Israeli Legal Scholar, Rights Activist, Prof. Ruth Gavison Passes Away at Age 75

Gavison was an Israel Prize winner and legal expert whose work dealt with the right to privacy, protection of human rights, freedom and equality

Ofer Aderet
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Ruth Gavison, February 16, 2020
Ruth Gavison, February 16, 2020Credit: מארק ניימן / לעמ
Ofer Aderet

Lawyer Ruth Gavison passed away Saturday at the age of 75. Ganison was a legal expert and Israel Prize winner.

Gavison was born in Jerusalem in 1945 and grew up in Haifa, where she attended the Hebrew Reali Schooll.

After studying law a Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Gavison completed a doctorate in law at Oxford University. Her specialization was in the philosophy of law and her research dealt with the legal protection of privacy.

Gavison joined the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, conducting research that dealt with issues regarding the relationship between law and morality; the relationship between religion and the state; the essence of the trial; the connection between the trial and the role of the judge; and public law. 

Since the mid 1970s, Gavison was a key activist in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. She served as chairman and president of the association.

Gavison was a member of several public committees, and in 2006 was appointed a member of the Winograd Commission of inquiry into the events of military engagement in the Lebanon war. 

"It was an extraordinary experience, because the committee dealt with the main issues of our existence - decision-making mechanisms, going to war, war constraints, and relations between the political and military levels," she said of her experience at the commission.

Some of her positions have provoked controversy over the years, even on the left, with whom Gavinson identified. She stood at the head of the opposition to the judicial activism of the Supreme Court. In 2005 her candidacy as a judge of the Supreme Court caused a stir when the then president,  Aharon Barak, came out against her "agenda."

An agreement on the status quo between religious and secular people, which she signed in 2000 with the head of the Mount Etzion Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Madan, also caused controversy. The two proposed introducing civil marriage in Israel, but only for heterosexual couples.

Gavison was also a prominent supporter of the Citizenship Law, which prevents the reunification of Israeli families and their Palestinian spouses, and even supported restricting the immigration of Jews from the developing world to Israel.

The Israel Prize award committee, chaired by Prof. Ruth Lapidot, wrote that Gavison's research deals with key issues of constitutional law in Israel, and "deals deeply and courageously with shaping the identity of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

"Prof. Gavison also paves the way in her work to enable the coexistence of religious and secular Jews, as well as of Jews and non-Jews in the State of Israel. In addition, Prof. Gavison has engaged in her research in the protection of human rights, and in particular the right to privacy, freedom of expression and equality, and has combined her perceptions and commitment with practical work in the field," the committee added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted on the death of Gavison: "I express my deep sorrow at the passing of Professor Ruth Gavison, the recipient of the Israel Prize and one of the leading figures in the legal world in Israel. Prof. Gavison's unique voice was heard loud and clear, even when it was unacceptable or by consensus.

"Many times she refused to accept the accepted legal working assumptions and led independent, courageous and groundbreaking positions that challenged the legal discourse and would leave their mark for many years to come. R.I.P."

President Reuven Rivlin payed tribute to her, saying: "The brilliant lawyer Ruth Gavison has left us. 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."

A number of Knesset members also expressed their condolences.

Economy and Industry Minister Amir Peretz said: "Condolences to the Gavison family on the death of Prof. Ruth Gavison, recipient of the Israel Prize, and one of the first members of the Association for Civil Rights, who until her last day devoted her life to this issue. Not right or left, not religious or secular, not Arabs or Jews stood before her but only "The principle of the gains of the individual or the group. Prof. Gavison's death is a great loss to us all. May her memory be blessed."

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman tweeted: "Prof. Ruth Gavison, the recipient of the Israel Prize, who passed away today, was a groundbreaking woman, a legal expert and a visionary. The Gavison-Medan Covenant, which she wrote with Rabbi Madan Yavdal, which calls for dialogue and denies any unilateral coercion and decisions on matters of religion and state, should serve as a milestone for us. I send my condolences to her family. R.I.P."

Kahol Lavan MK Eitan Ginzburg said: "Prof. Ruth Gavison, recipient of the Israel Prize, one of the founders of the Association for Civil Rights, has passed away. She was one of the most brilliant lawyers in the country and although I did not always agree with her views, her non-appointment as a Supreme Court judge was a big miss and her voice will be missed in the legal landscape. R.I.P."

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