The judge who designed the legal foundations of Israel’s occupation

No one personifies the Zionist dissonance more than Meir Shamgar, the former president of the Supreme Court who died last week. He created the legal provisions for the protection of personal rights, while enshrining Israel's rule over the occupied territories.

Meir Shamgar, the former president of the Supreme Court of Israel, died on Oct. 18 at the age of 94, having left an indelible signature on the Israeli legal system, which he shaped and defined. After an illustrious career as military advocate general and attorney general, he was appointed to the Supreme Court — first as a judge in 1975 and then in 1983 as its president. It was in that position that he presided over the most critical transition in the court’s history since the founding of the state.

Shamgar is largely responsible for the Israeli judiciary’s reputation as a professional and independent body, which is committed to protecting individual freedoms within the Green Line. Together with his then-deputy Aharon Barak, who succeeded him as president of the Supreme Court, Shamgar shaped an activist judiciary that imposed the rule of law on the executive branch, establishing the judiciary’s power to invalidate Knesset legislation in cases where it violates the State of Israel’s Basic Law. He led a constitutional revolution, which political actors are today attempting to crush.

Over the past week, his many colleagues and close friends have described him as a great man of towering intellect and deeply held ethical values who shaped the foundations of a liberal, democratic, advanced legal system; and as the most significant and powerful gatekeeper of the Israeli governmental system.

This description is correct, but incomplete. As we know, a witness must tell not only the truth, but the whole truth. And the whole truth is that Shamgar headed two judicial systems — not just one.

In tandem with the protections he implemented for the important rights and freedoms dear to the Ashkenazi middle class of the time (freedom of expression, freedom from religious coercion, the battle against government corruption), Shamgar turned the Supreme Court into an ally of the security establishment, ready to assist in strengthening and deepening the other legal system Israel has created – the one that governs the occupied Palestinian territories and the settlement enterprise. In that section of Shamgar’s court, attorneys and judges utilized (and continue to utilize) their valuable knowledge and skills to uphold a system that commits brutal and unforgivable violations of human rights.

Shamgar was himself exiled from Mandatory Palestine by the British, who, in 1944, sent him to a detention camp in Eritrea for his involvement in the Irgun, a pre-state Zionist paramilitary organization. And yet, as president of the Supreme Court of Israel, he legalized the deportation of Palestinian political activists — including those charged only with distributing fliers or of being involved in grassroots community activism. He allowed the use of deportation as a tool to break down Palestinian resistance to the occupation.

As the military advocate general, a position to which he was appointed in 1961, Shamgar designed the legal infrastructure by which the Israeli military was to govern territories it occupied, a set of military proclamations, orders and ordinance which eventually were issued in 1967 and are still today the basis for the legal structure governing the occupation.

As attorney general, he torpedoed legal arguments that would have obligated Israel to apply the Geneva Convention in the occupied territories.

As a judge, he handed down rulings that legalized almost every draconian measure taken by the defense establishment to crush Palestinian political and military organizations, and to establish Israeli control over the occupied people and their land for generations. Demolition of suspects’ houses (rendering their families homeless); wholesale use of administrative detentions against Palestinian activists; expropriation of lands and the establishment of settlements; undemocratic appointments of mayors; and the imposition of curfews and taxes — Shamgar sanctioned them all.

Meir Shamgar personified the Zionist dissonance at its most extreme — the paradox of a movement that is based on the moral ideal that every nation has the right to political freedom, even as it denies another nation from that same freedom. From his youth and throughout his life, Shamgar struggled for the freedom and self-determination of his own people, often at great personal sacrifice. And yet, in his professional capacity as attorney general, Supreme Court judge, and president of the Supreme Court, he vigorously denied those same freedoms to millions of people who belong to another nation.

This article also appears in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.