Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Israel: I Pity Your Supreme Court Justices

The Notorious RBG tells Jerusalem audience she is not the retiring type, unlike her peers in the Jewish state who are forced to retire at 70

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jerusalem, July 5, 2018.
Meged Gozani

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed sympathy for her counterparts on Israel’s highest court on Thursday – but not because of any thorny human rights situations they might face.

“Here, there is a compulsory retirement age. If I was in Israel I would have retired 15 years ago,” she told an audience at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, following a screening of the hit documentary about her life and career, “RBG.”

The 85-year-old jurist’s resistance to retirement is one of the subjects covered in the film, when she says she is committed to staying in place as long as she can do her job “at full steam” – and visibly taking umbrage when asked if she regretted not stepping down during the Obama administration, in order to be replaced by a liberal justice.

The acclaimed documentary was screened a day after Ginsburg received the inaugural Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award in Tel Aviv. A representative from the organization interviewed Ginsburg after Thursday’s screening.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Israeli Supreme Court justices, accepting the Genesis Prize Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, July 5, 2018.
Eran Lam

Ginsburg told the audience that this was her fifth visit to Israel. During a tour of Jerusalem earlier in the day, she met and had lunch with the justices on Israel’s Supreme Court.

Ginsburg said she had initially been offered the main Genesis Prize, but had to turn it down, she explained, “because our Constitution prohibits anyone who holds public office from accepting anything” from a foreign government, and the Genesis selection committee includes members of the Knesset.  

Her decision led to the creation of the Lifetime Achievement Award, which, she said, she was selected for by a committee of previous Genesis Award winners. She was “very pleased” to be the first winner, adding, “I hope there will be many more.”

Ginsburg’s decision to turn down the main award inadvertently triggered a scandal when actor Natalie Portman, who became the award’s new recipient, declined to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Israel due to the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Unsurprisingly, the Genesis representative did not mention this during the Q&A with Ginsburg.

When the justice, who has served on the Supreme Court since 1993, was asked how her Jewish background has influenced her approach to the law, she noted that at the entrance to her chambers, “There is a large poster with Hebrew letters saying ‘Tzedek, tzedek, tirdaf – justice, justice thou shalt pursue.’

“The concept of tikkun olam – repairing tears in your community and making things a little better for people less fortunate than you – that is certainly part of my Jewish heritage,” she noted. She also proudly pointed out that her office had the only mezuzah in the Supreme Court - a gift, she said, from a Jewish girls’ school in her native Brooklyn.

U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a scene from "RBG."
Magnolia Pictures/AP

Along with her unlikely status as a celebrity and cultural icon, the other focus of “RBG” is on Ginsburg’s pioneering legal work in promoting equality for women.  

But while she lauded the U.S. court’s embrace of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as it applies to gender equality, it hasn’t gone far enough to satisfy her.

Ginsburg said she hoped to see equality for women explicitly set out in the Constitution “in my lifetime.”

Holding up the small Constitution she clutched throughout her appearance on stage, she told the audience: “When I take out this pocket Constitution to show my granddaughters, I still can’t point to a provision that offers equal protection to women. ... I would like to take out this Constitution and say to my great granddaughter, ‘Your equality is a fundamental tenet of the United States.’”

While she was careful to steer clear of the current controversy roiling the United States over the selection of a new Supreme Court justice to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy after he announced his retirement last month, she did offer a lament for a time when the process of nominating and confirming justices was less partisan.

“I was considered a controversial person because of my affiliation with the ACLU,” she recounted. And yet that affiliation was not an issue during the confirmation process, in which the Senate confirmed her with a 96-3 vote. She noted that her “biggest supporter” was conservative Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

“Since then, the Senate has tended to divide on party lines – and that’s unfortunate,” she said. “I hope someday we will get back to the bipartisan spirit that once prevailed when it came to the confirmation of judges.”