One on One with Ruth Gavison: Preserving identity, promoting pluralism

Winograd Committee member fears faltering raison d'etre of Jewish state.

Ruth Gavison 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ruth Gavison 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
That the focus of and condition for the interview with Ruth Gavison is to be her recently established NGO, "Metzilah," feels, at first, problematic. How, I wonder, will I be able to contain my curiosity about certain controversies surrounding this person I have both read and read about so extensively? On second thought, having one of the country's most celebrated legal brains to pick is not a privilege to be pooh-poohed, whatever the subject matter. Indeed, my initial concerns dissipate the moment the renowned Hebrew University law professor opens her mouth. In what would sound like a stream of consciousness if it weren't so ultra-articulate, Gavison elaborates on the ideas that gave birth to her "baby" in almost literary Hebrew, stringing sentences together quickly, as though trying to keep her words up to speed with her mind. "One of the crucial issues we must deal with in this country is its contribution to the preservation of Jewish identity," says Gavison, asserting that this is a complex task which involves espousing particularist and universalist values simultaneously, rather than separating or choosing between them. This, she claims, is actually what Judaism is all about. And she's worried that the "separatists" on either end of the ideological spectrum are weakening the core of the Zionist endeavor. This is not the only alarming irony that Gavison, 63 - the bulk of whose career has been spent fighting for pluralism and human rights - sees and aims to tackle through her organization. Equally ironic and alarming, she warns, is the lack of investment on the part of the government in the mainstream education system. So, she explains, while tight-knit sectors fight for the right to have control and funding for their own schools in which they decide on the curriculum and impart to their students a "thick" sense of their distinct identity, the rest of the country's pupils end up with a very "thin" one indeed. Like the haredi, national-religious and Arab kids, the amount of general knowledge they are taught leaves much to be desired; but unlike the others, they don't even receive a proper initiation into their own Jewish and Zionist heritage, history and religion. This, Gavison fears, is what is leading to the kind of ignorance about the need for and purpose of a Jewish state altogether. It is Gavison's attempt to rectify this situation that led her to do something she never thought would again be a part of her resume: form a non-profit and have to fundraise for it. (She spent 25 years, until 1999, working in this fashion for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel.) No easy feat, especially not during times of financial crisis. But Gavison, whose career path has been paved with the kind of challenges that would make most of the rest of us cringe - such as having her nomination to a position on the Supreme Court knocked down by the other judges for not having the right politics - is not deterred. It's the survival of the state she believes is at stake here, after all. How did you arrive at the name "Metzilah"? Its Hebrew acronym of its full title - the Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought - perfectly describes the concept of the endeavor, which involves melding Jewish and universal values in Israel and the Jewish world. It's a simple name that encapsulates a complex idea. Sometimes, people get it confused with "matzila" which means "rescuer." But it is "metzilah," the word for "cymbal," a percussion instrument that resounds. There is an ongoing public debate about whether particularist and universal values in a Jewish state and democracy can actually coexist. Do you really believe they can live together in peace? I'm glad you asked, because one of our aims is precisely to point out that this issue needs addressing. As it happens, there are many people who don't even consider it an issue. But it is an issue, because it goes to the very heart of the enterprise that is the State of Israel, and to the very core of thinking on the condition and fate of the Jewish people. There are indeed tensions between particularism and universalism. But the tensions are inherent in the ideas themselves. It is impossible to be solely universalist. There is no such thing as some kind of cosmopolitan culture. Every individual is distinguishable. Take the realm of human rights, for example, which is at the very heart of humanism. It not only recognizes the rights of individuals; it also recognizes the rights of groups and the importance of groups to the lives of individuals. The two primary human rights conventions open with a declaration concerning the right of peoples to self-determination. Therefore, the view that the particularist nature of Jewishness and Zionism does not sit well with the universalist ideals of humanism and freedom is wrong. One of our aims is to show that not only was the Zionist endeavor historically compatible with both of these elements of Jewishness and humanism, but that it can and must be today as well. One of the ways we intend showing this is by researching the points of educational and public activity and policy where this conceptual conflict is the greatest, and illustrating how they can be resolved. Of great concern to us are the consequences of the increasing tendency on the part of the public to see the particularist ideas of Judaism and Zionism as incompatible with the universalist ideas of humanism and liberalism, and the conclusion that a choice has to be made between them. So some argue for choosing the universalist approach - only humanism, only liberalism and only democracy; and others insist that we should stress only particularism, the logic of which is that Jews have no other place in the world, and if we don't look out for ourselves, nobody else will. We believe this assumption that a choice must be made is both wrong and dangerous. Where are the points of conflict the greatest? There are so many, and they come to light in almost every debate on the national agenda. But a main one regards whether Israel can be a Jewish state, in terms of its being a national home for the Jewish People, while also being a democratic state that respects the rights of its Arab citizens. It's a fundamental question that is given different answers from different sectors. At Metzilah, our answer is "yes." There are many nation states in the world. The need on the part of peoples for statehood is based both on their national interests and on their rights as individuals. The Jewish People, who was a minority in every place in the world, and persecuted as such, is probably the prime example. There was no place where it could depend on the power of the state to defend it physically or to preserve its identity. There were two kinds of pressures at work - external and internal. The former involved discrimination, expulsion and at times annihilation. The latter involved enforced assimilation. Obviously, annihilation is worse than assimilation. But where preserving identity is concerned, assimilation is also critical. But would the Jews have wanted or needed to preserve their identity if they hadn't been persecuted? Is this not, perhaps, an integral part of the Jewish collective? I'm not so sure, and I really hope not. I do think that part of the reason the Jewish People survived such a long period in a state of dispersion, without a common language, territory or political establishment, derived from a combination of internal strength and external rejection and that the two are linked. Jews survived because they adopted a distinctive lifestyle that would preserve them. This, in turn, often led to a suspicious reaction from their surroundings, because when you differentiate yourself, you become foreign. On the other hand, one cannot deny that during the Haskala [the Enlightenment period that began among European Jews in the late 18th century], when a good portion of the Jewish people did want to assimilate, and when voices of emancipation indicated to them that they could, the distaste for Judaism, or, more precisely, for Jews, remained, and the Jews, therefore, were unable to do so fully. The most blatant and tragic example is that of Nazi Germany. Many German Jews wanted to relinquish their cultural uniqueness, yet weren't allowed to do so. How does this relate to Israel and the Jews today? Israel is the only place in the world where the public identity is Jewish and Hebrew, and where, as a result, normal assimilationist patterns benefit the Jews. This could have been a major change. However, it has raised important internal Jewish debates. Some religious leaders think Judaism does not welcome assimilation into it, which is why some in the Orthodox establishment here are being so steadfast about the purity of conversions, and unwelcoming to other streams of Judaism; it's a fear of having Judaism diluted. Meanwhile, the Jewish public culture enables secular Israelis to live without having to invest in their Judaism. This is as ironic as it is dangerous: Precisely because it's easy to be Jews here, Judaism may indeed be weakened and confused. Jews in the Diaspora who want to remain Jewish have to invest in it. Their lifestyle has to include some connection to Judaism. They might belong to a Jewish community center, go to synagogue or send their children to Sunday school. Otherwise, people will lose their active, rich Jewishness. Here in Israel, there's an illusion that one doesn't have to invest in it, and many people don't. Which brings us to the question of what the state of Israel actually is. Is it a solution for Jews who didn't live well in the Diaspora? Or is it an entity that melds Jews with Judaism, to ensure continuity of Jewish culture? I contend it is the latter. But many Israelis don't realize this particular aspect of what the state can provide. This is not the full picture, of course. There are wonderful things going on here in terms of Jewish culture. Hebrew language and literature is flourishing, and there is a beautiful renaissance in the Torah world. But the ability of the non-religious public to identify and appreciate its Judaism and transfer it, as a way of life, to the next generation is weakening. It often seems as though the haredi and secular communities are in some kind of inadvertent cahoots with one another when it comes to accepting different streams of Judaism - with many Israelis following the saying, "The synagogue I don't attend is Orthodox." Do you agree? Yes, and it touches on fundamental questions relating to religious and cultural pluralism in general, and how they affect different aspects of life in Israel. But it's not new. It has accompanied the Zionist movement and Judaism throughout contemporary history - with each side believing that it is the one with the correct interpretation of history, and that the others are either superficial or doomed. There was a long period when religious Jews thought that the "other form" of Judaism was temporary, and therefore it wasn't necessary to confront, because it would disappear anyway. This did not and will not happen. And Israel will not survive if it is not a long-term, joint project among people whose visions of Jewishness and the importance of a Jewish state are very different. On the other hand, many people thought religion in general was going to disappear. It's become clear that this is not so. On the contrary, a renaissance is taking place in all the major religions. Why this is happening is something the West is going to have to ask itself, because it was in the West that the idea emerged that the loss of tradition was not a loss, but rather a gain. But it's a process that's happening in all the religions - one that I think should be happening more among the Jewish People than it is. What is extremely interesting about Judaism, unlike Islam and Christianity, is that even its messianic vision does not involve the elimination of other peoples. Judaism is not a religion that wants to conquer other religions or nations. Rather, it recognizes its uniqueness among nations, and its role. Are you referring to its role as a "light unto the nations"? Yes, and the cultivator of universal justice, which is a very profound Jewish concept. In this respect, Judaism is a rich, specific culture and religion, according to which it's not just that Jews have to deal with others because they exist, and therefore there's no choice, but rather that our dealing with others is a profound internal need and responsibility. This is why Jews such as the hilltop youth, who claim that compromise and attempts at resolving conflict run counter to Judaism and Zionism, are not only wrong, but their thinking is dangerous. Could such thinking derive from a lack of a proper education? There is constant criticism of how ignorant secular kids are about Jewish and Zionist history. Is it possible that religious kids are equally ignorant? It's an interesting question. In some contexts, religious education is indeed limited. Some religious youth learn a wealth of certain texts and their commentaries. But they read and interpret the sources in a very particular way, and I don't think serious scholars of Jewish texts, religious and non-religious alike, would endorse their interpretations. It comes from reading texts too literally, and not within a broader context. So, yes, there is a problem within religious education as well, and it returns us again to the question of what Judaism is. Metzilah is committed to the idea that there are multiple ways of interpreting Judaism, and that the Orthodox way is an important one, albeit not the only one. But there are secular people in this country whose response to the apparent Orthodox-held monopoly on Judaism is to want to disconnect Judaism from the Jewishness of the state altogether - to make Israel a state which adheres to a vision of separation between religion and state. Some want Israel to be a Jewish nation state; some are willing to give up on that notion as well. I don't believe that cultures and traditions can make such radical disconnections. I object to the Orthodox monopoly on marriage and divorce. I am proud that in the Gavison-Medan Covenant [a document drawn up in 2002 by Gavison and Rabbi Ya'acov Medan, dealing with issues such as the Law of Return, citizenship, conversion, marriage and divorce, Shabbat and kashrut observance and burial], we both proposed an arrangement that would eliminate this monopoly. But cultural issues and issues of national solidarity - of a partnership of fate - are a different story. They can't be determined legally. All this is very philosophical. What kind of concrete measures will Metzilah be taking to shape the societal concerns you raise? Civil society in this country has a plethora of organizations doing wonderful work in various directions. Our calling is to aid more of the public to want Israel to be a Jewish, pluralistic society - one that is not solely religious, but which respects its religion and religious population, and one which respects the human rights of Arabs, while at the same time not relinquishing its uniqueness. We want to publish position papers on key issues and to influence public debate and decision-makers. Just last week we had a discussion of the first such paper - Demographic Trends in Israel. We want to work on strategic thinking concerning education. We think that the mainstream education system doesn't provide the infrastructure that enables integrating all those values, or even recognizing where those values come from. Meanwhile, the haredi, national-religious and Arab sectors do everything they can to uphold the separateness of their education systems, and not allow outside influences to seep in. The question is whether they should be permitted to do this. But political arrangements have enabled it. This is not only problematic where the haredi system is concerned. The Arabs are constantly struggling to have more autonomy over their educational narrative, which isn't exactly compatible with ours. The result is that while each of these sectors tries to minimize its universal and civic identity, the public education system does exactly the opposite. It provides only universal and civic education. There is little education about who we are as Jews of various persuasions, and why we are here and need a state of our own. Meanwhile, the Arabs are saying we've usurped them, and that the state should give up its Jewishness, and the haredim are saying secular versions of Jewishness are incoherent. This combination does make it harder for the mainstream non-Orthodox Israeli Jew to respond to the question of whether we should be here at all. An Israel that wants to preserve the kind of vision I have - a national state for the Jews, with religious pluralism and human rights for Jews and Arabs - has to re-conceive its educational system in a way similar to what it had been in the early years. General public education should be one that teaches a solid Jewish-pluralist identity, committed to both the people and universal values. It is good to allow distinct groups their school systems, so they can impart their own identities. But I do want to demand of them that they provide elements of three types: civics, including the legitimacy of the Jewish nation-state in which they live and whose citizens they are; skills required to be full participants in the country's life; and demonstrations of how their own culture should be combined both with universal values and the civic implications of their state. Do you really believe you can bring about a change in the education system? I hope I can. I think many people would welcome such a change. First of all, I hope that people will find my analysis correct. If they do, then we can identify the points on which there is a strategic problem, and work through them. I'm not entirely sure that everybody agrees there's even a problem. But even those who do agree don't necessarily realize what the problem is, which is the strengthening of the peripheral sectors at the expense of the center. Doesn't this stem from the electoral system, in which small, sectoral parties apply pressure on the larger ones to achieve political leverage? It's true that short-term coalition-building often leads to long-term mistakes. An example is the law passed in the last Knesset allowing haredi schools not to include core studies while being financed by the state. But I wouldn't place all the blame on the electoral system, because the fact is that within this very system, we managed to function not at all badly during our first 20 years of statehood. What is required now is for the center to consider certain things like this one, which is directly connected to the viability of the state as non-negotiable, regardless of coalition agreements. I admit that this sounds a bit idyllic, but it's something that has to happen. The voters must demand of their elected officials that they put the country's long-term interests ahead of their own narrow, short-term ones. Without a long-term strategy for preserving the identity of the state, we ought to be worried about its ability to survive - especially since there are so many people just waiting and hoping for it to fail.