number of cases. She is thorough and meticulous, and her integrity is unimpeachable.”

A ‘classic’ judge

Aharon Barak describes Naor as a “classic” judge: someone who knows that the mission is to resolve the specific conflict at hand, but also someone who changes over time.

“The law must constantly evolve; the court acts as a bridge between law and life, and is engaged in protecting democracy,” Barak explains. “Naor has developed and changed as a judge. She followed the same line as I did before her: holding that freedom of expression is [part of] the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom. But she did not follow that line blindly and did not agree with everything I said.”

During her years on the bench, Naor has assiduously played down her personal image and kept her opinions about public issues to herself. Professional colleagues, family and friends say she has no enemies. She works hard, she is modest and she does not pursue publicity.

According to retired Jerusalem District Court president Moussia Arad, “The notion that she is a bland and not exactly charismatic figure is completely wrong. Anyone who thinks that is soon going to have to eat his hat. When she takes over as Supreme Court president she will be seen in all her greatness. She is blessed with charisma, which she makes use of minimally and in the right places.”

Dr. Yuval Yoaz, a legal analyst and law lecturer, says that, “Naor does not stir up passions. She is considered a conservative judge who deals with the resolution of conflicts, and only when there is no other choice does she hand down activist judgments. In fact, precisely because Naor doesn’t draw fire is she able to deliver far-reaching judgments. Aharon Barak, who suffered from a problematic public image – unjustly, in his perception – is wild about judges like her.”

The perception of Naor as not being sufficiently charismatic also draws a guffaw from retired Supreme Court Justice Eliahu Mazza.

“Not everyone is as charismatic as Aharon Barak, and that’s perfectly all right,” he says. “People who say that Naor lacks sufficient court presence think that because she’s not tall and blonde like [retired Supreme Court president] Dorit Beinisch. Naor is a thoroughgoing judge with an uncanny ability to delve into the fine details of a case. She knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff. She is immersed in her mission as a judge.”

Naor’s friends note that she is not very talkative in social events – she’s cautious because she knows how quickly a conversation can slide into public and political issues. So stringent are her ethics that she would rather create an impression of aloofness than take part in conversation. Not everyone understands this. As a family friend observes, “At the table in a social event she doesn’t bother to try to make an impression. Sometimes she wears a kind of sphinx-like expression, and it’s hard to connect the woman sitting opposite you and the judge who writes such precise and pungent judgments.”

Moussia Arad, the retired District Court president, became an attorney in the State Prosecutor’s Office at the same time as Arad.

“Miriam was a young woman of 24,” Arad, who is two years older than Naor, recalls. “That was unusual but not surprising, because she knew what she wanted. She clerked for Justice Moshe Landau [later a highly influential Supreme Court president]. He held her in high regard and stayed in touched with her all his life.”

Naor, Arad adds, “always aspired to get ahead but never did anything toward that end except to work hard. She has an exceptional ability to handle vast amounts of material. She’s a marathon runner.” Asked what drives her colleague, Arad replies, “She is a perfectionist. She is aware of her ability to handle more than an ordinary person can.”

Apolitical political home

Miriam Naor – Mira to her friends – was born in 1947 to a Jerusalem family, which instilled in her the values of Zionism and love of the homeland, along with an emphasis on scholastic excellence. Her father, Naftaly Lerner, had been born in Odessa and arrived in Palestine in 1925, when he was 20, settling in Haifa. He was a graduate of the second class of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, in civil engineering. He also worked in road construction and in the Haifa port, during the establishment of the oil refineries there. He met his wife, Batya Karlinsky, at the home of mutual friends in Jerusalem.

Karlinsky had arrived in Palestine from Lithuania as a student, in 1933, joining her brother, who already lived in Jerusalem. She enrolled in the Hadassah School of Nursing and later worked as a nurse at Hadassah Hospital. As a member of the Revisionist Betar movement, forerunner of Likud, she joined the underground Irgun militia. For his part, Naftaly was a member of the Haganah, the official pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jewish community, under the aegis of Mapai, precursor of Labor. Love bridged their ideological divide.

Batya and Naftaly (who Hebraized the family’s surname to Naor) were married in 1944. Their first child, Menachem, was born a year later; he’s a retired engineer who worked in Israel’s military industries.

Family legend has it that during the period of the Saison – the “hunting season” from December 1944 to February 1945, when the Haganah turned over Irgun members to the British, in order to deter their violent operations – Naftaly agreed to Batya’s request to hide Irgun activists in their house.

Says Moussia Arad now, “Miriam Naor grew up in a home in which an atmosphere of tolerance and pluralism prevailed. She is the same: not extreme and open to hearing every opinion. It’s hard to tag her politically, because of her conceptual flexibility.”

When the time came for Menachem and Miriam to enter school, their parents drew on the assistance of friends to register them at Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia, considered the country’s best educational institution at the time.

When Miriam was 10, the family moved to Rehavia, the prestigious “garden neighborhood” where the school was situated, and which was home to many leaders of the Zionist movement and members of the Jerusalem intelligentsia – intellectuals, university professors, lawyers and judges. Naor’s friends from that period remember her as a devoted and affable girl. No one from her class can remember even one piquant anecdote about her. Her dream then was to study history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and become a high-school history teacher.

Edna Arbel, a former head of the state prosecution and a retired Supreme Court justice, sat on the bench with Naor in many cases. Naor, she says today, “is a fair-minded person with an inner conscience. Very principled and restrained, with meticulous rules of behavior. She is a judge at work and a judge in the evening, and always she dresses like a judge. I’ve never seen her in jeans and a floral blouse. She is a woman with a mission. Sometimes judges go abroad together, or to a play or a restaurant, where there’s an opportunity to laugh and joke. Naor doesn’t take part in any of that; she goes with her husband and the family.”

Naor has, however, stayed in touch with 12 women whom she’s known since first grade. Not long ago, the group spent a weekend at a boutique hotel in the Negev town of Arad. Despite her workload as deputy president of the Supreme Court, Naor drove there from Jerusalem on Thursday evening, arriving after 9 P.M.

The group doesn’t talk about cases in which Naor is involved, or about the country’s political and economic situation.

“We usually talk about painful subjects and about the dissatisfaction of life,” says Dafna Granot, one of the group. “We used to talk about parent-child relations, and now our main focus is relations between parents and daughters- and sons-in-law.”

Naor, who has two grown sons, she adds, “always finds time for the girlfriends, because our get-togethers strengthen her sense of belonging and her ties to the period of her childhood and adolescence. The gatherings are her connection to a warm, humane bond of friendship.” Naor also does not miss the yearly meeting of her graduating class at the Rehavia Gymnasia on the eve of Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers.

Naor did her service in the Israel Defense Forces as a soldier-teacher in the northern Negev town of Kiryat Gat, as part of a joint Education Ministry-IDF project to stamp out illiteracy among women in so-called development towns.

Judicial inspirations

In 1967, following her army service, Naor abandoned her dream of studying history and, under the inspiration of future Knesset member and justice minister Dan Meridor and other high-school friends, she enrolled in the Hebrew University’s law school. In 1970, when Naor was about to enter her final year of law school, her father died of a heart attack at the age of 66. She and her brother witnessed his sudden death.

“Mira was very close to Dad, and his unexpected death affected her deeply,” Menachem recalls.

His sister then changed her name to Miriam Lerner Naor. After completing her studies cum laude in 1971, she was accepted for clerkship by Justice Landau. According to Aharon Barak, “Justice Landau generally did not accept [inexperienced] law graduates for clerkship, and if Naor clerked for him you can be sure he made the necessary inquiries about her abilities beforehand.”

Landau was a member of the Agranat Commission, which investigated the initial phase of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and later headed a commission that examined the Shin Bet security service’s use of torture against Palestinians. It was Landau who coined the term “moderate physical pressure” as a guideline for Shin Bet interrogations.

He “drew a strict separation between the ‘private’ and the ‘public,’” Michal Shaked wrote in her 2012 biography of Landau, who clearly served as a model for his young clerk. “He kept his work as a judge and his public character completely apart from his family, and by the same token he kept his private character and his personal views completely apart from his work as a judge and from his public activity.”

In 1972, Naor was hired by the State Prosecutor’s Office and assigned to a unit headed by Mishael Cheshin, later to become deputy president of the Supreme Court. According to Naomi Levitsky’s 2006 book about the justices of the Supreme Court, Naor worshipped the acerbic, brilliant Cheshin and viewed him as a role model. Once they were serving together on the Supreme Court, she asked to be appointed to every panel of which Cheshin was a member, and in the justices’ deliberations over the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, she agreed with him in averring that the Palestinians aim to realize their right of return through marriage, and therefore did not support the law’s revocation.

Two godfathers

Miriam and Arye Naor first met 40 years ago when she was an employee of the state prosecution, and he was a member of the Likud Party Central Committee and a news editor at Israel Radio. He was later cabinet secretary in the government of Menachem Begin.

The veterans of the Zionist Revisionist camp met every year after the conclusion of the Simhat Torah holiday in the home of Arye’s parents, Yehuda and Esther Raziel Naor. Esther, the sister of the legendary Irgun commander David Raziel, who was killed while serving with the British army in Iraq in 1941, was a Knesset member for Herut and Gahal – Likud’s forerunners – from 1948 until 1973. When Esther called to invite Batya, Miriam’s mother, to the annual event in 1975, Miriam answered the phone and was also invited, for politeness’ sake.

Family lore has it that it was love at first sight between the two, and that Batya came home from the party alone. Arye Naor, seven years older than Miriam, was then in the midst of divorce proceedings and had a seven-year-old son.

This was a year after the Yom Kippur War devastated national morale, and the two talked about the political and social situation in the country. Their mutual affection developed from a shared intellectual foundation, members of the family say now. Friends of Miriam recall her saying that her life effectively began on the evening she met Arye.

Because of their identical surnames (in both cases, due to name changes by the father), they had to prove to the Interior Ministry that they were not related.

Four months after they met they were married, in the living room of Esther’s home. At 5 P.M., the four-room apartment in the middle-class Old Katamon neighborhood was packed with the top ranks of the Herut party, headed by Menachem Begin. Members of the younger generation were invited to celebrate later that night. The newlyweds honeymooned in Tiberias.

In June 1976, twins Naftaly and Michael were born to the couple. Naftaly’s godfather was Menachem Begin, and at the request of Arye Naor, who was then close to the Gush Emunim settlement movement, Michael’s godfather was the movement’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. The twins were four when Miriam became a Magistrate’s Court judge; her husband was then cabinet secretary. Relatives say that without the help of Grandma Batya in managing the household and raising the children, the couple would not have been able to pursue two careers.

Michael Naor is currently a partner at Naor Kleinman, a law office that opened five years ago, and a member of the legal team representing former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi in the ongoing investigation of the “Harpaz affair,” concerning the circumstances surrounding the appointment of his successor. His twin, Naftaly, has a B.A. in political science, is assistant to the head of security at the Hebrew University, where he is currently studying law. After some hesitation, he decided to run in the Likud primary in December, but finished near the bottom of the list.

Decorum and persecution

The twins were in the second grade when it was decided that the family would move into Batya’s house in Rehavia; she had meanwhile moved to a smaller apartment, within walking distance. The children were raised in the Jewish tradition, a family friend relates. On Friday evenings and on Shabbat, the family attended services in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue. Kiddush was recited and Shabbat candles were lit, as they still are in the Naors’ home.

Once a week, the family visited the other grandmother, Arye’s mother, Esther Raziel Naor. Hers was a Revisionist home with all the attendant decorum that the movement espoused. The twins learned about the struggle waged by the Irgun and the Revisionist movement for Israel’s creation, and about the need to keep the Jewish state strong. They also heard how the Revisionists were persecuted by Mapai, and how members of Menachem Begin’s Herut party were denied membership in the all-powerful Mapai-affiliated Histadrut federation of labor.

The marriage of Miriam and Arye Naor is firm; their relationship is based on devotion and honesty, according to people in their social circle. One family friend relates that in 2003, when Miriam was appointed to the Supreme Court, Arye, at the time a professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, decided to stop publishing op-eds in the press. She did not ask that he do so, friends say. He made the decision without telling her: a matter of mutual respect.

In recent years he has not been a member of any political party. He currently heads the department of politics and communications at Hadassah Academic College of Jerusalem, and chairs the academic committee of the Jabotinsky Institute. He is deeply engaged in the ongoing project of preparing the publication of a scholarly edition of the complete writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Zionist Revisionist movement, in conjunction with the Bialik Institute.

Justice Naor likes Israeli literature and recently read A.B. Yehoshua’s latest novel, “Nitzevet” (The Extra). Friends of the couple relate that the two don’t forgo quality films on television and often stay up at night to watch them. They prefer Channel 10 for news. Miriam Naor scans five or six newspapers every day, usually focusing on stories about the judiciary. The couple are ardent classical music aficionados, but had to cancel their Israel Philharmonic subscription because of Miriam’s busy schedule. However, they still have a subscription to the Cameri Theater. They vacation annually in London, taking in museums, theaters and good restaurants.

Qualities of leadership

Is it possible to infer from Naor’s rulings her worldview, even though she goes to great lengths to keep it private? The people I spoke to for this article insist that it’s hard to tag her. Her verdicts can be surprising. She herself has warned against categorizing judges according to their political affiliation. In a speech three years ago she observed, “There can be no law and no justice without [judicial] independence of thought Every judge has a worldview, but on the bench he must hand down judgments according to the law and not according to his personal views.”

“In the world of the judiciary, Naor is not only tagged as conservative, but as a judge who acts within the framework of the essence of conservatism,” says legal analyst Yoaz. In the judicial arena, he notes, that concept embodies the view “that the court’s primary task is to resolve conflicts, whether between private parties in a civil trial or with regard to someone charged by the state in a criminal trial.”

Naor is not from the Aharon Barak school that sees the Supreme Court as the protector of human rights, but her judgments can be surprising, Yoaz notes: “In the Citizenship Law case she was in favor of leaving the law intact, whereas in the case of the second law pertaining to the asylum seekers from Africa [and their detention], she took an activist approach.”

The matter is not clear-cut. In terms of judicial conservatism, Yoaz says, Naor is very far from the outgoing president of the Supreme Court, Justice Asher Grunis – who is himself not positioned at the extreme end of that scale, he adds. “When the politicians amended the law in order to appoint Grunis as Supreme Court president, they saw him as monochromatic, but he’s not,” Yoaz says. “On a number of occasions Grunis added his voice to judgments that overturned Knesset laws.”

Naor was to have become president of the Supreme Court in 2012, but last-minute legislation sponsored by right-wing MKs allowed Grunis, who was perceived as an arch-conservative, to head the court, even though he had less than three years remaining until he would reach the mandatory retirement age of 70. (The law changed by the Knesset had stipulated that the candidate in line to become the new court president had to be no older than 67 when his or her tenure commenced.) Naor, too, will serve slightly less than three years until she will be forced to step down.

“Naor will be an excellent Supreme Court president,” says retired Justice Mazza. “Given the complex situation of the Supreme Court in the eyes of the Israeli public, the criterion of judicial leadership is a strong backbone – the ability to hand down unpopular judgments, the strength to confront the public and the politicians.

“In all these indices Naor will succeed better than Grunis, and therefore I assume – and hope – that the Supreme Court will experience less tempestuous times,” continues Mazza. “Justice Naor will succeed in delivering the right verdicts without causing the court to lose the credit it has in the eyes of the public.”



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