• Pres. Chaim Herzog and state comptroller Miriam Ben Porath looking at the cover of 39th state comptroller's report covering the last two years at Beit Hanassi (15/05/1989) Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Tsvika Israeli

A Judge of Righteousness

Tal Hartuv - 28 February 2023

Miriam ben Porat was a woman who led in so many ways. When it came to her specialised field of the judiciary, she was a trailblazer. Ben Porat was one of the first women to serve as professor of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She was also one of the first women to be accepted into the Israeli Bar Association, the first woman judge to be appointed to Israel’s Supreme Court, the first woman president of the Jerusalem District Court and the first woman in Israeli history to be named State Comptroller.

Supreme Court of Israel | Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Israeltourism

The latter was a massive appointment. Those who take up the office must be scrupulous and fearless. But it was this position which sealed her fame and respect within Israeli society.

Charged with auditing government agencies and their affiliates, Miriam ben Porat exposed government failings when it came to absorbing the first waves of Soviet Jews who immigrated in the 1990s. In another report, she warned of a drought and a terrible water shortage, not due to lack of rain fall, but due to twenty-five years of mismanagement by the water authorities. Her report not only held people accountable, it also saved Israel from drying up.

But it was just after the First Gulf War when her work became widely known. Under attack from Iraq, and restrained by America, Israelis had spent weeks in sealed rooms wearing gas masks waiting for scud missiles to rain down on Tel Aviv and Haifa. Following the war, she issued a shattering report. The gas masks distributed to civilians were actually ineffective. But Israelis being Israelis, although angry with the government, cherished her honesty and demands for a more scrupulous society. Unsurprisingly she was awarded the Israel Prize.

“Miriam ben Porat’s journey of achievements was birthed in hardship”

Her journey of achievements was birthed in hardship. Born as Miriam Shinezon, she grew up in Kaunus Lithuania. Her father, Elieser was a merchant and manufacturer. Her mother was homemaker. Miriam had two sisters and four brothers. Three years after Hitler came to power, antisemitism was spreading throughout all of Europe. Eighteen-year-old Miriam made a courageous decision. She intended to travel to Eretz Yisrael to scout out the land for her family to come over later. With just a small bag she set off, leaving her parents and seven siblings. Little did she know that the Nazis would soon invade her native Kaunus and she would never see her parents and brothers again. Along with  thousands of Jews, her family were shot by the Germans and Lithuanians in a fort in Kaunus.

Despite her horrendous loss, Miriam was determined to make a life for herself. She soon married and the couple had a child. Trying to put the Holocaust aside, she flung herself into her work. Her determination paid off.

Ben Porat’s footprint on the Israeli justice system was one of flexibility, logic, empathy, common sense, and a foundation in the principles of equality and good faith. No wonder then, that in all Israel history, the Israeli public voted her the 155th favourite Israeli of All Time.

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