in memoriam

Ruth Gavison, Gadi Taub, and Israeli academia

For political theory to hold up, we must apply it consistently, without favoring one population over another. That constancy was also the calling card of my dearly departed mentor
Ruth Gavison. (YouTube)
Ruth Gavison. (YouTube)

In 2004, Yael (Yuli) Tamir published an academic article titled Class and Nation. In her article, Tamir distinguishes between a mobile global elite and a lower local class. The mobile elite enjoys the rise of cosmopolitanism and the decline of nationalism as it can take its skills and capital and move across borders. In this manner, members of this class are able to avoid risks in their home country and explore opportunities around the globe. The lower class is stranded to its home nation-state and suffers from these developments. The bonds of nationality created solidarity which was the backbone of the welfare state. With the decline of nationality, solidarity diminishes, and states adopt neo-liberalism and reduce the support offered to the lower classes. In her 2019 book, Why Nationality?, Tamir continues to try and convince the mobile elite to choose nationality.

The distinction between the mobile elite and the sedentary lower classes entered Israeli discourse thanks to Gadi Taub’s writing. While neither Taub nor Tamir invented this distinction (Zygmunt Bauman did), Israeli academia has treated their use of this distinction in a very different manner. Tamir — a former professor at Tel Aviv University — has received high-praises, while Taub — a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University — has been criticized, mocked and belittled by his colleagues for using the same distinctions and arguments Tamir used. This divergent treatment raises the concern that the reaction to Taub’s arguments stems not from the content of his arguments, but due to his support of the Netanyahu government.

This concern took me back to the period when I met Ruth Gavison as a student in her seminar on “Law and Politics” at the Hebrew University. I was then a young student — before military service — and understood very little of how the world of academia works, but the seminar offered a front-row seat in the drama that riveted Israeli legal academia at that time. Gavison was then the loneliest person in Israeli academia. She had just published an academic article that harshly criticized the “constitutional revolution” initiated by the then-president of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak. Following the article, in November 1999, Ari Shavit interviewed her for Haaretz, in a lengthy interview titled, “So Said the Head of the Opposition.” A week after the interview, Haaretz published two pages of letters to the editor written by law professors who reacted to the interview. All — with no exception — harshly criticized Gavison.

It was not easy for Gavison to go against the milieu of her friends and colleagues. As Gideon Sapir notes in his 2010 book, The Constitutional Revolution, “Ruth Gavison was among the very few people who criticized the Court’s action. But even she opened her article criticizing the Court with a long and complex attempt to justify her decision to make her critique public.” Sapir adds that, following the publication of her article, Gavison was excluded, marginalized and became “a persona non grata among those who led the hegemonic group of society at that period.” This reality came to its apex when Aharon Barak prevented her appointment to the Supreme Court in 2005, based on his claim that “Ruthie has an agenda.”

Much has changed in the 20 years since Gavison’s article was published. Although her critical position toward the Supreme Court remains a minority position in Israeli legal academia, outside the academy, her position became well-accepted, in both left- and right-wing parties.

Is the Israeli academia’s treatment of Taub — in comparison to its treatment of Tamir — just an updated version of the way it treated Gavison at the beginning of the 2000s? My answer to this question is no. Taub’s argument suffers from a basic flaw that is absent from Tamir’s argument.

At the foundation of every political theory is a certain depiction of the human creature. For example, we all know the depiction offered by Thomas Hobbes of “man is wolf to man.” Hobbes built his entire political philosophy based on a picture of human beings as egotistical-rational creatures. While Hobbes supported a monarchical regime, all humans in his theory had the same characteristics. He did not argue that for those who supported monarchy, “man is angel to man.” In Taub’s thinking, the figure of the human is divided: the mobile person is driven by economic forces, while the non-mobile is a thinking creature who decides which positions to adopt.

Taub has to hold this split-picture of the human creature. Otherwise, if the sedentary classes are driven in forming their positions solely by economic interest — just like the mobile class — then Israeli nationality is nothing more than a false conscience, a manipulative ideology aimed to mask economic interests. But for Taub, only for the mobiles, the cosmopolitan ideology is merely a manipulative tool to mask a cold economic interest with pretty words. For the sedentary classes, the national ideology is a truth that beats true in their Jewish soul and overcomes any economic interest. This delicate point is vital because, in this manner, the Right is able to disregard the economic interest of the sedentary classes in the name of nationality, while supporting the free market that, according to Taub, helps the mobiles.

In her book, Tamir moves back and forth between discussions on economic forces that dictate human behavior and discussions of the influence of reasoning and persuasion on the way humans act, but all along, her picture of human-beings is one and not split. The mobile and the non-mobile are influenced and driven in the same fashion.

The importance that the picture of humans at the core of a political theory will be one — and not split — is not because human beings are one-dimensional. Hobbes clearly knew that humans sometimes act altruistically. But the need to maintain consistency in describing humans as egoistical creatures — whether they supported monarchy or not — ensured that Hobbes’ theory would not be corrupted in terms of its inner logic because of his support of monarchy.

It would be naïve to think that political theories are written in vacuum, with no connection between the political affiliations of those who wrote them and the end product. Nonetheless, by insisting that theory present a consistent picture of the human creature, we ensure that the authors’ political affiliation do not taint their theory. The tendency to narrate a theory according one’s political affiliation is held at bay by the need to remain consistent.

The distinction between Tamir and Taub is therefore not based on the debate between those who believe economic interest determines human decisions and those who believe humans can transcend above it. Rather, the distinction between the two is that Taub sees mobiles as having different characteristics as human beings in comparison to non-mobiles. According to Taub, the mobile class is driven by economic forces, while the sedentary classes have discretion to decide which positions to adopt. For Tamir, both mobiles and non-mobiles are similar in their attributes.

Ruth Gavison believed in the power of reasoning and in the ability to convince people from the Right and the Left. For years, she appeared before various forums and groups of diverse political affiliations. She was not identified with a political camp, and not because she was a purist who wanted to escape to the academic ivory tower. Rather, Gavison believed in political thinking that is not dictated by a political affiliation. She believed that political arguments do not become true because they are supported by a certain political camp or because they were written in a Supreme Court judgment. She examined arguments based on their merits and always insisted to get to the bottom of the argument. For Ruth, the truth was not derived from the speaker’s political affiliation nor from the elites’ approval for a certain argument. She was a true independent thinker, a rare commodity in Israeli academia.

This piece was written commemorating the shloshim to the passing of my teacher and friend Professor Ruth Gavison. 

Dr. Or Bassok is an Assistant Professor in Constitutional Law at the University of Nottingham, UK.

About the Author
Dr. Or Bassok is an Assistant Professor in Constitutional Law at the University of Nottingham, UK.
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