You’d have to describe Ruth Gavison as feisty, because the English language has no other way to describe a fearless, brilliant, energetic gray-haired, 65-year-old
woman, other than to liken her to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Like Ginsburg, Gavison is one of her country’s preeminent legal thinkers. A law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who’s done stints at Yale and Oxford, she was a founding member of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). In 2005, she was nominated to serve on Israel’s Supreme Court, but her appointment was blocked for political reasons. Gavison instead turned her energy to founding Metzilah — a center for Zionist, Jewish, humanist and liberal thought.
I met her for breakfast on April 16 at a Beverly Hills home. She was previewing a lecture she’d give later that day at UCLA’s Israel Studies Center, “Can Israel Be a Jewish and Democratic State?”
Although Gavison is an academic by training, the question she poses is anything but.
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Zionism, in case you haven’t heard, is in crisis. In Israel, the deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians means the country is slipping toward a demographic reality in which the Jewish state could end up having an Arab majority. Meanwhile, a poll distributed by the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel showed that 50 percent of Israeli youths think Israeli Arabs should not be given the same rights as Israeli Jews.
“This distressing information illustrates the education system has neglected its responsibility in teaching students about human and Zionist values, Judaism, and democracy,” said MK Zevulon Orlev, chairman of the Knesset’s Education Committee.
Abroad, the Zionism brand is faring even worse among the next generation. It is a red flag on many college campuses. This week, in The New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart laid the blame at the feet of Jewish leaders who have adopted a “my way or the highway” approach to Israel advocacy and what it means to be Zionist.
“In Israel today, this humane, universalistic Zionism does not wield power. To the contrary, it is gasping for air,” Beinart wrote. “In the American Jewish establishment today, the language of liberal Zionism — with its idioms of human rights, equal citizenship and territorial compromise — has been drained of meaning.”
To my mind, the picture is more complicated. Consider just the past two weeks: Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, a staunch defender of Israel, the man who refused Yasser Arafat hospitality in his city, posted a column on Huffington Post on how Israel could share Jerusalem with the Palestinians under a peace agreement. His plan for a New York-like borough system was concise and elegant and as progressive as a J Street pamphlet — from Ed Koch.
It was seconded in spirit by Marshall Breger, stalwart Republican, Orthodox Jew and former Reagan administration liaison to the American Jewish community, who last week wrote in the May/June issue of Moment magazine that “Israel cannot remain a ‘warrior state’ forever,” and that peace will require compromise on Jerusalem.
But then there was also a long essay in the May/June issue of Foreign Policy by longtime left-leaning diplomat Aaron David Miller, rejecting as a false religion the 30 years he spent trying to fashion an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and asserting that, “Right now, America has neither the opportunity nor frankly the balls to do truly big things on Arab-Israeli peacemaking.”
Doves against peace, hawks for compromise — no wonder the next generation has no clue what Israel means or Zionism stands for.
That’s where Ruth Gavison comes in. Her life’s work has focused on what is for most of us the core question at the heart of the Israel debate: How can Israel be Jewish and democratic?
Jews will embrace a struggling, imperfect democracy. With few exceptions, they will turn their backs on any lesser sort of Jewish state. This is the central truth that Israel’s citizens, leaders and supporters must affix like a mezuzah to their actions and intellects.
“The voices that take from criticism of Israel, at least from the occupation, that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist, that it wasn’t such a good idea,” Gavison said, “simply do not understand.”
True, she said, Israel needs a Jewish majority to maintain its democracy. But that majority, while enjoying the fruits of Jewish self-determination, must adhere to democratic principles.
“A Jewish theocracy cannot be a democracy,” Gavison said. “A state governed by people who get their legitimacy from Jewish law cannot be democratic.”
That doesn’t mean Israel must be what she called “a neutral state,” one that allows each citizen the full expression of his or her non-civic allegiances.
Which leaves Israel to negotiate what Gavison calls “a delicate balance” between respecting minority freedom and asserting majority rights. In the face of that delicate balance, Gavison said, those who deny Israel’s right to exist are making both a political and a moral mistake.
“The reasons that justified a Jewish state in 1947 have not gone away. This is a community and this is a national home. You cannot deny to Jews what you allow to others.”
The bigger challenge to Israel now is that the Jews may end up denying to others what they claim, rightly, for themselves. Gavison’s most profound concern is that Israel will give up the majority — and thus its democracy — by retaining control of the West Bank
“Many people find it difficult to distinguish between the idea of Jewish self-determination in part of the land of Israel and the reality in which Jews control large part of mandatory Palestinians where millions of Palestinians live without democratic rule,” she said. “This is not only unstable, this is bad for Israel and bad for the region.”
“Yes,” Gavison said, “ Israel can be both Jewish and democratic. It is the only place in the world where Jews are in the majority and control their fate. But Israel should listen to the challenges posed by its Jewish nature and democracy. It must take very seriously the commitment of a democracy to treat all its citizens with equal concern and respect.”
Listen to a podcast by Ruth Gavison.