Shoshana Shenburg was born on April 6, 1923 in Danzig. Her father, Bernard Dov Shenburg (1890–1970), who was born in Ciechanów, Poland (some 75 km NNW of Warsaw), studied mechanical engineering at Ghent University in Belgium, graduating in 1914, and later studied civil engineering at King’s College, London. In 1917, he was stationed in Cairo while serving in the British army. There he met Rivka Grajevsky (b. Reigrod, Russia, 1893, d. Be’er Ya’akov, Israel, 1983). She had immigrated with her parents to Palestine in 1913 and on January 1, 1915, together with them, been deported to Egypt by the Turkish government, as were other nationals of enemy states. The couple married in Cairo in 1917 and later parted ways. In 1920 they were reunited in Italy, where their daughter Miriam was born in the same year. The couple later moved to Danzig, where a second daughter, Shoshana, was born in 1923. In 1924 the family immigrated to Palestine via Italy. They were among the first residents of the Bat-Galim quarter on the coast at the foot of Mount Carmel.
As a civil engineer in Palestine after his aliyah, Shenburg participated in the design and construction of Haifa Harbor (1927–1934) and later became a professor of civil engineering at the Haifa Technion. Rivka, who had completed high school, was a homemaker.
Shoshana graduated from the Reali High School in 1941. Completing her legal studies at the Mandate-operated Law Classes, she was articled to the law firm of S. Horowitz and Associates, where she remained until she volunteered for the IDF as assistant prosecutor in the Air Force. After a year in this post she returned to her previous position and some two years later moved to the firm of advocates Friedman and Komisar and Associates. In 1949 she married Elisha Netanyahu (1912–1986), a distinguished professor of mathematics at the Technion. The couple had two sons: Nathan (b. 1951), a professor of computer science at Bar-Ilan University, and Dan (b. 1954), a freelance certified information systems auditor.
In 1953, Shoshana and her husband left for Stanford, where Elisha spent a two-year sabbatical leave. After their return to Israel in 1955, Shoshana took some time off to recover from back surgery and serve as a full-time homemaker. In the late 1950s she resumed her law career. From 1960 to 1969, she again worked in the firm of Komisar and Associates, where most of the cases in which she was involved dealt with maritime issues of one kind or another. From 1969 until 1974, Netanyahu served as a judge on the Magistrates Court in Haifa and from 1974 to 1981 as a District Court judge in the city. In 1981 she was promoted to the Supreme Court, from which she retired in 1993.
Throughout her years as a judge, Shoshana Netanyahu contributed significantly to the development of administrative law by stringently applying the fundamental principles of equality, freedom of expression and freedom of choice to her review of the acts of public authorities. Her judgments reflect her unfailing concern for the right of citizens to equality and justice and her insistence on the obligation of administrative authorities to act honestly and fairly, without discrimination, favoritism or conflict of interest, reasonably and in good faith.
Netanyahu applied these stringent standards to introduce judicial review on various issues, such as the need to prevent civil servants acting in a situation of conflict of interests (1982); laying down of standards for governmental tenders (1987); regulating the manner of allocation of funds by local authorities and the legal supervision that could be imposed on these authorities (1992); the interpretation of contracts between insurance companies and the insured, as a means of rectifying the inherent lack of symmetry between the two (1989); the question of when a public authority is bound to fulfill a governmental undertaking and when the burden of proof as to its implementation shifts to that authority (1991); the importance of appropriate planning and building processes to ensure a proper balance between damage to an individual’s property and comfort, on the one hand, and public needs, on the other (1990).
While serving as a Supreme Court justice and after her retirement from the bench, Netanyahu headed a number of important public commissions that scrutinized complex administrative issues which were high on the public agenda. From 1988 to 1990 she headed a national committee of inquiry for examining the functionality and efficiency of Israel’s health system. This required ground-breaking policy work, involving issues of public health, health economics and the rights of the citizen to health care. Her commission recommended three reforms: reinforcing the status of ambulatory medicine in the community and transferring major medical care to it; transforming state-owned hospitals into economic corporations under government inspection and supervision; and a normative change in the relations between the Ministry of Health and the health system. In the wake of these recommendations the revolutionary National Health Insurance Act was passed in 1994 but other reforms proposed by Netanyahu, such as privatization of the hospitals, have not yet been implemented and remain the subject of controversy.
Netanyahu, who served as deputy chair of the Israel Council of Higher Education from 1993 to 2003, also headed another public committee, which investigated higher education in Israel. The committee decided that it was permissible to establish an academic institution for purposes of profit, but it also established a system to prevent the owners from lowering such institutions’ academic standards.
In 1997, a committee headed by Netanyahu, the purpose of which was to investigate the level of campaign funding for political parties, submitted its recommendations to the government after three years of deliberation. The committee criticized the parties’ financial activities, their wastage and inefficiency. Its unanimous recommendation was that the amount of money allocated to the parties from public funds was too high and must be reduced, but this recommendation has not been implemented.
In 1997 Netanyahu was appointed head of a special committee charged with examining the issue of retirement age. One of its main recommendations, implemented in legislation of 2003, was that retirement age should be gradually raised to sixty-seven not only for men, who had previously retired at sixty-five, but also for women, who had hitherto enjoyed an option to retire with full pension at the age of sixty. This recommendation, supported by Netanyahu and most of the committee members, was based both on the principle of equality demanded by women and on the fact that women constituted forty percent of the country’s workforce—a percentage that is steadily increasing. The committee’s recommendation was partially implemented by legislation, raising men’s retirement age to sixty-seven but women’s retirement age only to sixty-four. Netanyahu also served as chairwoman of the committee which dealt with compensation and rewards (1967 Law of Patents).
Shoshana Netanyahu served as an adjunct lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Haifa University from 1993 to 1998 and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2002. In 1993 she received an award from the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. She is a member of the Board of Governors of the Technion, Haifa. She is also a member of the Directorate of the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. In 1997 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Haifa. In 2001 the Movement for Quality Government declared her a “Knight of Government Quality” for her outstanding contributions in enforcing a high standard of administrative behavior. In 2002 she was made an honorary citizen of Jerusalem and in 2003 the Open University awarded her an honorary fellowship.