The Makings of History / Politics and the Bench

Tzvi Tal's book opens a window not only into the inner world of an Orthodox, right-wing judge, but also reflects to a great extent the rightward journey of Orthodox Zionism as a whole.

Had Tzvi Tal's life continued the way it began he might have remained a phys-ed or math teacher; he studied both those subjects. But the story of his life took a turn and Tal instead went on to become an Israeli Supreme Court justice. He has just published an autobiography - another among a number of books about the court's justices including, recently, works by Aharon Barak and Miriam Ben-Porat.

Tal's book is more revealing, more personal and very political. He was very active in the right wing of Israeli society; indeed, his book does not have a single good word to say about his former colleague Aharon Barak. Titled "Ad Bo Hashemesh" ("Until Sundown," Dvir Publishing House ), it opens a window not only into the inner world of an Orthodox, right-wing judge, but also reflects to a great extent the rightward journey of Orthodox Zionism as a whole.

Tzvi Tal Oct. 29, 2010 (Tomer Appelbaum)
Tomer Appelbaum

Before he consented in 1978 to serve on the bench of the Jerusalem District Court, Tal hesitated as to whether it was appropriate to be employed by a state court that did not base its rulings on those of the Torah. He consulted the leader of Chabad, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, figuring that the Rebbe would not permit him to accept the appointment "and that would be the end of it." But Schneerson, a resident of the United States, "permitted" him to become a judge. That's a detail that ought to be shared with the public before a judge takes his place behind the bench. Tal's book also shows that a judge's political worldview deserves more transparency than he may choose to reveal in his verdicts.

Tal, now 83, was educated in the Bnei Akiva youth movement and attended a school in Kfar Haroeh, a religious moshav in central Israel . As early as 1947 he was opposed to dividing the country; after the Six-Day War he supported the settlement enterprise. "The heart swelled and was amazed," he writes, "as we devoured each new place."

One of his sons was killed in the Yom Kippur War, and Tal then contemplated the possibility of suicide. "The heart came up with suicidal ideas that would allow me to join him," he writes.

Under the heading "The Emil Grunzweig Murder," Tal writes that the activist at the Peace Now demonstration in 1983 was not in fact murdered; he "was killed." Grunzweig participated in a demonstration in Jerusalem that February, where a man named Yona Avrushmi threw a grenade at the protesters, killing him. Avrushmi was convicted of murder, but, Tal writes, "There is certainly no murder here," since it was not proved that Avrushmi actually intended to murder Grunzweig; thus, he should have been convicted of manslaughter. Tal charges that the Shin Bet security service gave the court "false evidence knowingly," in an effort to prove that Avrushmi was not tortured under interrogation.

Margalit Har-Shefi, who was convicted of failing to prevent the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was also wronged, in his opinion. Tal writes, "Recently the words of the Shin Bet chief were made public - that Har-Shefi did not know [about the planned murder]. And the question is, why did the Shin Bet chief keep silent at the moment of truth and did not, himself, prevent a miscarriage of justice?!"

Tal also lashes out at the Supreme Court for refusing to protect the Gush Katif settlers from being uprooted by the Gaza withdrawal in 2005: "The hatred of the 'settlers' was terrible," he writes, "First of all, they mark you ... The moment you've been marked, your blood has been let!"

Furthermore, Tal believes the law did not allow for the apprehension of two Lebanese Hezbollah leaders, Mustafa Dirani and Abdel Karim Obeid, who were held hostage by Israel for years in the hope that it would be possible to exchange them for information on the fate of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, but he still allowed their continued incarceration because, he admits, he "did not have the courage" to stick to his guns, lest he thwart Arad's release.

The testimony Tal heard during the John Demjanjuk trial, in 1986-88, caused him to burst into tears; his sister and several of his relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. Along with Justices Dov Levin and Dalia Dorner, Tal sentenced Demjanjuk to death, and is convinced to this day that the Supreme Court erred when it accepted his appeal.

Tal was on the panel of justices who tried the nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, and writes, "The state went way overboard with regard to the secrecy of the trial, to the point of paranoia ... Keeping Vanunu in solitary confinement for a long time, which is a cruel punishment, for fear of additional revelations, also appears excessive. It is hard to understand what more this technician could reveal that he has not yet revealed. The State of Israel's overt policy continues to preserve the ambiguity to this day. That policy evidently did not suffer a truly fatal blow from Vanunu's going public."

The secrecy limited the defense's ability to do its work, Tal writes, but he nevertheless concludes: It was a fair trial.