Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants


A former state comptroller, a retired judge, and a recipient of the Israel Prize find themselves together in the same place. This is a daily occurrence in the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University. Leading and influential figures from the Israeli legal world effectively established the Faculty and continue to come here to teach and engage in research. 

-Yuval Simhi- 

If you’ve walked along the corridor by the dean’s office and the lecturers’ rooms, you must have noticed the photographs of leading lights from the Israeli legal world: retired judges, recipients of the Israel Prize, Israeli ambassadors to the United Nations, and other emeritus faculty members who have filled important positions in Israeli society in general, and in the Israeli legal system in particular. 

Faculty Dean Professor Yuval Shany explains that the idea behind displaying the photographs is to preserve the Faculty’s heritage. “In recent years, we have made an effort to develop the heritage of the Faculty. Of course, we were the first law faculty in Israel and we are still the leading faculty. But we have another important asset: the students and teachers who studied and taught here have gone on to shape the Israeli legal system and to fill the most important positions.” 


The “Emeritus Faculty Row” is just part of a broader heritage project that will also include an exhibition about the history of the Faculty, an exhibition of Supreme Court justices who have been involved in the life of the Faculty, and so forth. “The Emeritus Faculty Row will help us to remember these figures. As time progresses and we move further away from the Faculty’s founding years, it’s important to us that the younger generation of students who are currently attending the Faculty – and even more so those who will come here in the future – be aware of our heritage and appreciate that they form a link in a long chain of jurists who have studied and taught here.” 

To this day, the founders of the Faculty continue to play an integral and important part in research, teaching, and Faculty life. “Our relationship with the older emeriti is very warm,” Professor Shany explains. “Even though they have retired, we see them as part of the Faculty family and part of our team of researchers. We are very proud that many emeriti who have retired in recent years continue to teach at the Faculty on a voluntary basis. This is a wonderful resource that gives our young students an opportunity to study with giants such as Professor Gavison, Professor Ben-Menachem, Professor Klein, Professor Libson, Professor Shetreet, Professor Gilad, Professor Kretzmer, and many other distinguished names.” 


Professor Ruth Lapidoth


Professor Ruth Lapidoth, a recipient of the Israel Prize for legal research, is one of Israel’s most senior legal experts. She graduated in the first class of students to complete their studies at the Faculty and remembers the early days, when the classes were held in halls at Ratisbonne monastery in downtown Jerusalem. 

The change in the location of the Faculty is by no means the only change that Professor Lapidoth has seen over the years. “The biggest change is the faculty and the range of options open to students. When we studied in the first class, most of the courses were taughtby external teachers, many of whom were judges. They were good teachers, but this wasn’t their main occupation. Now we have teachers who are themselves graduates of the Faculty and people whose main field is academic work, and this is much better for the students.” Professor Lapidoth also commented on the options now open to students. “Back in our time, most of the program consisted of compulsory courses, with just a few elective courses. It was very hard to get approval to combine law studies with another department. For example, I wanted to study international relations. I asked the dean for permission, and his reply was, ‘You’d be better off spending your time watching theatre or movies.’ And that’s what I did. Today there is a wide range of elective courses, and this really benefits the students. Another change is that the Faculty now provides programs in English, which I believe broadens the students’ minds.” 

Professor Lapidoth also comments on a difference between the students in the early classes and those who come to the Faculty today. “My class had a difficult demographic profile. It was just after the War of Independence. Some of the students had been injured during the war and most of them were older than today’s intake. The composition of the student population was challenging. I think things are a bit simpler these days, and this makes life easier for the students and the lecturers.” 

On the other hand, Professor Lapidoth reveals that in at least two ways, the students of her time were just like their contemporary peers: their sense of humor and their fear of snowstorms in Jerusalem. “I remember that one lecturer was really boring, and the students brought in a chicken and put it on his desk. It wasn’t exactly polite... Another amusing incident involved a lecturer who came from England and whose Hebrew was rather poor. Instead of referring to a British judge who sat at the head of the panel, the lecturer told us that the judge had sat on the head. I remember that the same year there was a heavy snowstorm and some students were afraid to come to class. But this same lecturer, who was already over 80 years old, turned up like clockwork.” 

Professor Lapidoth brings up another memory concerning the obligation to come to class. “In those days, the student had to get the teacher to sign their register at the beginning and end of each semester. We had one very young lecturer who taught us an introductory course in economics. At the end of term, one student who had forgotten to get the lecturer to sign his register went to the lecturer’s home. The professor opened the door and the student looked at him and asked to speak to his father. That showed just how many times he had been in class.” So perhaps yesteryear’s students weren’t so different, after all. 

Professor Lapidoth emphasizes that she still maintains a close relationship with the Faculty. “I come in three or four times a week, because I am undertaking research work. I still ‘live’ here and feel part of the Faculty. The deans, the administrative staff, and my colleagues all make me feel very welcome here.” Professor Lapidoth adds that she has seen a change in recent years: “I get the feeling that at our Faculty it’s really fashionable these days to undertake research into theoretical subjects. That’s all well and good, and it certainly hones the mind, but law isn’t philosophy. It’s a practical discipline. I’d suggest that the teachers would do well not to belittle practical aspects.” 

“The Faculty” also recently interviewed Professor Joshua Weisman, another recipient of the Israel Prize for legal research and one of Faculty’s veteran teachers. In the interview we asked Professor Weisman to comment on two questions: What do you think has changed at the Faculty since your day? And where would you like to see the Faculty in the near and distant future? Professor Weisman replied that in the early days, the Faculty saw its main purpose as the developing of Israeli law. This has changed over time, and the focus has increasingly shifted to the external field. Signs of this include the reluctance of legal researchers to investigate Israeli law, the adoption of the American tendency to the theorization of law, a research focus on issues likely to interest the editors of American legal journals, and the displacement of Hebrew by English in writing and discourse. The Faculty has also adopted the American practice of charging students with the task of editing its legal journal. This practice is unusual in the academic world outside the United States, and even there it is not common practice in academic disciplines other than law. On the other, American legal education has had a positive influence in terms of the way the Faculty manages its affairs in various areas. 

See here for Professor Weisman’s full answers to the questions  


Professor Joshua Weisman