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Israel’s First Female Supreme Court Justice Dies

Miriam Ben-Porat, also Israel’s first-ever female comptroller, was 94.

Adam Chandler
July 27, 2012

A story certainly to be lost in the maelstrom of Olympic coverage and campaign fixations is that of Miriam Ben-Porat, who died yesterday in Jerusalem at 94. Ben-Porat was the first woman to ever serve on Israel’s Supreme Court–four years before Sandra Day O’Connor was named to the SCOTUS–and, after that, served as the country’s first-ever female comptroller.

When she was 18, Ben-Porat moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1936 from Lithuania; her parents and one of her brothers stayed behind and were killed in the Kovno Ghetto. Numerous tributes to Ben-Porat refer to her as a ‘civic watchdog’ and a tireless champion against waste and corruption, efforts that earned her the prestigious Israel Prize. Ben-Porat is survived by a daughter, three grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

The Times offered this primer:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Mrs. Ben-Porat as “a trailblazer” who “sanctified the values of integrity and transparency.”

Mrs. Ben-Porat began working at Israel’s Ministry of Justice soon after the establishment of the state in 1948. Within two years she was promoted to deputy to the state attorney. After serving as a judge and president of the district court, she was appointed a permanent justice of the Supreme Court in 1977. She retired from the bench in 1988.

Following her retirement from the Supreme Court, Ben-Porat took on the job as comptroller and served for most of the 1990s. She argued that the Shamir government hadn’t prepared the country for the massive wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, predicted a water shortage based on 25 years of mismanagement by resource authorities, and argued that the gas masks distributed to the population by the Israeli army during the First Gulf War in 1991 would not have been useful in the event of a gas attack.

The government and other Israeli institutions were never obligated to take action based on the findings of Ben-Porat’s reports, but in many instances, her work catalyzed enough public pressure to force change. Everyone knew that Soviet Jews hadn’t acculturated, now there was evidence. Her work about Israel’s water supply led to the firing of the water commissioner. She ran up against the formidable likes of Shas, Ariel Sharon, and Shin Bet.

For these things and more, Ben-Porat became the target of personal attacks and derision by the government. But her work made Israel a society where investigation and criticism happened concurrently with government action instead of in the wake of it.

The Jerusalem Post closed with this story:

Ben-Porat’s only child Ronit had been in the US for a month, tending to her own daughter, who had given birth there. Ronit Ben-Porat arrived in Israel on Wednesday night and immediately went to see her mother, who was running a fever. They talked about a lot of things as they always did, with no secrets from each other.

They had always been completely involved in each other’s lives. When Ronit was about to leave, her mother asked her not to disturb her in the morning because she wanted to have a sound, deep sleep.

She slept so soundly and so deeply, that she no longer woke up.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.