Tova Strasberg was born in Poland on May 12, 1933. Her father, Shlomo (1907–1990) and her dietitian mother, Lea, née Feigenboim (1913–1997), immigrated to Palestine in 1934, living in Jerusalem, where Lea worked at the Hadassah Hospital. Tova studied at the Alliance Israélite Universelle School and later at the Hebrew University High School.
Tova Strasberg-Cohen entered the legal world by chance at the age of eighteen. Since no department had yet been established at the Hebrew University for the discipline of her choice, literature and philosophy, she decided instead to study law and was enchanted by the subject matter. In 1954 she received her LL.B. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the same year she married a fellow lawyer, Yehuda Cohen (b. 1928). In 1955 she received her M.Jur. at the Hebrew University and then did her military service as a defense attorney (1955–1957). In 1958 she was admitted to the Israel Bar. From 1958 to 1959 she worked in a private law firm and then set up her own office, where she worked until 1977. In that year she was appointed a magistrate and registrar at the Haifa District Court, where she was promoted to a permanent judgeship in 1978. From 1992 to 1994 she served as vice president of the Haifa District Court. In 1994 she was appointed to the Supreme Court, where she served until reaching the mandatory retirement age of seventy in 2003. Tova and Yehuda Cohen have two sons and a daughter: Avner (b. 1957), Eyal (b. 1961) and Taly (b. 1969).
Strasberg-Cohen was renowned for her contribution to civil law. She developed more progressive rules regarding class actions, aiming to protect consumers vis-à-vis the economic agents ruling the market. She broadened the principles of causation and introduced innovative recognition for damages from injury resulting from medical malpractice and for injury resulting from the failure of doctors to obtain patients’ informed consent to treatment. She also specialized in the subject of restitution, on which she gave courses at the University of Haifa.
In addition to her important, groundbreaking civil law rulings, she achieved fame because of her rulings on issues related to the status of women. The Daniel Nahmani v. Ruti Nahmani case (3.3.1995), which rocked the country, dealt with a woman’s right to bear a child by using her own frozen ova, that had been fertilized with her husband’s sperm prior to their divorce. Strasberg-Cohen sat both on the first appeal hearing of the Supreme Court (March 1995)—where she was among the majority—and also in the additional hearing, by a panel of nine judges (September 1996), where her decision, though unchanged, became a minority one. Despite her clear compassion for the woman in the case, she ultimately rejected her right to become pregnant without the consent of her ex-husband, whose sperm had been used to fertilize the ova before the couple divorced. She ruled that, on the basis of equality, one cannot impose unwanted parenthood on either a prospective mother or father. Indeed, the importance of the right to equality runs like a thread through all her rulings. In the much-cited case of Alice Miller (1995), in which a woman for the first time asked to be accepted into the Israel Air Force’s prestigious pilot-training course, Strasberg-Cohen ruled that where relevant differences between the sexes (in this case, the prospective length of service which, under the statutory provisions existing at the time, the Air Force would be entitled to exact from female as opposed to male flight cadets) existed in law and could be amended by means of a reasonable financial investment, society must do so. As a result, the path was opened for women to enter the IDF’s most prestigious courses.
In her judgments Strasberg-Cohen is unique in that she perceives women’s situation as splintered between the traditional and the modern. She has indicated that the solutions required to promote the equality of one group may be different from those required to promote the equality of the other. Thus, Strasberg-Cohen adopted a non-stereotypical view of women’s role in the family; she critiqued the impact of the various regimes of matrimonial property on different classes of women, indicating that solutions must be found which, on the one hand, protect women who are economically dependent on their husbands and, on the other, respect the autonomy of women who are independent. Regarding the Tax Ordinance, she held that the purpose of the Law is to realize fiscal equality between the sexes and that the denial of separate tax assessment on income of a husband and wife from a company in which they own ten percent or more of the voting rights, although apparently sex-neutral, generally results in clear discrimination against women, who will bear the higher tax rate dictated by their husbands’ usually higher wages.
The Galili case is perhaps the one that offers the most interesting insight into the complexity of Justice Strasberg-Cohen’s approach to the issue of equality. In that case, the petitioner, a female soldier who was the personal assistant of the base commander, complained that he had sexually harassed her. The High Court of Justice set out from the factual assumption that the soldier had agreed to the sexual contact with her commander. Recognition of the power gap between the female soldier and the commander was, it seems clear, one of the bases on which Strasberg-Cohen reached the conclusion that the conduct of an intimate relationship by the commander was reprehensible and the army was preempted from promoting him. By implication, this indicates that the soldier’s consent was not a material factor in determining the commander’s liability. However, Strasberg-Cohen followed this perception of the young female soldier’s lack of power with an assertion of her autonomy and of both her right and her duty to stand on her wishes. It might be said that Srasberg-Cohen’s thinking on gender issues is consonant with the view that there are “feminisms” rather than “feminism.”
Strasberg-Cohen, who is Honorary President of the Israel Association of Maritime Law and an honorary member of the International Committee on Maritime Law, was a member of the Orr Commission to reform the Israeli court system and headed the commission on court registrars. She retired from the High Court on May 12, 2003. Because of the reputation she had earned as a measured and courageous judge, who was meticulous in her respect for those who appeared before her in court, she was asked to be the first incumbent in the newly-created and extremely challenging position of ombudsman for public complaints against judges. She took up this position on October 1, 2003 and published her first report in May 2005.