Ruth Gavison, in Memoriam

By Simon Rabinovitch.

Like many others, I was shocked to read on Saturday (August 15, 2020) that Ruth Gavison, one of Israel’s most prominent legal and constitutional scholars had passed away, at the age of 75. Ruth Gavison spent a long career as an esteemed professor on the Hebrew University’s law faculty (and remained Professor Emerita), teaching about human rights, constitutionalism, and legal philosophy and theory. But she is best known for engaging publicly and seriously in Israel’s most complex legal and constitutional dilemmas; serving on government committees of inquiry and playing a role in creating or leading a wide range of civil society organizations (these achievements have been enumerated in the many obituaries that have already been published).

After her passing became public my facebook feed quickly featured colleagues writing about the brilliance of Ruth’s mind and their warm and longstanding friendships with her, often in spite of deepening ideological disagreement (whether because her positions drifted right-ward over the years, or her positions became less acceptable to critics of Israel as Israel’s politics drifted right-ward, or perhaps some combination of both). Many who did not know her well commented on how the clarity of her writing helped in teaching about Israel, or about the memorable experience of a short meeting, or about her sharp comments (often critical) of their own academic writing. I know of others for whom her willingness to call out people with whom she disagreed by name and in writing created an unbridgeable gulf. To be called wrong by Ruth Gavison could be a painful exercise, and the stakes in these constitutional and legal debates were more than just scholarly or theoretical; they were (and are) not only about the general matters of citizenship, identity, democracy, and justice, but also about specific laws related to each of these. Her devotion to sometimes unpopular positions (and sometimes popular positions unpopular with her friends and colleagues) over a long career ultimately came at a high professional cost, as her nomination for the Supreme Court in 2005 fizzled out in the judicial appointments committee likely because she had been a vocal critic of the judicial philosophy crafted by the court’s then president, Aharon Barak. Yet her contributions to Israel’s still young and evolving constitutional debates also yielded accolades, and finally, the Israel Prize in 2011.

I wanted to write a few words about my own personal and professional debt to Ruth Gavison, as without Ruth’s regular help over a span of about four years my last book, a documentary and essay collection about Israel’s nation-state law, would not have come into being. In 2013 Ruth was commissioned by then justice minister Tzipi Livni to begin a process of public consultation and drafting of a constitutional provision anchoring Israel’s status as a “Jewish and democratic state.” As it became clear in November 2014 that Prime Minister Netanyahu planned to ignore Gavison’s commission and advance a version of what came to be known as “the nation-state law,” Gavison rushed to complete and submit her report. When the government fell and the role of the nation-state law question in fresh elections was met by confusion in the English language press, I approached Gavison about publishing her report in English, with an introduction for context, in Marginalia (an independent affiliate of the Los Angeles Review of Books), where I was then an editor. Not only did she agree, but that inquiry led to a long collaboration that involved her sending me documents, helping me to put together an online forum, recommending scholars to contribute, putting me in touch with those involved in the legal process, writing, editing, and, most importantly, discussing the issue with me by phone, email, and in person. Ruth connected me to people ordinarily beyond the reach of a junior scholar from abroad, personally securing for me an interview with Tzipi Livni (she tried with Ayelet Shaked’s people with less success) and getting a contribution from Benny Begin for our forum. Whenever I was in Tel Aviv Ruth would have me over at her apartment to sit and talk about the project or walk down the street for coffee. I relished these visits, both for the rare (for me anyway) personal intimacy with such a prominent scholar and, more importantly, for the wonderful conversations in which her passion for the challenges of Israeli society was infectious, as was her joy in sparring and disagreeing on the issues.

When I was in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2018, as the final version of the nation-state law was passing in the Knesset, Ruth started to reconsider her earlier commitment to write the epilogue for what had evolved from that first inquiry into my book Defining Israel. She was disappointed by the law’s passage by a narrow majority, especially its final version that made no mention of equality or democracy, and she felt that one could not really judge its impact so soon, without the passage of some time for reflection. But she quickly changed course and in the end she wrote an essay that was unsurprisingly sharp but surprisingly optimistic (at least compared to our conversations). Her optimism was sourced in her belief that the passage of the law, though she disagreed with its content, had thrust Israel’s constitutional debates into the public light and collective consciousness, and might serve as impetus for all parties to shore up the elements of Israel’s “vision” that had been intentionally left out of the final version: democracy, equality, and human rights.

Ruth was both a true believer in Israel as an ideological and collective project, and as a real place where lives had to be lived and compromises had to be made. She admitted that the constitutional framework balancing Jewish self-determination and human rights that she associated with the Declaration of Independence “suffered a blow” with the law, but was unwilling to accept that its passage could not be taken as a moment “to have both the government and civil society come to see this law as an opportunity to work harder on translating the desired vision of Israel into a reality.” These words—what Ruth called upon for others to work for—also reflected her own life’s work, as they reflect why so many respected her so deeply. May Ruth’s memory be a blessing.

Simon Rabinovitch is Associate Professor of History. You can follow him on Twitter @sjrabinov.

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