People who were fortunate enough to become acquainted with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a personal or a professional context, during her years in academia and in the U.S. judicial establishment, say that she was a true friend. I can say that she was also a true friend of Israel and of our Supreme Court.
The last time we met was more than two years ago, at the ceremony in Israel where she received a lifetime achievement award from the Genesis Prize Foundation. I was excited to be at the event, where she was recognized for her enormous legal contribution to advancing the protection of women’s rights, the right to equality and the rights of all human beings. It was an opportunity to thank her for her great contribution throughout her years of activity as a jurist, as a lawyer and as a judge.
In every phase of her career, Ginsburg worked to advance equality as a proud Jew, an icon, a leader, a trailblazer who served as an example for women in the United States and throughout the world.
As only the second woman, and the first Jewish woman, to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ginsburg joined a respected list of female warriors of justice and proudly continued the tradition they led. As a pioneer in her field, she brought meaningful change to the lives of American women.
At the award ceremony, we had the opportunity to tell her that she has been a groundbreaker for us, as well, and that she has true friends, and even admirers – myself included – also in Israel. I admire her commitment to principles and values, and the struggle to realize and advance them. I believe that these are among the most important and necessary attributes of any judge.
We often wonder how legal rulings can change social norms. These are long-term processes, and we do not always get to see the results. But Ginsburg was able to do so during her lifetime – to look back and to see her extensive influence, the change that she spearheaded on behalf of women. It was a very long journey: She began her struggle for the rights of women and of minorities in the American Civil Liberties Union, co-founding the ACLU’s Women Rights Project and becoming its general counsel. She did this through the courts, representing individuals in the U.S. Supreme Court who were hurt by gender discrimination or by statutes that had been interpreted in a way that perpetuated such discrimination.
Her winning arguments helped to change the discrimination that had characterized the laws and judgments in various U.S. states. She believed strongly in the need to support disadvantaged groups and individuals who did not have the opportunity to realize their rights to equality. As a justice, she gave expression in her verdicts to the need to set appropriate norms, interpreting the U.S. Constitution in a manner that advanced equality between the sexes and protected various groups within society from being exploited by stronger or wealthier groups.
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Ginsburg did not hesitate to stand up for her principles and for her professional, social and moral beliefs, even when she remained in the dissenting minority. She believed in her power to influence and to change, even when her opinion conflicted with that of the majority of her fellow justices.
The struggle for gender equality in accordance with interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, with an emphasis on the injustice that was the lot of women throughout generations, became her life’s mission and chief contribution. She continued to adhere to that mission when she was appointed to the Supreme Court. Her positions in every case, session and ruling, even when she was in the minority, wielded an influence, leaving their mark and advancing the cause for which she fought. Many of her cases and verdicts became milestones.
Bader Ginsburg also paved the way for the pursuit of gender equality in our society. Even though Israeli law was initially more advanced than that of the United States in that realm, we still needed proper interpretation. We have this, in our Supreme Court, but unfortunately the road from interpretation to implementation in an egalitarian way is still a long one.
Bader Ginsburg’s courageous positions are important, but no less important is the fact that she made the legal system more accessible and more comprehensible to the public. I cannot think of another legal figure who had such a profound influence on and awareness of the daily lives of the society in which they lived as she did, or who was as popular as she was. She managed to bridge the gap between the law, the constitution and the legal system, on the one hand, and the society they are supposed to serve, on the other. Many people were critical of this popular approach.
Her path, so loved and admired by the public, was not characteristic of judges. She was open to participating in performances, was interviewed often, lived in a world that loved music and art of any kind, and shared her love of opera with her colleagues on the bench – and also with the wider public – accepted criticism with great humor at her own expense from television entertainment shows, and most of all was accessible and attentive.
Bader Ginsburg was courageous, a proud Jew, who displayed the biblical verse: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” in her office. People regularly note that she was the oldest justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, but in my eyes she was the youngest of all. She was young in spirit. Young people admired her the same way they do rock stars, and she even warmly adopted the identity of a famous rapper by means of her initials.
It is no small achievement for the justice system – in the United States or in Israel – to be understood by the public. Today, courts and judges are attacked constantly, but not in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s case. She earned the great respect of many in the United States and around the world, and the Supreme Court there benefitted from that respect, too. I hope that her voice, unfailing struggle and determined positions for justice and equality will remain with us even after her passing. We need this voice in such difficult times.
Dorit Beinisch was the first woman to serve as president of the Israeli Supreme Court.