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Rosa Ginossar

1890 – 1979

by Eyal Katvan and Ruth Halperin-Kaddari

Rosa Ginossar is known today largely for paving the path for women to serve as lawyers in Israel. At every interview, she made a point of stating: “The only thing in my life of which I am really proud is that I paved the way for women to take up law as a profession and that I was the first woman to practice law in this country.” Although she was the second woman admitted to the bar in pre-State Palestine, a few weeks after Freda Slutzkin, Ginossar was the first—and for years, the only—woman to actually practice law in Mandatory Palestine. Ginossar served as the second president of World WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) and held a long list of important positions.

Ginossar was also well known in the Yishuv (pre-State Jewish community) by virtue of her distinguished family background. Her father was Mordecai ben Hillel Hacohen (1856–1936) and her father-in-law was Asher Ginzberg (1856–1927), popularly known as Ahad Ha-Am. Hacohen, a well-to-do timber merchant, writer and commentator on public affairs, was a leader of the Second Aliyah (1904–1914), one of the first members of Hibbat Zion, and among the founders of Mishpat Shalom ha-Ivri (judicial institution for the adjudication of disputes between Jews in pre-State Palestine). He and his wife Shifra (née Pevsner) had seven children: Yaakov-Shmuel, Hillel, David (1898–1984), Shimon, Shoshana (Rosa), Dina and Chana. David, who later headed the Solel Boneh construction company, was Israel’s first ambassador to Burma and also served as a member of the Knesset. Shimon, an officer in the British Army, was taken prisoner during World War II. Hillel and Shimon later became farmers in Binyamina. Chana married Dr. Arthur Ruppin. One of their cousins, “Rosa the Red” (daughter of Mordecai ben Hillel’s brother, Yitzhak), was the mother of Yitzhak Rabin.

Rosa Ginossar was born on July 14, 1890 in Gomel (Homel) in White Russia. She studied at a gimnazjum (secondary school) in Odessa. After graduating in 1908, she joined her parents, who had recently immigrated to pre-State Palestine. She first met her future husband, Shlomo (Sioma) Ginossar at an early age, as a result of the friendship between their two fathers. The two continued to meet while they were studying in Odessa. In 1908, Shlomo Ginossar came to Palestine and stayed with the Hacohen family. While there, he persuaded Rosa to come with him to study in Paris, which at the time was one of the places where members of the Yishuv pursued a higher education.

In Paris, Shlomo studied philosophy and Rosa turned her attention to the study of law at the University of Paris. When she did not remain in Paris during university vacations, Rosa would stay at the home of Ahad Ha-Am in London or with her parents in Palestine. Concurrently with her studies, she worked for eight months at the law firm of Soifer & Barberon in Paris. For three and a half years, she was also a secretary at Staal & Rapp, Russian lawyers who served as legal advisors to the Russian embassy in Paris. Ginossar received her law diploma from the University of Paris on October 19, 1913. Shlomo Ginossar, who had completed his studies in philosophy in 1910, studied for a certain period under Chaim Weizmann in Manchester, in pursuit of a more “practical” field of study, in the words of his father.

After World War I broke out, Ginossar initially stayed with her parents in Tel Aviv. In his famous diary, her father refers to the fact that she stayed in Palestine beginning in the summer of 1914 and taught French at the Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasia in addition to working at a tea house in the gymnasium of a girls’ school. The following year, Rosa stayed with her sister Dina in Paris, where the latter was studying medicine. In 1916, Rosa and Shlomo Ginossar were married in Switzerland, without their parents in attendance; the latter learned of the marriage only after the fact. In 1917, the couple moved to London, where they lived in the home of Ahad Ha-Am for four years. Apart from serving as director of the Wissotzky company, Ahad Ha-Am was also a spiritual mentor of the Zionist movement. As such, his home was a magnet for the movers and shakers of the Zionist movement, allowing Ginossar to meet the central figures of contemporary Zionism, some of whom were later involved in her legal struggle over the right to practice law (among them Norman Bentwich [1883–1971] and Harry Sacher [1881–1971]). Ginossar made other important contacts as part of her work at the Central Zionist Office in London. In addition to her work there, Ginossar served as the first Honorary Secretary of WIZO upon its founding in London in 1920 and continued to hold various posts in the organization after returning to Palestine. During this period, Shlomo Ginossar served as secretary of the Education Department of the World Zionist Organization in London, later becoming a superintendent at the Department of Education in Palestine. From 1925 to 1949, he held the post of chief secretary, and later administrator, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1922, Shlomo and Rosa Ginossar immigrated to Palestine together with Ahad Ha-Am. Soon after, Ginossar submitted a request to take the examination for foreign lawyers, required of those who had completed their legal studies abroad. This was not the first time a woman had presented such a request to the Mandate authorities; in 1920, a similar application had been rejected owing to the opposition of the Arab members of the Advisory Council. The official reason given by the British authorities at the time was that, at the present state of development in Palestine, it would not be proper to permit women to serve as lawyers. Ginossar’s request was rejected on the basis of this earlier decision. An additional request by Ginossar, submitted by Adv. Harry Sacher, was also turned down. The Chief Justice now added to the official grounds for rejection the contention that the word orekh din (the masculine form of the Hebrew term for “lawyer”) referred strictly to males. This argument was to be the major bone of contention in Ginossar’s legal struggle.


In 1924, Ginossar renewed her request. The Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel also attempted, unsuccessfully, to act on her behalf. At the same time, apparently as a result of her applications, the Mandate authorities began preparing a draft ordinance regarding the practice of law by women in Palestine, but the arrival of a new High Commissioner for Palestine once again delayed any progress in her case. Ginossar understood that in any event she would need to complete her internship at a law firm. In late 1925, she began clerking for Adv. Harry Sacher and Adv. Shalom (Solomon) Hurwitz, where she was employed part time for over three years. Sacher and Horowitz, friends of the family and promising lawyers, allowed Ginossar to do her internship primarily in contract law and the drafting of legal documents—activities that did not entail court appearances.

In December 1928, Adv. Horowitz submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of Rosa Ginzberg, against the Chief Justice as well as the chairman and members of the Advisory Council. At the same time, Ginossar attempted, through friends and acquaintances such as Colonel Josiah Wedgewood (1872–1943), to influence the British authorities, marshalling feminist arguments on her behalf. While the legal decision in the Ginossar case was still being held up, debate resumed on the draft ordinance, with Ginossar now representing herself before the High Court of Justice. In the meantime, her story was publicized in the international press, where it caught the eye of a Canadian woman by the name of Emily Murphy, who was fighting for the right to enter the Canadian Senate. The question at the core of both cases was similar, namely: Were women included in the definition of “persons”? (After thirteen years of struggle, Murphy ultimately won her case before the Privy Council, in late 1929.) Murphy informed Ginossar about her victory and she used this case as an additional and substantive ground for her petition.

On February 15, 1930, the Supreme Court delivered its decision before a packed courtroom. The next day, the headline in Haaretz proclaimed: “Women Entitled to Be Lawyers in Palestine.” Between court appearances and preparing her case, Ginossar had been studying for her exams with the assistance of Adv. Isaac Olshan (1895–1983) and Adv. Moshe Smoira (1888–1961), both later justices on Israel’s Supreme Court. Forty-eight hours after she won the case, Ginossar took the examination.

Concurrently with the proceedings at the Advisory Council to have Ginossar accepted as a practicing lawyer, the authorities were hastening to pass the draft ordinance of 1925. The ordinance was intended to restrict women from appearing before Muslim, religious, and tribal courts and to bar them from various legal occupations. This attempt aroused widespread protest, first and foremost from Ginossar herself. But the press, the Association of Jewish Attorneys in Palestine, the Union of Hebrew Women and the Women’s Council came to her aid. The draft ordinance was ultimately amended to lift the restriction on women appearing before civil courts.


On July 26, 1930, Ginossar received a license to practice law from the Chief Justice. Norman Bentwich, the legal advisor of the Mandatory government, took special note of the presence of a woman at the ceremony. The Chief Justice emphasized that while Ginossar was not the first woman to receive the law license, the right of women to serve as lawyers in Palestine was a direct result of her struggle.

Ginossar clerked at the Juvenile Court in London for six months, after which she opened her own law office in Jerusalem. For years, she was the only woman in the country to have her own practice. Ginossar would later recount that, despite people’s expectations that her clientele would consist solely of women, this was not the case since, according to her, women still preferred male lawyers.

Ginossar’s legal work reflected her social involvement. She frequently handled cases brought by the Mandate authorities against “illegal” immigrants, viewing this as a special mission. She even managed to obtain aliyah certificates for hundreds of Jewish refugees from Germany and other European countries. Ginossar was also among the first to bring the subject of adoption and child custody before the courts, at a time when many children were living in orphanages such as WIZO’s Children’s Home, with which Ginossar was associated.

In the late 1930s, Rahel Ossorguine (the sister-in-law of Ginossar and daughter of Ahad Ha-Am) joined Ginossar’s law firm. A third partner later joined as well. During the siege of Jerusalem in the War of Independence, Ginossar helped organize lodging for evacuees from neighborhoods under threat. She continued to work at her legal practice until 1949 when she went abroad with her husband, who had been appointed as Israel’s envoy to Italy. On the occasion of his formal diplomatic appointment, the couple changed their family name from Ginzberg to Ginossar. They remained in Italy until 1951. Upon their return, Rosa Ginossar was elected Chairwoman of the World WIZO Executive. Shlomo Ginossar resumed his work at the University, as an advisor to the board of directors. In 1963, Rosa was appointed Acting President of World WIZO, taking up the post of President in 1966. Ginossar retained this position until 1970, when she was appointed Honorary President of WIZO.

Throughout her protracted legal battle, Ginossar remained a central figure in the activities of WIZO and other women’s organizations in Palestine, playing an active role in the day-to-day administration of WIZO institutions. Inter alia, she ran as a candidate for the Constituent Assembly (predecessor of the Knesset) on the joint list of WIZO and the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel, in addition to serving as Honorary Treasurer of the Palestine WIZO Executive. Her success at WIZO and in her other communal activities has been attributed to her practical approach, stemming from her legal training; her skills as an orator; and the fact that she was fluent in many languages. Ginossar frequently served as WIZO’s emissary, traveling to almost every chapter of the organization around the world. Even after the state was established, she continued to fight for the right of women to hold public positions and took part in WIZO’s struggle for equal representation of women in all government bodies. Ginossar also sat on the board of directors of Youth Aliyah and the Executive Board of the World Zionist Organization. In 1974, she became an Honorary Citizen of Jerusalem. Ginossar died in January 1979, leaving no children.

Somewhat surprisingly, given her many endeavors and achievements, Ginossar affirmed on more than one occasion that, deep in her heart, she never saw herself as a public figure, and what truly interested her were her family and friends.

Bibliography

Central Zionist Archives, WIZO. Rosa Ginossar (Ginzberg) files, AK245/1, F49/113, F49/2049 (Hebrew); Israel State Archives, unit 20, M/1260, L.B. (Legal Board) 7, (Rosa Ginzberg File); Jewish National and University Library Archives, 4–1068, Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen Archive, File No. 9, Letters from Asher Ginzberg (Ahad Ha-Am); Jewish National and University Library Archives, 4–791, Asher Ginzberg (Ahad Ha-Am) Archive, Files No. 1303[I]–1303[II], Letters from Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen; “Israel woman lawyer owes career to Canadian.” Toronto Daily Star, December 17, 1955; “A Woman Entitled to be an Advocate in the Land of Israel.” Haaretz, February 16, 1930 (Hebrew); Doron, Fay. “Rosa Ginossar: a portrait.” Zionist Record and S. A. Jewish Chronicle. June 24, 1966; Ginossar, Shlomo. Writings (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1971; Ginossar, Rosa. “Becoming a person.” The Jerusalem Post Magazine, May 17, 1974; Goldstein, Yosef. Ahad Ha-Am: A Biography (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1992; HaCohen, David. Time to Tell. (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1974; HaCohen, Mordechai Ben Hillel. The War of the Nations (Diary), Vol. 1 (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1981; Mander, Christine. Emily Murphy: Rebel—First Female Magistrate in the British Empire. Toronto: 1985; Strassman, Gabriel, Wearing the Robes: A History of the Legal Profession until 1962 (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1984.

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Rosa Ginossar was the first practicing woman lawyer in the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. She served as president of WIZO from 1966–1970.

Institution: WIZO Archives, Tel Aviv

How to cite this page

Halperin-Kaddari, Ruth, and Eyal Katvan. "Rosa Ginossar." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 19, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ginossar-rosa>.

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