March 11, 1911
Haim Herman Cohn, a lifelong fighter for human rights who organizes Israel’s judicial system, is born in Lubeck, Germany.
As a child, Cohn studies Hebrew and the Talmud with his grandfather, then pursues philosophy and Semitic languages at the University of Munich. One of Cohn’s mentors is Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. After finishing his religious studies with Kook in Jerusalem, Cohn pursues a law degree in Frankfurt, then opens a legal practice in Palestine in 1933.
He struggles with his Judaism during the Holocaust, which kills his brother and other family members. “I thought it was better not to believe in God than to believe in a God whom I would have to hate.”
But Cohn remains attached to the legal approaches of rabbinic Judaism and is a founder of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Judaism.
At the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, Cohn is asked to create the legal system, which he does by combining Jewish, Ottoman, Roman and British legal traditions. An opponent of capital punishment, including cases against terrorists, he resigns as state attorney to avoid being part of the 1961 death penalty trial of Adolf Eichmann. “We cannot uproot evil by recycling it through us,” Cohn says.
He is appointed to the Supreme Court in 1960 and serves on that court for 21 years, including a period as the deputy chief justice. His controversial opinions include a dissent in the case of a Holocaust survivor who seeks Israeli citizenship after converting to Catholicism and becoming a priest. The court rules against the priest, but Cohn argues that national identification is as valid a basis for citizenship as religion.
He founds the Israeli branch of Amnesty International and is the first president of the Israeli Association of Civil Rights. His books include “The Trial and Death of Jesus” and “Human Rights and Jewish Law.” He receives the Israel Prize in 1980.
Cohn dies April 10, 2002.