Former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, Who Helped Shape Israeli Law, Dies at 94

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Shamgar giving a speech in 2011
Shamgar giving a speech in 2011Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Meir Shamgar, the seventh chief justice of Israel's Supreme Court, died Friday at the age of 94. Shamgar helped shape the character of the Israeli legal system and was a key figure who laid the cornerstones of Israeli law.

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 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 chief justice in 1983 – Shamgar cemented the status of the High Court and led it through a period full of security, political and social tensions. 

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.

The Nazis rose to power when Shamgar was eight-years old and he witnessed several anti-Semitic incidents. During the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night, also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass) in 1938, the Gestapo entered his family home and searched it. Eliezer told them that the "family was leaving for Palestine soon," to which the Nazis replied: "And will the Jews do in Palestine? Cheat one another."

In 1939, 14-year-old Shamgar immigrated with his family to pre-state Israel, and they settled in Tel Aviv. "More than everything, I believe I sucked the feeling of being a refugee with my mother's milk. Being a refugee doesn't necessarily mean misery. A refugee is an uprooted person who is forced to live somewhere else. Refugees can choose to stay away from their homeland, but they will forever remember their old homes," Shamgar once said.