Justice Dalia Dorner began her life in Turkey, emigrated to Palestine, and grew to become one of Israel’s most renowned feminists and ardent defenders of civil and human rights. In her decade as Supreme Court Justice, she impacted the law of the land via the lens of universal values, strengthening freedom of expression and pushing for gender equality and enforcing the democratic principle of innocence until proven guilty without the shadow of a doubt.
Justice Dalia Dorner (née Dolly Greenberg) began her life in Turkey, emigrated to Palestine, and grew to become one of Israel’s most renowned feminists and ardent defenders of civil and human rights.
Background and Early Life
Justice Dorner’s father, Levy Greenberg (1900–1944), a merchant born in Odessa, left Russia after the 1917 revolution and immigrated to Istanbul. In 1928 he married Mina Markus (b. 1908), who was born in Turkey. Dolly was born in Turkey on March 3, 1934, and her brother, Edy, in 1937. When Levy Greenberg developed cancer, he hastened to bring the entire family to Palestine in 1944, where he died shortly afterwards.
Young Dolly was soon sent to Neve ha-Yeled in Nahariyyah, a Youth Aliyah institution. The fifty children at the village, 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. In 1946, together with a fellow pupil and dressed in new clothes for the occasion, Dolly was sent to appear before an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry in order to persuade them to allow the Holocaust survivors living in European Displaced Persons Camps to immigrate to Palestine.
While Justice 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. At the same time, the teachers at Neve ha-Yeladim took care to inculcate in their young charges universal values: love of humankind, respect for all human beings, and the Kantian principle that 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.
Legal Career and Philosophy
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, which offered lawyers good employment conditions. After serving in the Police Force, she transferred to service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 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. She left the IDF with the rank of colonel. In 1979 she was appointed to the District Court in Beersheba, where she remained until 1984, and was then appointed judge in the District Court of Jerusalem. In 1994, after serving on the special panel of judges on the trial of John Demjanjuk, she was promoted to the Supreme Court, from which she retired in March 2004.
Once on the Supreme Court, Dorner was freed form the formal limitations imposed by both the military and the civil court systems. This allowed her to “spread her wings,” as Supreme Court President Aharon Barak put it upon her retirement, and she emerged as a distinctive 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. At the same time, Justice Dorner examined the place of human rights 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 legal issues that were brought before her. Her fundamental conception of the constitution 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 1994, in which an El Al flight attendant demanded equal rights for his male partner, Dorner was among the majority who recognized the equal rights of same-sex partners. In the 1995 case of Alice Miller, an IDF soldier who requested admission to a pilot-training course but was denied on grounds of her sex, Justice Dorner wrote that, despite the fact that equality had been deliberately excluded from Israel’s Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, group discrimination (such as discrimination against women on the basis of their sex) amounted to a humiliation that violated human dignity, which is fundamentally protected, and hence was unacceptable. As a result of this verdict, prestigious pilot training was opened to women.
Dorner continued to base her decisions on the principle of equality in the 2002 case of Yated v. Ministry of Education, in which she ruled that children with learning disabilities who studied in general educational frameworks were eligible for the same financial assistance as pupils at special-education schools. Here, too, she ruled that the violation of the right to education went so far as to humiliate an entire group, and thus constituted 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. Consequently, she did not spare criticism of the police when she acceded to the request for a retrial of Amos Baraness, who had been convicted of murder, even though three Supreme Court justices had previously rejected his request. Dorner interpreted the laws of imprisonment in a very liberal manner. Thus in the case of Ganimat, in which the police decided to detain a car thief until the end of proceedings because such crimes had become a “national plague,” Justice Dorner argued that the proper balance between the right to liberty and the need to protect public order permits 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 for information or in order to prevent any dangerous act that person might commit. After additional discussion with her fellow justices, 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 night school, 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 about freedom of expression in the case of an expression that may be false and likely to offend the sensibilities of the public. In her ruling, Justice Dorner rejected the censor’s decision to forbid screening of the film, once again granting broad freedom of artistic expression.
Similarly, Dorner abided by this same broad defense of freedom of expression in her ruling to permit the broadcasting of televised non-hardcore pornography that is screened in 175 other countries, including many democratic states. In this case, she explained her ruling by maintaining that freedom of expression took precedence over women’s (alleged) 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 are concerned.
In addition to her judicial duties, Justice 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 was elected president of the Israeli Press Council in 2006, a position she still holds as of 2021.
Among her various significant posts, Justice Dorner also led the State Commission of Inquiry investigating the treatment of Holocaust survivors, the public commission to examine the special education system, and the government committee for the examination of punishment and treatment of offenders.
Dorner is an honorary member of the American Law Institute. In 2005 she was awarded an honorary degree by the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, and in 2019 by the University of Haifa.
In honor of her vast contributions to Israeli society, Justice Dorner received the honor of lighting a torch during the 62nd Independence Day celebration.
In 1958 she married Shmuel Dorner, a lawyer (b. 1928). They have two sons: Ariel Levy Bendor (b. 1963) and Amir Eliezer (b. 1965).