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Obituary: Shimon Agranat

Shimon Agranat, lawyer, born Louisville Kentucky 1906, Judge Israeli Supreme Court 1950-76, Deputy President 1961-66, President 1966-76, Chairman Agranat Commission on Yom Kippur War 1974, died Jerusalem 11 August 1992.

IF ONE institution in Israel has rightly escaped the often justified criticism levied against government and party apparatuses it is the Supreme Court and if there is one man who helped to bring this about it is the court's former president Shimon Agranat.

Not only Jews but Arabs have turned to the Supreme Court for what they knew would be fair hearings and decisions in which government or party wishes would be disregarded. Agranat presided over the court from 1966 to 1976, in which years it persistently safeguarded the liberty of all Israel's citizens, Arab and Jew alike.

The American-born Shimon Agranat was the outstanding figure in the small group of Western-trained lawyers - including President Chaim Herzog, Justice Itzhak Shiloh and the late Judge Helmut Lowenberg - who gave the Israeli judicial system such a high veneer of British-American colouring.

He was born in 1906 in Louisville, Kentucky, where his father was a Zionist leader. After attending private Hebrew schools in Chicago he graduated from the Chicago Law School in 1926. Three years later he obtained a Doctor of Law degree. Unlike most American and British Zionists, he emigrated to what was then Palestine and settled in Haifa.

In 1948 Agranat became President of the District Court in Haifa, and two years later he was nominated to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem of the new State of Israel. In 1961 he became vice-president and five years later president of the court, one of the most notable and distinguished in its history. His judgments are enshrined in Israel's legal structure.

In a classic 1953 Supreme Court judgment involving the Communist newspaper Kol Ha'am and its right to criticise the government, Agranat pointed out that Israel's Declaration of Independence was based on the foundation of freedom and freedom of conscience: Israel was a 'freedom-loving state'. Such a judgment paved the way for the Supreme Court sitting as a High Court of Justice for reviewing administrative actions by the Government including the planned deportations of Arabs accused of terrorism.

Throughout his service on the Supreme Court, Agranat was noted for upholding the liberties of the individual, of all faiths and races, and preventing the exploitation by unfairness and discrimination. Highly courteous, he never allowed any tension to ruffle him, and was neither arrogant nor patronising.

Eulogising him at his funeral in Jerusalem, Moshe Landau, the former president, himself a noted Western lawyer, described Agranat's rulings as a cornerstone of the country's legal system. Landau stressed Agranat's love of the spirit of US constitutional law and the liberal interpretation he gave it. It was this love that inspired Agranat to champion the cause of human rights and to be the foremost advocate of an Israeli constitution. As a teacher of law, Agranat imbued his pupils with the doctrines that he espoused.

Because of Agranat's national standing for fairness and probity it was inevitable that he would be asked to preside over important commissions of inquiry. The one that caused him and members of his panel the most agonising problems and led to the most criticism of its judgements was the inquiry which dealt with the almost fatal failures at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Not only was Israel taken completely by surprise by the armies of Egypt and Syria but ministers and generals were shown to be highly fallible, destroying Israel's image of invincibility.

The Agranat Commission's recommendation that the intelligence chiefs be dismissed was seen by the public as justified but many Israelis found it impossible to understand why the Chief of Staff, David Elazar, who had struggled heroically to put right the initial mistakes, should be harshly punished while his Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, who had displayed lamentable weaknesses, should be allowed to continue his political career.

It was this sense of unfairness which led eventually to the resignation of the Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir. However, Agranat's own standing was in no way diminished. The Israeli public has mourned a champion of liberty and a fearless judge.

(Photograph omitted)