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Two Women Signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Golda and….?

By Randy Pinsky

On May 14, Israel celebrated its 75th anniversary. If you have ever seen its Declaration of Independence, you might have noticed two female signatories in a sea of men; future Prime Minister Golda Meir and… who? 

A pioneering feminist, Rachel Cohen-Kagan was a champion for women’s equality- and a force to be reckoned with. From setting up maternity clinics and infant centers, to drafting critical legislation against domestic abuse, her tireless efforts with the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) have had an enduring legacy.

Israel’s Pioneers Who Made It All Possible

In honor of Israel’s 75thThe Times of Israel partnered with local podcast Israel Story to explore the lives of the signatories of the Megillat Ha’Atzmaut or Declaration of Independence in “Signed, Sealed and Delivered?''

A revolutionary giant often left in obscurity, but whose actions have set standards on rights and opportunities for women in Israel today, Rachel Cohen-Kagan’s story certainly deserves highlighting. 

The Israeli Mayflower

Cohen-Kagan was born in Odessa in 1888 to a traditional and Zionist family. Her father Ya’akov was one of the founders of the Hovevei Zion Movement, “which meant that growing up, Rachel hobnobbed with many of Odessa’s leading Zionist figures such as Ehad Ha’Am and Hayim Nahman Bialik.”

Soon after marrying Dr. Noah Cohen in 1913, the couple prepared to immigrate to pre-state Israel. The sudden outbreak of the First World War however, significantly delayed their plans.

It would only be in 1919 that she was able to finally leave and join him. Cohen-Kagan boarded the S.S Ruslan, nicknamed the ‘Israeli Mayflower’ due to the fact that this ‘Third Aliyah’ or wave of Jewish immigration brought over many of Israel’s future luminaries, including prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.

It would take nearly a month of sailing, but they finally docked at Jaffa port; symbolically on the third night of Chanukah.

Not Quite As They Imagined It

Cohen-Kagan had dreamed of this day; returning to the land of her ancestors, the Israel of the Bible.

But what greeted her was far from idyllic…

The land was inhospitable, untamed; the communities, struggling with poverty, malaria-infested swamps, and food and water rationing, not to mention the perpetual threat of hostile neighbors. The chalutzim (pioneers) and members of the yishuv (pre-state community) eyed each other with suspicion, and were all “suffering both physically and spiritually.”

And Cohen-Kagan knew she had discovered her life’s mission. 

As the WIZO representative on the National Committee (the executive branch of the pre-state Assembly of Representatives), Cohen-Kagan led the Social Welfare department, setting up maternity clinics and daycare centers across the country. 

Women Helping Women

One of Cohen-Kagan’s first initiatives was establishing the Tipat Chalav (“A Drop of Milk”) network of baby wellness clinics with pediatrician sister-in-law, Dr. Helena Kagan. Regular medical check-ins, nutrition tips and resources served to dramatically lower infant mortality rates.

It would be an ongoing challenge however, as many women would not seek medical help due to lack of knowledge or superstition.

As an organization, WIZO fervently believed that women and children had to be supported and uplifted in order for the new state to succeed. As Israel’s largest social welfare organization for children, women and youth, members also taught farming to the surrounding communities.

Early on, agriculture was recognized as a critical first step towards a national revival and self-sufficiency. Engaging with the land would “serve as a strong basis, economically, physically, spiritually and politically for the entire nation”- women included

“The Realization of an Age-Old Dream”

Cohen-Kagan knew that real and meaningful change could only come about through political action, and in 1946, joined the Jewish National Council.

She would be elected to Israel's very first Knesset governing body and invited to be one of the signatories of the new state's Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, alongside Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, and Labor Minister Golda Meir. 

“When a person feels that a dream becomes a reality and their heart fills with joy, they can scale the rooftops,” she emotionally shared. 

“Dear Sir…”

Beyond the fact that she and Meir were the only women of the thirty-seven signatories, the very male-dominated system was evident in the fact that her invitation was by default directed as, “Dear Sir” (she would fix the ‘Mr’ on her badge by hand).

Interestingly, while Cohen-Kagan would be less known than Meir, she would actually be “the First Woman to Sign Israel's Declaration of Independence” as stated by the National Library of Israel (emphasis added) as signatories were listed alphabetically.

Battling for Recognition

Female representation in Israeli politics and life has thus been a key aspect since the very first days of statehood. 

But it was a consistently uphill battle. 

Cohen-Kagan related the difficulty of being one of the only women in the Knesset. “The male public views the appearance of a woman at the parliamentary gates as a very special phenomenon. In this respect, a good degree of maturity is still lacking on the part of men,” she dryly noted. “They simply have a hard time forgetting that I am a woman…”

Throughout her political and activist career, she was unwavering in her belief that women provided essential perspectives for the new state, “because [they are] the ones[s] who look[ ] out for the needs of daily life” such as health, child upbringing, family care and education.

I have no doubt that with the influence of women’s participation in the life of the state, there would be greater concern for all the weak and disadvantaged in our country, a more humane approach to their problems, and without doubt, their situation would improve,” she maintained.

Hope is Dashed

Cohen-Kagan would find a passion in politics, lobbying for greater rights and representation for women and the criminalization of domestic abuse.

In 1951, she proposed a highly comprehensive bill on The Law of Family and the Quality of Women. In it, she pushed for the principle of equality between spouses, obligations and joint property for both husband and wife.

In spite of her passionate plea for such legislation however, the progressive bill would be thwarted by the more religious factions and significantly diluted when finally re-proposed.

She would barely recognize her draft and resigned in anger.

Not One to Give Up

But the Knesset would not see the last of her. 

Ten years later, she would be elected as a member of the Liberal Party and serve for another term. As noted by her grandson, Oren Kagan, her approach was subtle but firm. Opting against loud verbal battles, “She would say her opinion and she would fight for it - but quietly.”

Indeed, “she was, on many accounts, far ahead of her time,” noted The Times of Israel.

Thousands would celebrate when the Knesset adopted parts of her comprehensive proposal in The Law of Financial Relations Between Spouses in 1973.

Fighting for Rights

As chairperson of WIZO, Cohen-Kagan fought fiercely for women’s right to divorce and a solution to the problem of agunot (literally, ‘anchored’ or ‘chained’ women in Hebrew), when a man will not ‘give’ his wife the ‘get’ or divorce document; in essence, keeping her hostage and not allowing her to remarry under Halacha or Jewish Law.[1]

Since its beginning in 1920, WIZO has been committed to “emancipat[ing] the woman from her passive attitude to public life… [and] explain[ing] to her the magnitude of her task in forging enlightened public opinion”; a mission Cohen-Kagan fiercely upheld.  

Making Her Mark

Beyond the programs for women, Cohen-Kagan would also be instrumental in establishing the Building of the Social Gap Committee (later to become The Family and Social Welfare Department), as well as the WIZO Mobile Library, which brought books in nine languages to remote settlements. She also helped to launch the WIZO Legal Advice Bureau on Family Matters, and later on, The Friendship Fund for vulnerable WIZO veterans and seniors.

Friends and colleagues remember her as being “blessed with uncommon vitality, an endless reservoir of energy and - not least important - an excellent sense of humor” (when she presented her proposed bill for women’s rights, “she did not pass up the opportunity to remark with a mischievous smile that she also supported equal rights for men.”)

Her legacy would be commemorated by WIZO in the establishment of the Rachel Kagan Study Center for Leadership; truly fitting for the first woman to sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence. 


[1] Another recent WIZO fight is to request the Hebrew Language Academy to find an alternative word to ‘ba’al’ (the Hebrew word for ‘husband’), as it also means ‘master’, in official publications.

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