Israel at 60: On the Road to Democratic Maturity

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Israel, at 60 years of age this month, exemplifies a young and democratic "work in progress." In this op-ed, Barak Cohen discusses how Israel's lack of a constitution manifests itself today as unanswered fundamental questions of seemingly irreconcilable identities. These essential question and tensions must be confronts, including political and social stability, effective and accountable governance, the proper balancing of religion and state, and more. The steps of progress and maturity have to consist of compromises and rationality.

Perhaps the most commonly quoted words of American President Abraham Lincoln spoke to the essence of the democratic regime: "Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people." These elegantly crafted words represent an ideal. Yet, the reality is far more complex within the churning, often unstable world of fledgling democracies. Israel, at just 60 years of age this month, exemplifies a young, democratic "work in progress."

Having missed its historical moment for the enactment of a constitution upon the state's founding in 1948, successive Israeli societies have made due with an organic composite of rights and laws. Many of the fundamental questions of identity, therefore, remain unanswered. The ground rules for peaceful and prosperous coexistence among the countries diverse citizenry are yet to be established. For example: What does it mean that Israel is both a "Jewish and a Democratic State," as stated in Israel's Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty? Can these two identities be reconciled? If so, can it be assumed that the Jewish majority of the state agrees to a common definition of "Jewishness"?

It is not uncommon to see the tension implicit in these questions played out in the Israeli public sphere. Frequent condemnations can be heard from the Arab sector, directed at those who claim the possibility of harmony between Judaism and democracy. For many Arabs, inequalities felt in their daily lives discredit the potential for this union. Their grievances proclaim that democracies have a responsibility not only to reflect the will of the majority- who do indeed desire that Israel remain a Jewish state- but also to protect the rights and dignity of non-Jewish individuals and minority groups. Finding this balance provides a unique and rigorous challenge to Israeli legislators and the judiciary.

When it comes to the question of what comprises "Jewishness," there is vigilant disagreement among Israelis. The definition of Jewish in Israel- for the purposes of marriage, divorce, and conversion- is currently set according to traditional Jewish law, called Halacha. A Jew, from this Orthodox viewpoint, is one who has a Jewish mother, or who underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism. This poses tremendous difficulties for those Israelis who consider themselves Jewish, but are not considered Jewish by Halachic standards. This group includes hundreds of thousands of Israelis who immigrated or found refuge in Israel under the Law of Return, as a "child or grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew (or) the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew."Law of Return (Amendment No. 2) 1970 These Israelis-who often serve in the Army, embrace the Israeli narrative as their own, and live traditional Jewish lifestyles- find themselves stuck in a cleavage between official recognition by the state, and a painful shunning by the Orthodox establishment. This is especially critical due to the vital institutions controlled by the Orthodox: marriage, divorce, and conversion.

These two brief, yet all too pertinent examples remind us that as we celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary this month, with all of its deserved fanfare, we cannot forget the essential questions and tensions lying unresolved at the heart of Israeli society. In addition to our widely known regional and geopolitical difficulties, we must confront our internal shortcomings and ambiguities as well. Political and social stability, effective and accountable governance, the proper balancing of religion and state, and a multiplicity of other domestic priorities must be acknowledged in order to celebrate Israel's 'diamond' anniversary with a sense of growing national maturity.

With no constitution to help Israeli society navigate its multifarious domestic terrain, countless groups vie for control of the national compass. Each anticipates that its own worldview will eventually triumph. On April 15th, to mark the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, representatives of the Arab sector, right-wing settler movement, feminist left, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish worlds gathered in Jerusalem to present their visions of Israeli identity. Their voices were only a small sampling of the myriad of conflicting interests active within the Israeli social and political framework.

The lively debate, a briefing for the international diplomatic corps at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), highlighted the unique challenges faced by Israeli democracy. Deep rifts and conflicting visions make this discussion exceedingly difficult and therefore, unfortunately, infrequent in the public arena. As a meeting place for open discussion, collaboration and compromise, the IDI provides a non-partisan forum for Israeli society to come together, in true democratic spirit, to discuss its most hallowed values and institutions.

Over the course of the IDI briefing, the question of the creation of an Israeli constitution took center stage. Hundreds of politicians, political scientists, jurists, religious scholars, philosophers, sociologists and intellectuals-at-large have embraced the challenge of drafting an Israeli constitution. None of their creations achieved even a first reading in the Knesset. One possible explanation lay in the pain of consensus. It is easier to live without a constitution- to maintain the status quo- rather than expose your grand vision to the threat of pragmatism.

However, a democracy facing modern day challenges requires not only the dreams and philosophies of its idealists, but also the painful compromise and rationality of its citizens and their elected leaders. One such leader, Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson, Chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, told meeting participants that he believes a first reading of an Israeli constitution will take place in 2008. Although this reading is one of numerous steps required for the ratification of a constitution, it is the first and most fundamental step.

With this 60th year of Israel's existence, let us hope that the vital dialogues surrounding Israeli identity continue. The tension and strain of a heart-felt debate are proof of a healthy democratic culture. And, if all goes well, an Israeli constitution will provide us with an internal fortitude, a form of national inoculation, which would take us into the coming 60 years better prepared to face both the obvious and unforeseen challenges that await us.

The more opinions expressed, compromises formulated, and sound policies enacted, the closer Israel moves towards national maturity. If indeed democracy is a system of government "of the people, by the people, and for the people", then all those who care about this country's direction should find their voices, work towards the improvement of our nation, and- one day soon- take pride in living in an Israeli society that reflects the ideas, efforts, and consensus of its citizens. 

Barak Cohen is a Jerusalem-based columnist and writer for the Israeli Democracy Institute.