Israeli judge Moshe Landau, who presided over Nazi officer’s trial, dies at 99

Moshe Landau, an Israeli Supreme Court jurist who presided over the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of Nazi Germany’s plan to exterminate the Jews, died May 1 in Jerusalem after a heart attack. He was 99.

Although the Eichmann trial boosted him to international attention, Mr. Landau had already developed a reputation in Israel for a meticulous approach to the law within a strong moral framework.

In the late 1950s, he upheld the conviction of Israeli army and border policemen convicted of killing dozens of Arabs who had reportedly not been aware of a curfew imposed during the Sinai crisis.

In a preview of what would be Eichmann’s defense, the accused said they were simply acting on orders from the highest authorities.

“A soldier, too, must have a conscience,” Mr. Landau said from the bench.

As chief of the three-judge Eichmann tribunal, Mr. Landau was credited with developing a powerful template for genocide trials in years to come.

By allowing victims of the Holocaust to testify about atrocities they witnessed, Mr. Landau made the “human face” of genocide a far more prominent part of the hearings than they had been during the Nuremberg tribunals of the Nazi elite in the late 1940s, said Deborah E. Lipstadt, a Holocaust scholar at Atlanta’s Emory University who has written extensively about the Eichmann trial.

The judge navigated the delicate line between allowing emotional testimony by victims and keeping the proceedings grounded in relevant facts and questions about Eichmann’s specific responsibilities and actions.

Eichmann, a ranking Gestapo officer, helped implement Hitler’s “Final Solution” to annihilate the Jews by orchestrating their murder, torture and deportation.

Although Eichmann’s guilt was not much in doubt, the trial in Jerusalem faced a number of initial obstacles. Foremost was a question of the tribunal’s legitimacy.

Eichmann had vanished from Germany at the end of World War II, and his wife attempted to have him declared dead as early as 1947. He remained the focus of a manhunt, leading to his kidnapping off a street in Buenos Aires in May 1960 by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence organization.

The abduction prompted a diplomatic and legal uproar — newspaper editorials, including one in The Washington Post, lambasted Israel’s “jungle law” approach and questioned the right of Israel to hold trials for crimes committed in Germany and Austria.

In other words, if Israel wasn’t even a state when the crimes were committed, why did it have the right to judge Eichmann?

Mr. Landau and the tribunal’s two other jurists said the court had jurisdiction over Eichmann because the state of Israel represented all Jews.

“To argue that there is no connection,” they wrote, “is like cutting away a tree root and branch and saying to its trunk: I have not hurt you.”

Mr. Landau was aware of the scrutiny the tribunal faced. Hundreds of reporters convened on Jerusalem, and the proceedings gripped the world from April to August 1961.

Lipstadt said the most “electric” parts of the hearings concerned the judge “riding herd” on the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, for presenting searing testimony about Nazi atrocities that was not always pertinent to the Eichmann case.

“I know it is difficult to cut short such testimony,” Mr. Landau told Hausner after hearing about Nazi brutality in the Jewish ghettos of Poland. “But it is your duty, sir, to brief the witness, to explain to him that all external elements must be removed that do not pertain to this trial, in order not to place the court once again — and this is not the first time — in this situation.”

The judge also lost patience with Eichmann’s tendency to ramble when asked direct questions and the defendant’s refusal to speak about an incriminating document.

“You will continue to answer questions until I tell you to discontinue,” the judge said.

“Yes, your honor,” said Eichmann. “But I must point out I have a feeling I am being roasted until the rump steak is well done.”

Mr. Landau helped craft the tribunal’s 100,000-word judgment that was issued in December 1961.

“This block of ice,” the judges wrote, “this block of marble . . . closed his ears to the voice of his conscience, as was demanded of him by the regime to which he was wholeheartedly devoted, and to which he had sold himself body and soul. Thus he sank from one depth to another, until, in the implementation of the ‘final solution,’ he reached the nether hell.”

Several months later, Eichmann was executed by hanging.

Moshe Landau was born April 29, 1912, in Danzig, Germany, which is now Gdansk, Poland. He settled in the British mandate of Palestine in the early 1930s after graduating from the University of London law school.

A 1961 New York Times profile of Mr. Landau reported that he was married and had three daughters, but survivors could not be confirmed.

In 1940, Mr. Landau was named a magistrate in Haifa. He was promoted to the Supreme Court in 1953 and served until 1982, the last two years as president.

After the Eichmann trial, Mr. Landau remained one of his country’s most prominent jurists. He served on blue-ribbon panels, many involving state security.

As a member of the Agranat commission, he investigated Israel’s lapse in military preparedness for the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in which the country managed a narrow victory against a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria.

The 1974 report cleared Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan of any responsibility for intelligence failures and instead blamed top military officials. Government critics likened the report to a whitewash, and Meir resigned amid the resulting public furor.

Many years later, Mr. Landau headed a judicial commission that investigated the Shin Bet security service for physically abusing detainees to the point of death and then lying about it in court.

The commission released a report in 1987 that permitted “moderate physical pressure” in cases involving recalcitrant suspects when a terrorist threat was deemed imminent. The government adopted the findings, which human rights groups condemned as essentially legitimizing torture. In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the controversial interrogation methods.

Mr. Landau was a recipient of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor.