This Day in Jewish History / The Death of an Australian Who Set Out to 'Heal His Country'

Zelman Cowen became governor-general in 1977 after a political crisis to 'bring a touch of healing to the country and its people,' as he put it.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

December 8, 2011, is the day that Zelman Cowen died, at his home in Melbourne, Australia. December 8 is also the date that, 34 years earlier, Cowen, one of his country’s most accomplished law professors, had been appointed governor general of Australia, a largely ceremonial but highly symbolic position as the Queen’s representative in Canberra.

Zelman Cowen was born in Melbourne on October 7, 1919, to Bernard and Sara Granat Cohen. (Bernard changed the family name to “Cowen” a few years later.) Both parents’ families had left Russian Belarus in the 1880s, Bernard’s family for London, from which he arrived in Australia in 1911.

Zelman, who was named for his paternal grandfather, Solomon Cohen, was offered a scholarship to the prestigious secondary school Geelong College, but his father refused to let him study there, as it would have meant attending chapel each morning. Instead, he went to Scotch College, Melbourne.

During his youth, Zelman read a biography of the great English defense attorney Edward Marshall Hall (a book he received as a bar mitzvah present, he later recalled), and was inspired to study law. This he did at the University of Melbourne, graduating with first-class honors and being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1940. World War II led to the deferral of his Rhodes; first he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy, in which he served as an intelligence officer, after surviving the Japanese attack on Darwin, in February 1942.

Cowen only journeyed to Oxford in 1945, shortly after marrying Anna Wittner. After a two-year tenure at New College, and a bachelor of civil law degree, he was appointed a lecturer in law at Oxford’s Oriel College. While there, he produced a doctorate on Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first native-born (and Jewish) governor general of Australia, which was later published as a book. He also served as a legal consultant to the British military government in Germany.

In the decades that followed, Cowen was a professor of law at the University of Melbourne, and later vice chancellor (chief academic executive) of both the University of New England, in Armidale New South Wales, and at Queenland University, in Brisbane. The latter post, in the early ‘70s, coincided with serious student unrest, which he weathered honorably.

In 1975, Australia went through a political crisis, which led to the then-governor general John Kerr, dismissing the prime minister, Gough Whitlam, and appointing Malcolm Fraser in his place. Two years later Kerr resigned himself, and Fraser, who in the interim was elected premier, asked Zelman Cowen to take on the position. Cowen accepted, declaring his intention to “bring a touch of healing to the country and its people." He combined the status of an international expert on constitutional law with a strong Jewish identity, which meshed with Australia’s pride in its cultural diversity.

In 1982, resigning from the governor-generalship (the position has no set term), Cowen returned to Oxford, where he became provost of Oriel College, a post he held until 1990. Much of that time, he also was chairman of the British press council. In the 1990s, back home, he was active in Melbourne’s Jewish community, campaigned for Australia to become a republic (a referendum to that effect failed, in 1999), and was patron of Melbourne’s St. Kilda Football Club.

For the last 15 years of his life, Cowen suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, though he remained active in public affairs. He and Anna had four children, Shimon (a Chabad rabbi and director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization Inc.), Yosef (also known as Nicholas), Kate and Ben.

Sir Zelman Cowen’s state funeral took place on December 13, 2011, at Temple Beth Israel, the synagogue where he and Anna had been married in 1945.   

Oxford's Oriel College, where Cowen finished his career.Credit: tejvanphotos