An avowed feminist and ardent defender of civil and human rights, Dalia Dorner (née Dolly Greenberg) was born in Turkey on March 3, 1934, and brought to Palestine in 1944. Her father, Levy Greenberg (1900–1944), a merchant who was born in Odessa, left Russia and at some time after the 1917 revolution immigrated to Istanbul. In 1928 he married Mina Markus (b. 1908), who was born in Turkey. A son, Edy, was born in 1937. When Levy Greenberg developed cancer, he hastened to bring the entire family to Palestine, where he died shortly afterwards.
Dalia was soon sent to Neve ha-Yeled in Nahariyyah, a Youth Aliyah institution headed by a Mrs. Hirsch, who had previously directed a home for Jewish children in Germany. The fifty youngsters, aged six to eleven, lacked not only family but also a common language. Some of them had been brought from monasteries, convents or non-Jewish families by whom they had been sheltered in their countries of origin. While Dorner later described the Spartan conditions that reigned at the institution, she had nothing but the most lavish praise for the excellent education the children received, particularly in Jewish tradition and Zionism. When the SS Hannah Szenes brought illegal immigrants ashore (December 1945), they shared the children’s beds until they were dispersed throughout the country. Together with a fellow pupil and especially provided with new clothes for the occasion, Dalia was sent to appear before an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry (1946), delegated with recommending the extent of Jewish immigration, in order to persuade them to allow the Holocaust survivors living in the Displaced Persons Camps to immigrate to Palestine.
At the same time, the teachers at Neve ha-Yeladim took care to inculcate in their young charges universal values whose roots were firmly implanted in Judaism: love of humankind, respect for all human beings and the Kantian principle which holds that no person is ever a means to an end but is always the end itself. These were to be Dorner’s guiding principles throughout her entire career.
Dorner began studying law at Tel Aviv University at the age of nineteen. The need to earn an income led her to clerk with the Israel Police Force, who offered lawyers good conditions of employment. After serving in the Police Force, she transferred to service in the Israel Defense Forces. During her twenty or so years with the IDF she served in a variety of positions: as director of the IDF Defender’s Office; deputy attorney, IDF Central Command; President, IDF Military District Court (1973); and finally as a judge in the IDF Court of Appeals. At the time of leaving the IDF she had the rank of colonel. In 1979 she was appointed to the District Court in Beersheba, where she remained until 1984. In that year she was appointed judge in the District Court of Jerusalem. In 1994, after serving on the special panel of judges at the trial of John Demjanjuk, she was promoted to the Supreme Court, from which she retired in March 2004.
Freed form the formal limitations imposed by both the military and the civil court systems, she “spread her wings,” as Supreme Court President Aharon Barak put it upon her retirement, and emerged as a highly individualistic judge, whose originality, courage, keen thinking and independence earned her the respect and admiration not only of her colleagues but of the public at large. Human rights were very dear to her and she defended them energetically. But at the same time she examined them in the context of contemporary society and was punctilious in seeking a balance between the individual and the general public. She was remarkable for her unique interpretation of the constitutional issues which were brought before her. Her fundamental conception of the constitutional guided her in both criminal and civil cases. However, her major impact lay in her courageous and unique interpretation of the principle of human dignity.
In her ruling on the Danilowitz case, in which an El Al flight attendant demanded equal rights for his male partner, she was among the majority who recognized the equal rights of same-sex partners. In the case of Alice Miller, a servicewoman who requested admission to a pilot-training course, but was denied it on grounds of her sex, Justice Dorner wrote that, despite the fact that equality had been deliberately excluded from the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty passed by the Knesset, group discrimination (such as discrimination against women on the basis of their sex) constituted a humiliation that violated human dignity, which is constitutionally protected, and was hence unacceptable. As a result of this verdict, prestigious pilot training was opened to women.
She based herself similarly on the principle of equality in the case of Yeted, where she ruled that children with learning disabilities who studied at normal schools were eligible for the same financial assistance as pupils at special-education schools. Here, too, she ruled that violation of the right to education which goes so far as to humiliate an entire group constitutes disrespect for human dignity.
During her many years of experience in the police and the military, Dorner attained first-hand experience and understanding of these systems. Thus, for example, she did not spare criticism of the police when she acceded to the request for a retrial of Amos Barness, who had been convicted of murder, even though three Supreme Court justices had previously rejected his request. Dorner was perceived as someone who interpreted the laws of imprisonment in a very liberal manner. Thus in the case of Ganimat , in which the police decided to hold a car thief until the end of proceedings because this crime had become a “national plague,” Justice Dorner argued that the proper balance between the right to liberty and the need to protect public order allows for detention only when the defendant is a danger to society. Hence she ruled that no matter how serious the crime, such imprisonment violated the right of freedom from arrest, which is anchored in the Basic Law, and was thus unconstitutional. According to the same interpretation, she ruled—initially in a minority opinion—that Israel must release the Lebanese citizens who had been seized in order to serve as “bargaining chips” in the attempt to obtain the release of the captive Israeli navigator Ron Arad. She argued that it was illegitimate to imprison a person only by way of punishment or in order to prevent any dangerous act that person might commit. After additional discussion, her opinion became that of the majority.
Dorner’s defense of human rights is also evident in her broad interpretation of free expression. For example, in the case of Kidum (promotion, advancement), she permitted, on grounds of freedom of commercial expression, the use of a risqué advertising slogan—“Go and excel!”—which had vulgar sexual connotations and had previously been ruled unacceptable. She took the same stand in her ruling on the film Jenin, Jenin. Here, the question was to what extent freedom of expression is applicable in the case of an expression that may be false and liable to offend the sensibilities of some sectors of the public. In her ruling, Justice Dorner rejected the censorship’s decision to forbid screening of the film, once again granting broad freedom of speech to artistic expression.
Similarly, she abided by this same broad defense of freedom of expression in her ruling to permit the broadcasting of televized pornography which is not hard-core and which is screened in 175 countries, including many democratic states. In this case she explained her ruling by maintaining that freedom of expression took precedence over women’s right to equality and freedom from humiliation. “Forbidding the Playboy telecasts may pave the way for rejecting many programs, and it is thus a threat to democracy.”
Her rulings in these and numerous other cases (e.g. Nahmani vs. Nahmani, establishing a woman’s right to gain possession of her frozen fertilized ova for in vitro fertilization, despite her husband’s objections) have become an unassailable basis for the Supreme Court so far as human rights and limitations on them are concerned.
In addition to her judicial duties, Dalia Dorner served as an adviser to master’s and doctoral degree students of law at the University of Haifa and as visiting lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she herself had obtained her M. Jur. in 1958, prior to being admitted to the Israeli Bar in 1960. She is an honorary member of the American Law Institute and in 2005 was awarded an honorary degree by the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.
In 1958 she married Shmuel Dorner, a lawyer (b. 1928). They have two sons: Ariel Levy Bendor (b. 1963) and Amir Eliezer (b. 1965).