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Remembering a Fierce Israeli Advocate for ‘The Common Ground’
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Between The Lines

Remembering a Fierce Israeli Advocate for ‘The Common Ground’

Law professor and human rights advocate Ruth Gavison, who died Aug. 15 at 75, was a pioneer in bridging her country's religious-secular divide.

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

Israeli legal scholar Ruth Gavison, a civil rights activist who worked to keep Israel both a Jewish and democratic state, died Aug. 15, 2020 at 75. (Hadas Parush/Flash90 via JTA)
Israeli legal scholar Ruth Gavison, a civil rights activist who worked to keep Israel both a Jewish and democratic state, died Aug. 15, 2020 at 75. (Hadas Parush/Flash90 via JTA)

In 2013, during a discussion on “Judaism and Women’s Equality” at a major conference in Jerusalem, four panelists were sharply divided on the topic.

Two American liberals – Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Nancy Kaufman, then-CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women — called for full equality for women in all aspects of religious and social life. And two charedi Israelis — Adina Bar Shalom, founder and head of the Haredi College of Jerusalem for women, and Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel of the M’orot HaTorah yeshiva near Jerusalem — insisted on adhering to traditional halacha, with its separate roles for men and women.

It was the fifth panelist, Ruth Gavison, a Hebrew University law professor and leader in efforts to bridge Israel’s religious-secular divide, who offered a possible solution to the intractable problem. As a leading jurist and human rights activist, her message — in this and so many other such conflicts — was to find ways for both communities to live together by honoring what unites them rather than deciding in favor of one or another.

“We must facilitate, not coerce,” said Gavison, who understood human behavior as well as the law. “And we must be patient.”

Seven years later, little has changed in a society riven by distrust and disdain between liberal and conservative politicians as well as religious and secular segments. With Gavison’s death on Aug. 15 at the age of 75, Israel has lost a pragmatic idealist all sides should mourn.

A slight woman with a shock of white hair, a brilliant mind and the gift of clear oratory, she embodied the hope that consensus could conquer schism – a belief founded in the premise that the state of Israel can and must be both Jewish and democratic without sacrificing essential qualities. And she insisted that judicial restraint was necessary in preserving that balance.

I had the honor of meeting and interviewing Gavison several times, in New York and Jerusalem, and hearing her at panel discussions like the one on women’s role in Judaism. Each time I came away convinced that if only her approach was put into practice, Israelis would have a more cohesive society.

Though secular herself, Gavison understood and empathized with those for whom Jewish law is paramount. Among the many honors she received was the Israel Prize in 2015. But perhaps her greatest achievement was a document she spent three years working on with a leading Orthodox rabbi, Yaakov Medan of Yeshivat Har Etzion, an attempt to create a new “status quo” to deal with the thorny boundaries between religion and state.

The project, begun almost two decades ago with the support of the Shalom Hartman Institute and Avi Chai Foundation, is known as The Gavison-Medan Covenant. It is a social contract based on creating “a common ground … that must prevail over our differences.” Dealing with issues of personal status and religious practice, the covenant asserts that “it is possible to arrive at a single joint proposal without contradicting the tenets of our divergent beliefs: the Torah and Jewish law on the one hand, and the centrality of the principles of equality and human dignity and liberty on the other.”

For example, the covenant calls for a two-tiered marriage registration system, with each couple first obtaining a marriage license from a civil authority and then free to opt for a religious ceremony through any of several recognized religious communities.

In addition, no one group would have a monopoly on dictating religious norms like dietary laws, Shabbat, prayer services or burial. Every group would have the right “to preserve its own lifestyle according to its own conception and interpretation.”

A key element of success would be preserving the covenant in law, giving “preference to mechanisms for negotiation and compromise” and not allowing the courts to invalidate its content.

‘A Grave Loss’

I spoke this week with Rav Medan, who recalled that the covenant was motivated by the ugly aftermath of the Rabin assassination and efforts from some segments of society to change Israel’s flag and national anthem.

He had not met Gavison before their work together, and he said they disagreed on almost every issue. But “what we shared was a common belief that our work was crucial” to Israel’s societal future. Gavison was special, the rabbi said, because while she was a fierce advocate for liberal values and human rights, “she understood and could work with others” of all beliefs and backgrounds. He said he greatly admired her courage and convictions and that her death was “a grave loss for Israeli society.”

Tzipi Livni, who served in eight different cabinet positions during her political career, had a close personal and professional relationship with Gavison. “Ruth was able to express views where each side can say ‘she’s on our side,’” Livni told me this week. “She was above politics. Everyone respected her.”

Well, not everyone. The two women made headlines in 2005, when Livni, as justice minister, sought to appoint Gavison to the Israeli Supreme Court. The move was publicly opposed by Aharon Barak, then president of the court, who claimed that Gavison’s “agenda” of judicial restraint would overly limit the court’s powers. (One controversial aspect of Gavison’s “agenda” was her concern in recent years that Israel must preserve its Jewishness, even if at times that meant limiting the rights of minorities.)

Eight years later, when Livni was again minister of justice, Prime Minister Netanyahu sought to introduce a basic law that would declare Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. It was controversial, with critics charging that such legislation would favor Jewish identity over democratic identity.

“It was a sensitive issue, so with the prime minister’s permission, I asked Ruth for her advice,” Livni recalled. “She decided not to just sit down and write her views, but to go out and talk to people from all segments, including in the Orthodox and  Arab communities. That’s the way she was. And in the end, she said, ‘don’t touch it – it’s too sensitive. And if you want to do something constructive, have a public discussion and debate that all parties could participate in” rather than pursue legislation.

“Ruth’s suggestion was not accepted,” Livni said, “and the next day the prime minister went ahead with the bill. Such a pity.”

(The controversy went on for years; the nation-state was passed into law in July 2018.)

Livni said that Gavison, as recently as a few weeks ago, when they last spoke, remained deeply worried about Israel’s political-judicial conflicts. “She tried to minimize the damage,” Livni said. “She was always looking for the common denominator” for a balanced society. “The problem is that in politics, no one wants to compromise.”

Rav Medan acknowledged that in terms of Israeli law, nothing has changed as a result of Gavison-Medan Covenant. But he said it has had a profound impact on leaders of communities who see the possibility of working together for the greater good.

Livni agreed.

“In the end,” she said, Gavison’s approach “will come back. It’s the only solution.”

Postscript: The day after Gavison’s death, Tehila Friedman, a Modern Orthodox member of the Blue and White Party, offered her “maiden speech” in the Knesset and it has received more than 1.5 million views. In a soft-spoken voice, Friedman sharply criticized the kind of win-at-any-price spirit that put Israel through three elections in the last year. She called for a politically moderate and “principled center” that is “willing to sacrifice in the name of moderation and democracy,” embodying “a Judaism that makes place for others.”

Ruth Gavison would be proud.

Gary Rosenblatt, Gary@jewishweek.org, is The Jewish Week’s editor at large.

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