Joseph Weiler: Pursue justice with just means

Wednesday March 18 2020

Prof Joseph H. H. Weiler is a practising Jew and a law scholar of gigantic reputation. He was born in Johannesburg, where his father was the Chief Rabbi.

His family emigrated to the United States when Apartheid was introduced. His father had founded a good school for African children, and all African schools in South Africa were banned from teaching any academic subject (they had to restrict their teaching to areas like cooking, farming, plumbing, mechanics, etc.)

His father could not take this nonsense and decided to leave South Africa, with all his family, forever. Young Joseph Weiler settled in New York.

Weiler is the recipient of honorary degrees from 27 renowned universities across the world. He co-founded the Academy of European Law and served as professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, Harvard Law School and now New York University (NYU), where he is the Jean Monnet Chair at NYU Law School and senior fellow of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University.

He is a visiting professor at the University of Oxford, the Chicago Law School, Stanford Law School, Yale Law School, the University of Paris, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Max Planck Institute for International Law, Strathmore University Law School and several other universities.

He holds degrees from Sussex, Cambridge, the European University Institute (EUI) and The Hague Academy of International Law. He was president of the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence from 2013 until 2016. The EUI is one of the most prestigious social research institutions in the world.

He has also been a principal attorney at the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Lautsi v. Italy, a landmark case in favour of pluralism and cultural heritage. In that case, Weiler intervened pro bono on behalf of eight governments before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights and reversed the unanimous decision of the lower Chamber.

Weiler has visited Kenya several times, and he has always been flabbergasted at how sharp, enthused and engaging Kenyan students are. In Kenya, we may take this for granted, but, as he says, “what I have seen in Kenya, I have not seen even in the best universities around the world”.

He visited Kenya again last week to receive an honorary doctorate. I found his speech to be an inspiring piece for anyone interested in justice, and therefore, with his permission, I have decided to reproduce the most important paragraphs in this week’s piece:

“You will forgive me if instead of referring, say, to BREXIT, or to the European Union or the WTO and GATT, I refer instead to a passage from the book of Deuteronomy which encapsulates something distinct about justice without which all our legal studies are worthless.

Justice, Justice, shalt thou follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. Deut. XVI:20

The legal mind immediately asks: Why do we find, then, in Deuteronomy a repetition of the command:

Justice, Justice you shall follow!

Why twice? It could of course be for the purposes of emphasis – but the sages over the centuries have seen much more in this repetition. I have counted at least twelve different interpretations, but today, I will confine myself to the learning of some of the great medieval sages.

Maimonides, Moses son of Maimon, of Cordoba, born in 1135 – explains the repetition by the need in justice to consider both parties. Not only to consider them but to treat them with utmost equality.

Bachya Ben Asher, of Saragossa, born in 1340, takes a slightly different tack. Why Justice twice? “Justice whether to your profit Justice whether to your loss; Justice in word Justice in action; Justice whether to Jew Justice whether to a Non Jew.”

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (Abenezra) born in Tudela in 1089, explains the repetition as follows: You have to hear one side (justice) and the other side (justice).

Nachamanides, Moses ben Nachman Girondi, a son of Gerona, born in 1194, and later served as Chief Rabbi of Catalonia. Famous, among other things, for his great Christian-Jewish Disputation before King James I of Aragon.

He was a great Kabalist as well as a sage and he gives a mystical interpretation. Why Justice twice? Real and absolute justice may only be found in the word to come under the direct wings of the Almighty. You seek Justice in this world, so that you may then be able to seek Justice further in the world to come.

Don Isaac Abravanel, born in Lisbon in 1437 but forced to escape to Toledo, notes that the imperative in the verse is not only directed to the judges, but to those who appoint the judges. Justice, therefore, not only at the moment of judging, but the pursuit of justice as a system in the appointment of the judges – only those who by wisdom and integrity are suitable to do justice.

Let me conclude with the interpretation that I like most: When you pursue justice, you must pursue it with just means. The just end does not justify unjust means. Just means for just ends.”

As he finished the speech, Weiler’s eyes had watered. He said, “Pro-Chancellor, if my great father was alive today, he would have told me that of all the Honoris Causa doctorates I have received from the most prestigious universities in the world, this one of today, is the really important one. This one comes from a university that broke the barriers of racial and religious discrimination, at a time when intolerance was the norm.”

Joseph Weiler left a deep mark on parents, friends and students at last week’s graduation. Justice, justice…is the only way to develop our country in a sustainable manner.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi