I join many in the NIF community in mourning the untimely passing of Professor Ruth Gavison z”l. Ruth Gavison was one of Israel’s towering intellectual forces and legal minds. Trained as a legal philosopher by the legendary H. L. A. Hart at Oxford, she returned to Israel to teach at the Hebrew University. Initially known for her theoretical work on privacy, she ventured over the course of her academic career into areas of greater public concern including the role of the judiciary in public life, relations between religious and secular Jews, and the status of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Ruth Gavison had a brilliant, fierce, and restless mind, and was never content to remain isolated in the ivory tower. She followed in the path of one of her mentors, Justice Haim Cohn z”l, in becoming a leading civil and human rights activist and serving as president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (1996-99).
If in the first part of her career Ruth was known as one of Israel’s most distinguished civil libertarians, she developed a different reputation in the second half. Like many other Jewish Israelis, she was transformed by the collapse of the collapsed Oslo peace process and outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000-01. She became less committed to the discourse of a universal human rights and more to guaranteeing the particularistic interests of the Jewish majority in the state of Israel. For many of her friends, it was uncomfortable to see her adopt positions at odds with her earlier liberal stance. She became an even sharper opponent of the judicial activism of the Supreme Court, a supporter of restrictions on family unification between Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel proper, and a frequent advocate of a majoritarian view of Israeli democracy. It is no surprise that Benjamin Netanyahu, among many others, tweeted out words of praise after her death.
But herein lay the greatness of Ruth Gavison. Even though she was always the smartest person in the room, she was willing to talk to everybody. Never boastful or mocking, she was absolutely sincere in her desire to hear your argument and, if need be, challenge it. And her intellectual rigor and combativeness always had a purpose. She came to be a bridge between different elements of Israeli society. She herself understood liberals; she was once one. But she became a post-liberal, attentive to the limitations of liberalism in grasping the texture of Jewish nationalism. And while she led a secular life, she was post-secular in her desire to guarantee respect for strong forms of religion communitarianism in Israel. This bridge-building capacity made her a trusted advisor to government and public leaders. At times, Ruth’s positions placed her in friction with NIF, but in recent months, as she understood the challenges that Israeli democracy faced, she expressed a desire to contribute to our work.
What I have neglected to mention is perhaps the most important thing to convey about Ruth Gavison z”l. She was an extraordinary friend—and a great teacher in the art of friendship. My wife, Nomi Stolzenberg, and I met her in 1989 at a conference at Stanford on Critical Legal Studies and Jewish History. She then spent two years in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California Law School where Nomi taught. During that time, our lives became entwined, as she was raising her infant son Doron and our first child, Tali, was entering the world. In that period, we were in complete unison politically. As Ruth’s views began to change in the early 2000s, tensions surfaced in our relationship. But they never vanquished our deep friendship, which remained to her final day.
This is not just our story. All who knew her were awestruck by the speed and power of her brain. No one could think or talk as fast as she could. But what her many friends valued most were her decidedly human qualities: her loyalty, intensity, and compassion. I don’t know that I ever met anyone who took ideas more seriously than Ruth. But at the end of the day, she took relationships even more seriously. The world today is a much poorer place without Ruth Gavison z”l, whose brilliance and capacity for friendship were without parallel. May her memory be a blessing.
Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90