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Miriam Ben-Porat: A Woman of ‘Firsts’

Miriam Ben-Porat

Miriam Ben-Porat

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Miriam Scheinsohn was born on April 26, 1918, in Vitebsk (Belorussia), the youngest of eight children (she had three sisters and four brothers). Soon after Miriam’s birth the family moved to Kovno (Kaunas) in Lithuania, where her parents owned a textile factory.

After finishing high school in Kovno in 1936, she immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine by herself; siblings Binyamin, Reuven and Bella soon followed her. Her brother Shimon managed to escape to Russia and her sister Rachel, to South Africa. Her parents, Chayah and Eliezer Scheinsohn and her brother Pinchas were murdered by the Germans in Lithuania in 1941.

A year after arriving in Palestine, the determined young girl from Lithuania enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – “the first female law student at the university.” By February 1945 Miriam Scheinsohn had completed her internship and received her lawyer’s license becoming “the first woman lawyer in the Eretz Yisrael.”

A year later she met and married a fellow Eatern European immigrant, a Polish-born manufacturer, Yosef Rubinstein. They later changed their name to Ben-Porat.

In 1955 Deputy State Attorney Ben-Porat – “the first woman in this position”- became a mother — to daughter Ronit, now a mother of three.

In 1959 Ben-Porat was appointed as a judge in the Jerusalem District Court – another first. In 1975, she became the President of the Jerusalem District Court. From 1964 through 1978, she was also a professor at the Hebrew University, specializing in contracts and commercial notes. She was the only faculty member without a doctorate.

In 1977, she became “the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.” In 1988, upon reaching the retirement age for judges, she was elected by the Knesset to be the State Comptroller. She was the first woman to serve in this position as well. After five years, she was reelected.

Upon her retirement from the Supreme Court in 1988, Ben-Porat was appointed State Comptroller and Ombudsman for Public Complaints—a position in which she was again the first woman—and she filled this role in a dynamic and innovative manner. She significantly changed the office’s modus operandi replacing scrutiny of government action after the event with preemptive reports and measures intended to prevent improper governmental behavior before it occurred. One example of such action was her report during the Gulf War (1991) about gas masks not fitting the faces of many inhabitants. As a result, they were replaced.

On July 4, 1998, she retired from her position as State Comptroller, although she stayed involved in public activity and writing. She is the author of a variety of articles published in legal journals, of a book on state comptrol (An Interpretation of the Basic Law: State Comptroller, 1998 [2005]), and a commentary on the law of assignment. She remained active in public causes, such as the battle against the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount. In 1991 Ben-Porat received the Israel Prize, the country’s most distinguished award, for her special contribution to the State.

On July 27, 2012, Miriam Scheinsohn Ben-Porat, a woman who paved the way, a woman of milestones – of firsts — died at the age of 94.

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