Remembering Israel’s First Female Lawyer, 90 Years On

An old sign of Rosa Ginzberg's office.
Nir Keidar

On February 15, 1930, a large crowd gathered to hear the High Court of Justice in Mandatory Palestine deliver its ruling on the petition of Rosa Ginzberg. For eight years, Ginzberg had battled the authorities of British Mandatory Palestine for the right to sit for the bar examination and to practice law in pre-state Israel. Various reasons were behind their refusal, including political considerations (such as Arab opposition to the possibility of a woman appearing in court and the British desire not to anger the Arabs) as well as sexism. It could be seen as the first legal fight in Mandatory Palestine against the exclusion of women from the public sphere.

A panel of three justices granted Ginzberg’s petition. The ruling, which has never been published, ran to eight pages. Today this would be seen as a brief statement, but in that era it was considered quite lengthy, which indicated the issue’s importance. Each justice supplied his own opinion, another unusual feature for the time. But even more interesting is the legal reasoning, which resembles contemporary rulings by the activist side of Israel’s High Court, in its use of ideological and cultural arguments.

The justices chose realism over formalism, focusing on the issues of the status and the rights of women, which they projected on to a seemingly formal question: Were women included in the definition of “persons”? Justice Khayat concluded the ruling, writing: “There is nothing that restricts the profession to men. Moreover, the current situation in the country does not prevent women from serving as lawyers.”

If that were the whole story, we’d treat it as a significant if somewhat dry legal landmark. But there is a much more colorful aspect to the story, which included international media and global sisterhood. A few months earlier the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, which served as the highest court of all the territories in the British empire, issued a precedent-setting verdict in the case of five prominent Canadian suffragists, known as “the Famous Five” for their persistent struggle for the right to be appointed to the Senate members, a right the Privy Council granted them.

Rosa Ginzberg.
Nir Keidar

The significance of the ruling was dramatic: The British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had recognized that women were “persons,” and the justices of the Supreme Court in British Mandatory Palestine based their ruling on the committee’s verdict. This was no minor issue. Unlike today, with its computerized databases, at that time a ruling issued thousands of miles away could not be summoned with one keystroke to the outer reaches of the British empire. It was thanks to Ginzberg’s unrelenting struggle, which even reached the pages of the London Times. Emily Murphy, one of the “Famous Five,” read the Times story about Ginzberg and hastened to send her a copy of the verdict. Ginzberg, who was representing herself at that stage, passed the verdict on to the justices and the rest is history.

“The woman lawyer” announced one of the newspaper headlines celebrating Ginzberg’s victory. (The official reason for barring female lawyers included the contention that orekh din, the Hebrew term for lawyer, existed only in the masculine form.)

In a felicitous coincidence, February 15, 1930 was also the day that the first woman was appointed to the Canadian Senate.

That wasn’t the end of the story. The legal struggle against the exclusion of women consisted already then of petitions to the High Court and political lobbying. After the ruling was issued, the British Mandate authorities – presumably for political reasons – sought to pass an ordinance restricting the right of women to practice law, by barring them from appearing before Muslim, religious, and tribal courts and to bar them from various legal occupations. Ginzberg and the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights fought on this front as well, beating what in Israel today would be called “High Court bypass legislation.”

Another historic irony: Despite winning their case, Murphy and her “Famous Five” colleagues were not elected to the Canadian Senate. Nor did Ginzberg get to be the first female lawyer in pre-state Israel. Freda Slutzkin, who unlike Ginzberg had studied law in Mandatory Palestine and therefore did not have to take additional exams, was admitted to the bar 50 days before her.

In the 18 and a half years between the ruling and the state’s establishment, 40 more women were admitted to the bar. They paved the way for the women who followed them as lawyers, in both the private and public sectors, and as judges. Ginzberg had in fact charted the course of the legal struggle against the exclusion of women.

Two weeks ago the Israel Bar Association held its annual certification ceremony. Newspaper headlines stressed that “a majority of the new lawyers are female.” A fine, historic achievement.

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari is the founding director of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status in the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University. Eyal Katvan is a senior lecturer at the Peres Academic Center.