Former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar Lies in State at Supreme Court

Shamgar, who helped shape the character of the Israeli legal system and laid the cornerstones of Israeli law, passed away on Friday at 94

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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The remains of late justice Meir Shamgar at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, October 22, 2019.
The remains of late justice Meir Shamgar at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, October 22, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The remains of Meir Shamgar, Israel's seventh Supreme Court justice, were brought to lie in state Tuesday at the country's top court in Jerusalem on Tuesday as Israelis paid their respects. Shamgar's funeral took place that afternoon, with family members, legal officials past and present and government officials in attendance. 

Shamgar, who helped shape the character of the Israeli legal system and was a key figure who laid the cornerstones of Israeli law, died Friday at 94.

LIVE: Former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar lies in state at Supreme Court

Shamgar was laid to rest at Har Hamenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem. At the ceremony, President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other sernior figures delivered speeches about his achievements.

"The man is a reflection of the landscape of his homeland," Rivlin said in his speech. "But sometimes this homeland is reflected in the man. The homeland, Meir, was designed in your form." He continued, " You have compelled us to escape the senses of victimhood and discrimination, and act with all of our might and vigor, in order to integrate, to dare and to progress."

Rivlin also praised Shamgar's work, comparing it to that of an architect who laid the foundations of Israeli law with constant attention to the interests of the public and the ever-changing reality. Shamgar was "devoted to protecting human rights and the rule of law," Rivlin said, and stressed that he stood for checks and balances "whose purpose was to prevent creating excessive governmental power." Shamgar's legal outlook time and time again illustrated his "position and belief that there is no conflict between Jewish and democratic, or national and liberal."

Meir Shamgar (center) greets then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in 2006. Credit: Moshe Milner GPO

Netanyahu said Shamgar made an invaluable contribution to designing the nation's justice system. His "firm and consistent belief in freedom of expression, personal liberties, respect of humanity and tolerance were reflected in every verdict he made," the prime minister said. "He understood that law is a body that lives and breathes. Life changes, as life itself changes."

The prime minister added that the basic, immutable truths that underlie the law exist alongside unceasing developments. The balances between the legislative, judicial and executive authorities are being constantly reconsolidated. There is tension between these balances, Netanyahu said, built on the delineation and borders of authority. Rather than harming democracy, he said, this tension is the essence of democracy, so long as the courts remain an independent authority, a basic principle that Netanyahu said he has always safeguarded as prime minister.  

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut praised Shamgar's "stateliness," saying that though some called him a "quiet revolutionary," he was a "man of vision, a man of courageous action and a trailblazer looking to the future" rather than a radical trying to change reality all at once.

Shamgar's son Dan also spoke at the ceremony, saying that his father was "an exemplary man, and his story is the story of a nation. He achieved his Zionist vision and worked his whole life out of an obligation to his nation and land."    

Shamgar held a number of senior positions in law enforcement and the Israeli legal system and left his mark on each one. When he served as Chief Military Advocate, between 1961 and 1968, he coined the term "the administered territories" and stated that Palestinians are allowed to petition the High Court. 

While serving as attorney general, from 1968 to 1975, Shamgar strengthened the powers and independence of the office.

When he was appointed as a High Court justice in 1975 – and even more so when he was appointed president of Israel in 1983 – Shamgar cemented the status of the High Court and led it through a period full of security, political and social tensions. 

Speaking of Shamgar's legacy, Justice Aharon Barak said: "President Shamgar is a key figure in Israeli law. He is a cornerstone of Israel's judicial history. The reality is that judicial creation is a continuum that in which every judge adds a link to the never-ending chain, and Shamgar likely added one of the most important of these links. On foundations laid by his predecessors, he built new and original structures, laying the base for new developments in Israeli law." 

Shamgar was born in 1925 in the Free City of Danzig [now Gdansk], Poland, which was captured by the Nazis in 1939. His parents, Eliezer and Dina Sternberg, were of Russian descent and members of the Revisionist party, while young Shamgar was a member of the Beitar youth movement.