Sometimes the book you set out to write isn’t the book you end up with. Listen as SLH series author Professor Assaf Likhovski of Tel Aviv University discusses the process of writing his latest book, Tax Law and Social Norms in Mandatory Palestine and Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2017). A lightly edited transcription follows. If you missed the first or second clips in this interview series, you can catch up on the SLH website.
It took me more than a decade to write this book, unfortunately, and I must say that I didn’t intend to write the type of book that ultimately was published. When I began thinking about this book, I was thinking it was something completely different; I’m a legal historian, but I also teach the basic tax course at my home institution, Tel Aviv University. When I was teaching tax cases, I felt very frustrated because I could tell my students about the doctrinal aspects of the cases, but I didn’t know anything about the political, cultural, or economic context.
There were all these cases that I really wanted to know more about, among them an important tax-avoidance case called Mefi that was decided by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1967, and there was nothing about the historical context of this case. But, there was a model that I could use; there was a legal historian Robert B. Stevens, who wrote a book in the 1970s about the British House of Lords. It’s called Law and Politics: the House of Lords as a Judicial Body. It examines all sorts of cases, among them tax cases, placing them in the political, economic, and cultural context of their time. And I thought that I could use the approach that Stevens’ book advocates in analyzing cases such as Mefi.
And that is what I did; actually, the last chapter of the book—chapter 6—was the first chapter that I actually wrote. It’s an analysis of the history of this specific tax-avoidance case and its role in Israeli tax law in the transition from a pro-taxpayer, to a pro-government approach to tax-avoidance. After I wrote an article about the Murphy case, I also wrote an article about British tax avoidance cases in the 1930s and another article about American tax avoidance cases in the 1930s; my idea was to write a comparative legal history of tax avoidance cases in Israel, the UK, and the United States. But, when I started enlarging the Israeli part of the book, looking more deeply into the history of tax avoidance, tax evasion, and economic and social and cultural history, I found so many materials that ultimately I ended up with a book which is only focused on the Israeli case. So, it didn’t come out as a comparative or transnational book; it’s merely focused on one specific tax jurisdiction, although I think that the story that I tell is relevant to other jurisdictions too.