Former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, who died Friday at the age of 94, represented a complex worldview that incorporated the many tensions in Israeli society. He supported Israel as a Jewish state while also standing up for its liberal-democratic character. Shamgar had a commitment to Israel’s security, but also to minority and human rights.
He advocated a free economy, but not at the expense of looking after the common citizens and their well-being. Shamgar derived a deep commitment from Israel’s Jewish foundations to “an exemplary society based on the principles of human rights, justice, integrity, liberty and equal opportunity.”
It’s difficult to imagine a greater contrast between Shamgar’s values and his legal outlook, and that of the anti-liberal government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, which has turned its back on the legacy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. As a practical matter, Shamgar made his special mark on all of the institutions that in recent years have been under unbridled attack by Netanyahu and his partners on the right wing: the Supreme Court, the military advocate general’s office, the attorney general’s office and the government’s judicial branch.
Shamgar understood well that a government drunk on its own power could become tyrannical. He therefore called for balancing government power to ensure human liberty, most importantly through an independent, apolitical court system. He understood that the rule of law was impossible without an attorney general whose position is both structurally and ideologically independent; and without a judicial system that is an independent and impartial bastion for every citizen.
Before Aharon Barak succeeded him as Supreme Court president, he worked to expand the right to petition the court. Together with Barak, Shamgar also put an end to Arye Dery and Rafael Pinchasi’s terms as ministers following allegations of acts of moral turpitude against the two. Along with Barak, Shamgar established the court’s authority to examine whether laws passed by the Knesset are constitutional in the United Mizrahi Bank case. There was no one who understood the danger inherent in a corrupt government conduct better than Shamgar.
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At the same time, one also cannot avoid noting Shamgar’s contribution to the normalization of the Israeli occupation. In his various roles, he gave the stamp of approval to actions that enabled the state and the defense establishment to continue controlling the occupied Palestinian population and its land while depriving them of their basic rights, as individuals and as a people. But it is only through the civil rights that Shamgar enshrined in Israeli law that freedom of expression and freedom of the press – permitting criticism of injustices committed by the defense establishment and an outcry against the occupation – are ensured.
The fight for the values expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, for Israel’s liberal image and for the independence of the court is a fight for Shamgar’s legacy.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.