Moshe Landau was the presiding judge at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Landau was keen to ensure that the world was satisfied that Eichmann received a fair trial and was not effectively found guilty before the trial had even started.


Moshe Landau was born on April 29th 1912 in Danzig, Germany – now Gdansk in Poland. He studied Law in England and graduated from the University of London. However, by the time of his graduation, Hitler had come to power in Germany and Landau decided that he would not return. Instead, he went to the British Mandate of Palestine. In 1940, Landau was appointed a judge in Haifa. After the creation of Israel, his ability allowed Landau to work his way up the Israeli judicial system until he was appointed to the Israeli Supreme Court in 1953. He served as President of the Supreme Court from 1980 to 1982, the year he retired.


Because of his elevated position within the Israeli judicial system, Landau played an important part in creating the legal system for the new state. Landau was a defender of civil rights and fought for the right of freedom of expression. He was also keen to support the rights of defendants at trial even though he was in a position to hand out lengthy prison sentences for those found guilty. It was this background of beliefs that he held when it came to Eichmann’s trial.


The removal of Eichmann from Argentina to Israel by Mossad agents was of dubious legality under international law – not that this garnered any sympathy for the former SS man. An argument was also forwarded that Israel could not put Eichmann on trial as his crimes had been committed before Israel had come into existence and in countries outside of Israel’s legal jurisdiction. Therefore, Landau did not want the trial to appear as a mere act of revenge. To him not only was Eichmann on trial but to many in the international community so was the Israeli judicial system. Landau knew this and approached the trial in a clear and systematic manner – that there should be complete adherence to the spirit and letter of the law as it stood in Israel. Therefore, as far as Landau was concerned Eichmann was innocent until his crimes could be proved and his guilt was not assumed. Landau had to ensure that the other two judges believed the same, as he was presiding judge in the trial.


The trial against Eichmann started on April 11th 1961. Understandably, there was intense international media interest in the case. Landau read out the fifteen charges against Eichmann and also presented the case as to why Israel could put him on trial even if the state had not existed during the Holocaust. Landau argued that Israel represented all Jews and that “to argue that there is no connection is like cutting away a tree root and branch and saying to the trunk: I have not hurt you.”


Landau wanted the trial run only on a legal level and he did what he could to ensure that emotions did not blur legal arguments. On a number of occasions he rebuked the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, who questioned witnesses in such a manner that it provoked an emotional outburst from them. Landau did not believe that harrowing details about life for Jews in the Polish ghettoes was relevant to the specific case against Eichmann and let Hausner know his feelings. Above all else, Landau wanted the world to see that Eichmann had a fair trial and that his guilt, or otherwise, was founded on legal issues not swayed by emotions.


Landau also had short shrift for Eichmann’s argument that he was only following orders when he said: “a soldier, too, must have a conscience.”


The verdict of the trial was announced on December 11th 1961. It took two days to read out the 100,000 words document. Eichmann was guilty on all counts and sentenced to death. Landau succeeded in his mission that the world saw that Eichmann had a fair trial and that he was not already thought of as guilty before the trial actually started.


The trial cemented Landau’s status as one of Israel’s senior judges. He was called on to investigate why Israel nearly lost the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Landau’s findings blamed the military’s intelligence systems but cleared leading politicians of blame. It was a report that many would not accept. It was not the last time that a report by Landau would cause controversy. He also investigated the work of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service. Shin Bet had been accused of using torture to get information from suspects. In Landau’s report he supported the use of “moderate physical torture” in cases where a terrorist threat against Israel was suspected. Human rights groups criticised his stand and in 1999 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled such methods were unlawful.


In 1991, Moshe Landau was awarded the Israel Prize for services to Israel – the highest award in the country.


Moshe Landau died on May 1st 2011 aged 99.