Former High Court justice Ben-Porat dies at 94
Miriam Ben-Porat was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court and the first to serve as state comptroller.
Miriam Ben-Porat Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
Former Supreme Court justice and former state comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat died
on Thursday at age 94.
Ben-Porat, who came to British Mandate Palestine
in 1936, paved the way for other women to shine in the legal
Born in Vitebsk, Belarus, she grew up in Lithuania and
studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Because of her brilliant
mind, Ben-Porat was admitted into what was essentially a man’s world.
1948, she went to work at the Justice Ministry and in 1959 was promoted to
deputy state attorney. In 1958, Ben-Porat left the State Attorney’s Office to
become a judge in the Jerusalem District Court, rising to be the court’s vice
president, and, in 1975, its president.
Her strong motivation to fight
corruption was evident from early on when she declared an election for the
Jerusalem Municipal Council invalid because certain envelopes had been
improperly stamped and could not be counted, yet – realizing the difficulties
new elections might incur – she asked the Knesset to validate the previously
uncounted votes, as a result of which all envelopes in elections are now
In 1976, Ben-Porat was appointed acting justice in the Supreme
Court. In 1977 she rose to become permanent justice, and in 1983 to vice
president of the court.
Many of her rulings, both as a district court
judge and as a Supreme Court justice, set legal precedents in matters such as
inheritance and defamation.
Ben-Porat also ruled that a husband who
forces his wife to have sexual relations is to be regarded as a
In 1988, when she turned 70, Ben-Porat retired from the Supreme
Court, and in the same year was appointed state comptroller.
comptroller she cracked down on all forms of corruption and had no compunction
attacking the government’s discriminatory practices against the Arab
Ben-Porat was in high demand as a lecturer in Israel and
abroad. In 1991, she was awarded the Israel Prize, and in 2004 was named a
Distinguished Citizen of Jerusalem. She also received honorary degrees from
Ben-Porat was among those who believed the lyrics
of the national anthem should be altered so that the nation’s minorities not
After her final retirement at age 80 she continued to
contribute to legal thinking through her lectures and writings.
message of condolence to Ben-Porat’s family, President Shimon Peres wrote that
she had been the cornerstone of the country’s legal system and contributed to
forming the character of the state.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
expressed deep sorrow, describing her as “a trailblazer, an esteemed Supreme
Court justice, a state comptroller who sanctified the values of integrity and
transparency, and an Israel Prize laureate.” He praised her “modesty, her
upholding of principles and her dedication to the state” that he said “are a
model for equal opportunity and the supremacy of the rule of law in
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman – who had served as an articled
clerk to Ben-Porat – called her courageous, dedicated and intrepid, saying she
had worked unstintingly to maintain the rule of law while upholding the dignity
of the administration and the individual and ensuring the security of the
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin credited Ben-Porat with turning
critical investigation into the fourth branch of Israel’s democratic system; as
well as imbuing the status of women with new norms. He was full of admiration
for the thorough manner in which she conducted her probes into the political and
defense establishments and the fearlessness with which she presented her
findings. She was the first to launch an investigation in real time, thereby
setting a tradition for her successors, Rivlin noted.
Labor Party leader
Shelly Yechimovich also expressed sorrow at Ben-Porat’s passing, calling her one
of the most active and idealistic personalities in Israeli society, an example
She noted that in her capacity as state comptroller
Ben-Porat had upgraded the level of public standards of accountability and
fought against political corruption.
Yechimovich expressed her fervent
hope that Israel would be fortunate enough to nurture other people of the
stature of Ben-Porat.
Current State Comptroller Yosef Haim Shapira, whose
swearing-in ceremony Ben- Porat attended earlier this month, noted that in the
10 years she served in the post, she had transformed that office into an
influential institution in the life of the nation and laid new foundations for
the state comptroller and the ombudsman for complaints from the
Her focus on issues related to power and money, uprightness in
the public sector, political appointments, and slush funds, to a large extent
set the agenda for the State Comptroller’s Office.
In interviews with
Israel Radio, former Supreme Court presidents Meir Shamgar and Aharon Barak both
spoke of Ben-Porat’s clarity of mind, her remarkable memory and her attention to
Long after her retirement from the Supreme Court – which she left
when it was still in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound – and the completion of her
tenure as state comptroller, she continued to visit the current Supreme Court
building in Givat Ram almost daily. It was there she did her writing on a
variety of legal issues, and it was there that he encountered her only a few
days before her demise.
Among the more famous cases in which both Shamgar
and Barak were involved together with Ben-Porat was the 1984 scandal in which
senior Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) agents had killed two captured and
shackled terrorists who tried to hijack a bus on route 300 from Tel Aviv to
The agents were eventually pardoned by president Chaim Herzog
and the ensuing controversy led to a new legal principle that authorized the
president of the state to preemptively grant a pardon prior to
The preemptive pardon principle was upheld by Shamgar and
Ben-Porat, whereas Barak dissented.
However, professional disagreements
did not impinge on private relations, said Barak. Of all the justices who served
at the same time as Ben-Porat he believed he had the closest relationship with
her. Not only had they both lived in the same apartment building, but, as a
child in the Holocaust, Barak spent three years in the Kovno Ghetto where
Ben-Porat’s family was murdered, and this created a special bond between
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
She slept so soundly and so deeply, that she no longer woke
She was taken to her final resting place at the capital’s Givat Shaul
Cemetery on Thursday evening.