Renowned civil rights activist and Israeli legal scholar Ruth Gavison passed away at the age of 75 on 15 August.
Gavison was born in Jerusalem in 1945, several years before the creation of the State of Israel. In 1969, she graduated from the law school at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the following year, clerked for Israeli Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Halevy, while earning her B.A. in philosophy and economics at the Hebrew University. Five years later, she completed her doctorate in legal philosophy at Oxford University, where she wrote her thesis on privacy law.
Gavison would later serve as a professor at her alma mater in Jerusalem for over four-decades, both teaching and conducting research on contentious topics such as the relationship between religion and the state, law and morality, and jurisprudence.
Gavison founded the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, where she served as chair for numerous non-consecutive periods and as the organization’s president from 1996 to 1999.
Throughout her career in academia, Gavison was a fierce advocate of judicial restraint in Israel, a position that put her in stark contrast to her then-colleague and current Supreme Court justice Aharon Barak. She maintained that judges were not legislators and that the Knesset should be the sole body to strike down laws.
Gavison worked tirelessly to bridge the divide between secular and observant Jews. In 2000, she worked with Rabbi Yaakov Medan from Yeshivat Har Etzion to draft a framework agreement covering controversial issues on the role of Judaism in Israel’s governance. The agreement, which became known as the Gavison-Medan Covenant, intended to ensure the preservation of the state's Jewish character, while maintaining the country’s democratic nature.
Following her passing, politicians from across the Israeli political spectrum offered Gavison’s family their condolences and praised her commitment to the inclusion of opposing voices, including opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of Yisrael Beytenu Avigdor Liberman, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, and among others.
President Reuven Rivlin praised her as a, “brilliant lawyer,” adding that her, "sharp and complex thought did not allow anyone to label her, and her perception was always crystal clear; clear and distinct. In her actions and words and addresses, Gavison dedicated her life to the connection of Israel as Jewish and democratic. Democratic and Jewish in one breath. We will miss her voice as a society and as a country very much."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that Gavison was never afraid to voice her opinion, even if it meant going against the consensus. “Many times she refused to accept the accepted legal working assumptions and led independent, brave, groundbreaking positions that challenged the legal discourse,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
Ruth Gavison’s work has been widely recognized. Throughout her career, she received several awards including, among others, Israel’s highest cultural honor, the Israel Prize, in 2011; the Zeltner Prize for legal research in 1997; and the Avi Chai Prize in 2001 for her work uniting secular and observant Jews in Israel.