In a wide-ranging conversation in front of a sold-out crowd on Feb. 1,
Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talked about Justice Ginsburg’s family, her professional trajectory, and her future. One theme was clear: America has improved over the course of its history in how it deals with institutional racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, but there is still room for improvement.
To introduce Eisner and Justice Ginsburg, Kathleen Peratis, a Forward board member, recited “A Prayer for RBG’s Long Life – And Our Pursuit of Justice,” a poem by local writer Abigail Pogrebin published in the Lilith Blog last month. Emphasizing the principle of tzedek (justice), the poem evokes the dignified pursuit of fairness that has come to define Justice Ginsburg’s career.
Justice Ginsburg recounted her sense of being an outsider as she grew up “in the shadow of World War II” and how it shaped her outlook. “The Holocaust was the beginning of the end of apartheid in America,” she said. African Americans fighting “odious racism” in Europe and returning home to face racism here eventually led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, she said.
Discussing how the Court’s treatment of and accommodations for Jews have changed over the course of her career, Justice Ginsburg recounted a story about Orthodox Jewish lawyers complaining that they can’t frame their Supreme Court Bar certificates. “It says, ‘in the year of our Lord so-and-so,’ and he’s not our lord,” she recalled them pointing out. One of her colleagues remarked, “In the year of our Lord was good enough for Brandeis, it was good enough for Cardozo, it was good enough for Frankfurter, it was good enough even for Goldberg.”
Her retort: “It’s not good enough for Ginsburg.”
Justice Ginsburg recently made headlines for her participation in the #MeToo conversation, sharing her experience when a professor propositioned her as a student. Justice Ginsburg said she feels that sexism still exists and gender discrimination is still a problem, though it is more subtle today. For instance, she said she received public criticism for interrupting fellow Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. When she went to apologize, Justice O’Connor told her not to worry about it because “the men do it all the time.”
Furthermore, Justice Ginsburg said, there has long been a belief that gender-based discrimination is actually favoritism toward women or meant to protect women. “It says something about women’s citizenship,” however, if women are not called upon to serve on a jury, for example. She lamented the fact that the Equal Right Amendment, which failed in 1978 and again in 1982, was never adopted, having fallen three states short of the three-quarters required by the Constitution, and she expressed hope that one day her granddaughters will “see in the Constitution a statement that men and women are persons of equal citizenship stature” as a “basic tenet of our system.”
Near the end of the evening, Eisner asked Justice Ginsburg how she feels about her recent ascent to pop culture celebrity and if it is strange to suddenly find her likeness on mugs and tote bags. She said she is amazed by the phenomenon.
“In March I will be 85, and everyone wants to take my picture!” she said.
To all her fans, young and old, Justice Ginsburg gave her assurance that she will remain on the Court “as long as I can do the job full-steam.”
By Seth Jacobson
Seth Jacobson is a special contributor to Kol Habirah and writes on issues of U.S. government and national security.