One on One: "As Great a Threat as Iran"

An Interview with Dr. Arye Carmon

| Written By:

In an interview in the Jerusalem Post, Dr. Arye Carmon, Former President and Founder of IDI, discusses the Institute's achievements, his views on the new government and its size, and the connection between his expertise on Nazi Germany and his research on democracy.

'When you bring adversaries together around a table, dialogue ensues and walls come down," asserts Dr. Arye (Arik) Carmon, founding president of the Israel Democracy Institute. "The most prominent example is our text for a constitution, which brings different views from different sectors, reflecting our vision—compromise."

Indeed, says Carmon, 66, a long-time educator, Holocaust historian and amateur photographer—who established the IDI in 1991, with the support of American businessman Bernard Marcus, of Home Depot fame—his mission is to examine and help cure the ills of what he considers to be the young country's fledgling democracy.

To this end, the Jerusalem-based IDI—located in the neighborhood of Talbiyeh, in luxurious premises (with a grand, round conference room, British Parliament-style, lined with the fruits of Carmon's photography labors)—conducts research, holds conferences and seminars, publishes studies and presents proposals to policy-makers. And it is on the basis of its work over the past nearly two decades that the IDI was among last week's recipients of the prestigious Israel Prize.

Not that the highly regarded institute hasn't had its fair share of controversy, however, most recently a petition to the High Court of Justice to have its Israel Prize nomination rescinded on the grounds that the judges were all connected to IDI in some fashion—which was rejected—and an article in Haaretz exposing the exorbitant salaries of Carmon (NIS 119,000) and other IDI honchos.

But Carmon, who lives in the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Savyon and commutes daily to the city where he was born and raised, refutes the claims of the one and pooh-poohs the cynicism of the other.

"The petitioners [the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel and Professors for a Strong Israel] argued that three of the judges who decided to give us the award have been associated with the IDI in one way or another," he explains. "They pulled that claim with regard to one of them, because he was never involved with us. As for the other two, it's very simple. This is a tiny country in which everyone knows everyone else, and anyone who is anyone has, of course, had contact with us or participated in some of our programs. If familiarity were grounds for disqualification, no one here could ever be awarded the prize."

Where the high pay is concerned, Carmon is unapologetic. "Recruiting excellence in a competitive market means having to pay well," he insists. "In the second place, we adhere to the regulations of this country, to the letter. We have documents, year after year, that underscore the integrity of the management of this institute. Finally, what percentage of our budget comes from public funds? The answer is zero. We are not dependent on the Israeli taxpayer at all. Our enterprise is run exclusively from private contributions, and we are proud of that. And personally, I am proud that any chutzpadik Haaretz reporter can go to the NGO Registrar and look up my salary, which is completely transparent."

Why do think the IDI won the Israel Prize this year, and what achievements are you particularly proud of?

First, a few introductory remarks. The IDI is a think tank. A think tank is an entity that resides on the seam between the world of ideas and the world of practice. There are 4,000-5,000 think tanks in the world, more than half of which are in the United States. Ninety-five percent have some sort of ideological/political affiliation; 5% do not. IDI belongs to the latter. We are not partisan; we are not affiliated. Our commitment is to professionalism.

Israel is a state in formation, whose democracy is still in its formative stage, with many ills. It could not have been otherwise. When the Jewish people, after 2,000 years, started to exercise political sovereignty, we did not have a tradition of that kind of responsibility. We are a diasporic nation, even today, as we are on the threshold of a third generation here. IDI's mission is to focus on the mid- and long-term, particularly taking into account the fact that public and political agenda in Israel is more overloaded than in any other democracy in the world. As a result, decision-makers, lawmakers, policy-makers and implementers, whoever they are—left, right, center, good ones, less good ones—by necessity, must focus on the here and now. We've seen that most of the energy of any government is spent on damage control, which leaves little left for the mid- and long-term.

Furthermore, Israel does not have a constitution. This means that there are no ground rules for navigating the pressures that stem from the composition of Israeli society, which is comprised of conflicting sectors: Arabs and Jews; secular and religious; newcomers and veterans; haves and have nots; etc. More importantly, we do not have a bill of rights. Herein lies the root of our agenda.

As for our achievements, since our inception, we have published close to 230 accounts and proposals, which have been taken very seriously by different agencies. Today, the fingerprints of our research and strategies for change can be found, for example, in Supreme Court decisions. We also established a new genre in the media, through our magazine, The Seventh Eye. On top of this, we have contributed to the overall discourse through different programs. One is the annual Caesarea Conference—this year will be the 17th—chaired by the finance minister. Another is a program with the IDF General Staff, that has convened at the IDI behind closed doors twice a year for the last 10. And we are now beginning to do the same with two other prominent agencies in Israel, one of which I will refrain from mentioning—but it's a very top defense agency; the other is the Israel Police.

Most organizations that call themselves "non-partisan" are actually on the Left. Isn't the IDI, as well? After all, the editor of your magazine, The Seventh Eye, for instance, is former Haaretz veteran Uzi Benziman. Do you have any right-wing fellows?

Look, it's very hard for me to rebut this claim. But I must underscore that what we look for in our fellows is excellence. And each and every fellow here knows very well that while he is at the IDI, his political views should not come into play. So, I could look at my fellows and researchers, and ask myself who among them is on the Right, but I will not do it. By the same token, I don't know how many women, Arabs or others we have.

Having said all that, the answer is that, yes, we've had a good number of people affiliated with the Right. A clear example: In October, 2006, prime minister Ehud Olmert attended a day of discussions at the IDI called "The Jewish Nature of the State."

What we discussed were the issues that contribute to social malaise in the country. In attendance were leaders from the settlement movement. Since then, the major body with whom we dialogue—and with whom we hope to develop a serious partnership to break through impasses in such issues as conversion and marriage and divorce—is Tzohar [a group of modern-Orthodox rabbis].

It is worth mentioning here that those who signed the proposal to bestow the Israel Prize on the IDI were four individuals: [former Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip head] Bentzi Lieberman, [chairman of the national committee for Arab local authorities] Shawki Khatib, [former mayor of Bnei Brak] Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and [former Labor Party minister] Uzi Baram. So here you have the whole spectrum: a settler, an Arab, an ultra-Orthodox and a liberal.

Why does it matter whether there is a written constitution and bill of rights? Is there really a difference between Israel and the United States in terms of democracy and human rights? And if and when there is a constitution in this country, will it weaken or strengthen the courts?

As far as I'm concerned, having a constitution is an existential necessity, and every day that passes without one further endangers the survival of Israeli society, to the extent that it is equivalent to an external threat like that coming from Iran.

And, yes, there is an enormous difference between American democracy and ours - though, by the way, I do not see America as an example for democracy in any shape or form. Indeed, we at IDI fought against the presidential system and direct election of the prime minister. Israel, by its very composition, must foster and strengthen the nature of parliamentary democracy. This is the only way for it to be inclusive - to create a mechanism that is able to contain all the different segments of society.

Having a bill of rights is equally if not more important, because it would once and for all define the traits of state and religion, the issues of marriage, divorce and conversions and the conflict between Jewishness and democracy. I'm a very strong believer in the necessity to strengthen the Jewish foundation of our state, and to find the equilibrium between Jewishness and democracy. A bill of rights that would adhere to the needs and composition of our society would regulate societal tensions, because it would necessitate compromise.

A constitution is a secular document. Once it exists, it will be an end to the dream that the constitution of Israel is the Bible. In addition, there is a clause in our proposed bill of rights stating that no law can be legislated on the basis of religious motivation. Both of these constitute a large concession on the part of the religious sector.

But major concessions will be made by the secular population, as well. We say that there are four core issues that should be exempt from the constitution: marriage and divorce; conversion; Shabbat; and kashrut observance in official public places. Judicial review will not be exercised on these core issues. Instead, they will remain in the hands of the Knesset. In other words, the four core issues that have to do with our Jewishness will be out of judicial bounds.

As to the question of the power of the courts: I say time and again—and people don't always listen—that the purpose of judicial review is not to challenge the legislature, but rather to force the legislature to produce high-quality legislation. And the more the Knesset invests in quality legislating processes, the less the courts will have to interfere. Furthermore, I strongly believe that the foundation of Israeli democracy is not the court, but the Knesset. The Knesset is the arena where the normative issues are discussed and decided upon. The court has the power to interpret them. Period.

Now, in the absence of a constitution, the Supreme Court entered into a vacuum created by the Knesset. For example, in 1992, the Knesset enacted two basic laws: "Human Dignity and Liberty," and "Freedom of Occupation." Each opened with a preamble stating that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. But the Knesset did not discuss the meaning and ramifications of this statement, or what happens when these two clusters of values come into conflict. Not only that, but both laws were accepted with a tiny minority of MKs—something like 30—present in the hall! Well, the court stepped into that vacuum. Not to my liking, by the way, and I criticized then president of the Supreme Court Aharon Barak for his rhetoric. But, again, that rhetoric emerged in a vacuum created by the Knesset.

Research conducted by [the Daniel Rubinstein chair of comparative civil law and jurisprudence at Tel Aviv University] Prof. Menahem Mautner shows that since the early 1980s, members of the Knesset have submitted hundreds of petitions to the High Court, the majority from the Left. This was a terrible mistake, because it dragged the court into political discourse, an area in which it does not belong. What we need is a very strong Knesset, and a Supreme Court that restrains itself. I believe that with a constitution we would achieve that.

What is your position on the new government's being the largest in the history of the state?

It is a necessity stemming from a political reality that is the outcome of the disaster we inflicted on ourselves in the early 1990s, with the direct election of the prime minister. It was a terrible thing, and we fought against it, because it broke the two major parties, which—between 1977 and 1996—comprised two-thirds of the Knesset. So, Bibi Netanyahu didn't have any alternative to forming this coalition. And I wouldn't finger the size of the government here, but rather the size of the Knesset. With so many ministers and deputies in the government, there are few MKs left to do actual parliamentary work. Worse than that: There are 17 committees in each of which the coalition needs a majority. This means that every MK from the coalition will be sitting on five to eight committees. There's no way even a genius could handle that. I cannot see how appropriate, quality-driven parliamentary work can possibly be achieved now. There is no other parliament on the face of this earth in such a situation.

Since the inception of the state, the Knesset has not achieved one of the two major functions of a parliament—overseeing the government. The number of private bills here is staggering. In a normal parliament, it's the government that proposes the legislation and the parliamentarians who discuss it, which is how quality legislation is created. Here, there have been thousands of private bills proposed by MKs—some totally ridiculous—solely for the purpose of publication. Of those, only a small fraction have been legislated.

Another problem is that here everyone runs for executive positions, not legislative ones. In a booklet that I published a few weeks ago, I proposed increasing the number of MKs. I'm discussing this now with Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin. Remember, Israel is one of the few democracies that has only one chamber; many other democracies have two. I don't see Israel establishing an upper house, but we have to consider seriously what it will take to expand the Knesset.

To summarize, three moves are necessary: reforming the electoral system, so that there are two major blocs into which smaller parties will have to integrate; limiting by law the number of ministers to no more than 18; and increasing the number of MKs free for parliamentarian work.

Which parliamentary democracy in the world would you most like Israel to resemble?

Most of the OECD democracies, particularly those on Israel's side.

The rights of Israel's Arab citizens has been the source of controversy since the establishment of the state. During this last election campaign, the Israel Beiteinu party ran on a platform of "no citizenship without loyalty," and garnered so many seats that its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, was appointed foreign minister. Which is the chicken and which the egg here: Is it Israel's treatment of its Arab population that has led to its siding more with the Palestinians and other hostile states, or has Israel's treatment been necessary, due to what Lieberman sees as a lack of loyalty on the part of the Arab population?

First of all, I don't accept your assumptions, and I deplore and completely reject the phrase that Lieberman used. The first principle of democracy is inclusiveness, without any preconditions. The ultra-Orthodox are not liked by some liberals; women are not liked by some men; and so it goes for various groups in the population. But their belonging cannot be measured by loyalty. This is why the slogan "no citizenship without loyalty" is undemocratic.

Secondly, yes, Arabs have been discriminated against for decades - but not only Arabs. About two-thirds of the population as a whole feel they are being discriminated against.

Isn't that always true of melting-pot societies—that sectors compete for which is more victimized?

Yes, it's a given. And obviously the Arab-Israeli conflict has had a tremendous effect on the discourse in this country. We know that there is a huge difference between the outrageous rhetoric of Arab parliamentarians and what the majority of the Arab public thinks. The Arab MKs—and I am generalizing here—do not represent the will or interests of the Israeli-Arab population. I think they do a disservice to their own people. In our polls, we see consistently that close to 75% of Israeli Arabs do believe in a Jewish and democratic state that provides equality for all its citizens. In other words, they understand that this is the place where the Jewish people exercises its right for self-determination.

If so, why do their voting habits not reflect it?

Let's analyze that. Voter turnout for the municipal elections in the Arab sector is over 90%, but for Knesset elections, it's only around 50%. Look, the Arabs make up one-fifth of the population, which means that the potential for Arab MKs is close to 20. Yet, there are only 10. The explanation is that many Arabs turn their backs on politics.

If all this is true, why do you deplore Lieberman's statements?

I deplore his statements with regard to Arabs. But we dialogue and collaborate with him on the issues of conversion and civil marriage—issues surrounding which Lieberman is fighting a very important struggle.

But don't you think that people who reject the state—whether Arabs or haredim—pose a danger to Israeli democracy?

Of course. And it's a real problem. But the question is how to deal with it. The answer is that you don't deal with it by undermining the very essence of democracy. You don't kill the patient; you try to remedy the ill.

Furthermore, there are laws in the country, and they should be exercised. If someone commits treason, let him be prosecuted.

How much of your expertise on Nazi Germany has shaped your study of and views on democracy? How often do you find yourself comparing the period that led to the Third Reich to what is going on in the world today?

I devoted 17 years of my life to developing tools for subsequent generations to deal with the Nazi phenomenon—the most terrible human phenomenon ever to have occurred in history. The guideline pertaining to the perpetrator has been this: Auschwitz was not another planet, and its perpetrators were human beings like you and me. And if we are to judge it morally, this is the only point of departure from which we can begin to examine what lessons can be learned. There is what I call a "deteriorating continuum of evil," that starts with the human tendency to generalize and stereotype, then to discriminate and commit different types of violence against, and from there to genocide. And I make a distinction between genocide and the Holocaust. The Holocaust is at the very bottom.

In other words, the SS member and I are on the same human continuum, and this is something that seriously guides me.

As for our current situation, there are sometimes signs of the Weimar scene, but that doesn't really worry me. What does is the long road ahead to strengthening our democracy and establishing a tradition of the responsibility involved in sovereignty. And I do see [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad as the Hitler of the 21st century.

On a personal level, as a historian, I investigated the role of universities during the Nazi era, and have been very critical of the role of professors. I thus made a decision that I would not be part of the "ivory tower"—that I would work on the seam—and do everything I can to recruit the know-how and the excellence in the world of ideas for the service of politics.

Finally, I want you to look at this [here he points to a framed photo on the wall above his desk], taken in the late 1930s by a Jewish photographer named Roman Vishniac. With his camera, he documented Eastern European shtetls. This photograph—of a religious Jewish boy on the eve of the Holocaust—has been with me now for 28 years; wherever I go, it goes. I don't know who this boy is, but his smile is the light that is interwoven in our souls as Jews, despite all the difficulties. It is this smile—this sense of optimism—that is embedded in our history and reality. 

This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post and has been reprinted with permission.