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Meet Esther Hayut, the Pop Star Who Just Became Israel’s Chief Justice

Championing the underprivileged but committed to national security, the centrist judge made a career out of walking a fine line

Liel Leibovitz
September 05, 2017

Esther Hayut, Israel’s newly appointed Chief Justice, has had the kind of life that could inspire several Hollywood biopics.

Born in a small and impoverished neighborhood in Herzliya, her father, an Auschwitz survivor, abandoned the family when Hayut was young, leaving her mother, herself a Holocaust survivor, to fend for the family. This, say Hayut’s friend, has made the future judge grow up to be both tough and particularly sensitive to the plight of the less fortunate. But before she could put any of it to use in the judiciary, she joined the Israel Defense Forces and was soon selected to one of its most visible outfits, the Central Command Band:

With Israel still a young nation fighting for its survival, the IDF was not only society’s backbone but also the driving engine of its culture, and each of its commands had its own entertainment outfit that toured the country, recorded music, and added to the army’s mystique. Hayut’s band was particularly popular, launching the careers of such superstars as Uzi Hitman and Dorit Reuveni, but even among such charismatic peers, Hayut stood out. When she announced her intention to abandon music and study law instead, her friends were stunned, but few were surprised when she proved herself to be a brilliant and diligent attorney. She was appointed as a judge in 1990, and in 2003 was elevated to the Supreme Court.

She soon became one of the Court’s most admired justices, writing long and erudite decisions that often quoted her favorite Israeli poets. And her commitment to protecting the underprivileged—ruling for equal Social Security payments to widows and widowers, for example, or advocating for additional protections for foreign workers—won her much admiration in progressive circles. But in several cases involving national security she stood firmly with her conservative colleagues, finding in favor of demolishing the homes of convicted terrorists and ruling that an Arab-Israeli Member of Knesset who praised Hezbollah ought to be stripped of his immunity and prosecuted for supporting a terrorist organization.

“In this field, the war against terror,” she wrote, “Israeli and international law alike have yet to catch up with reality and set up a detailed and thorough codex of rules pertaining to the legal means a nation might take to protect itself and its citizens.” It’s precisely this challenge she now faces as the holder of the highest legal office in the land.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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