We, The Israeli People

The push for a document to bind a fractured society

For five years, IDI fellows, under the leadership of former President of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, worked on the daunting task of drafting a constitution for Israel. In an article in The Jewish Week, IDI's Uri Dromi reflects on the process.

Twenty years ago I felt I did something very meaningful for the State of Israel. Flying as a navigator in a C-130 Hercules, as part of Operation Moses, I helped bring 100 Ethiopian Jews from an airstrip in the desert of Sudan straight to Ben Gurion Airport. I had flown in wars and in numerous operational missions, but nothing moved me and gave me such satisfaction and pride as watching my fellow Jewish brothers and sisters kissing the ground of Eretz Yisrael. At that time I believed I would never be able to perform a greater service for my country.

I was wrong. Bringing the Ethiopian Jews home was phenomenal, but soon it occurred to me that fixing that home was no less important. I learned it the hard way. Between 1992 and 1995, as the director of the Government Press Office under the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, I was a witness to significant processes the government initiated under Rabin's leadership for three large segments of the public: the religious, the Arabs, and the settlers. I learned that, in the absence of an embracing super-framework, some set of rules of the game approved by all, Israeli society might fall apart.

At the beginning of Rabin's premiership, then-minister Shimon Shetreet initiated a process of reform in the Religious Councils. The reform was necessary and intended to correct an insufferable situation: the waste of public funds and corruption that hastened the aversion to religion by large secular sectors of the public.

Quickly, however, the process was portrayed as an attempt by a "secular" government to harm the religious communities, and it turned into a focus for political struggle. If there had been an a priori agreement regarding the proper balance between state and religion (a Constitution), it would have been possible to lessen the alienation that developed as a result of the governmental process.

The Rabin government also turned its attention to the Arab sector, in a way no government had. Yet, this change of attitude only emphasized the depth of the inequality experienced by Israeli Arabs over the years. I thought then that if the rights of this important minority would have been recognized in an organized manner, and not given to the whims of random politicians, this minority would have felt a greater sense of belonging to the Israeli society.

And finally, with the Oslo process, a great rift was created between the Rabin government and the large public of settlers and their supporters. In an atmosphere of unprecedented incitement, Israeli society was torn and dragged to violence, which culminated with the assassination of the prime minister. Not only in hindsight, but even during those very days, I hoped for any type of framework through which we could "agree on how to disagree."

When I joined the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) in 1996, I realized that this was the place not only to think about the problem, but also to do something about it. In the last five years, fellows of the institute, under the leadership of former president of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, have taken upon themselves the awesome task of drafting a constitution for Israel. Today, we have a draft constitution, and I'm very proud of it.

First, because of the process itself. We, fellows at IDI, started to examine and study each and every article and chapter of the proposed constitution. Our experts scrutinized for us every constitution in the free world, to ensure that we learn from the experience of others and avoid their mistakes. Then we debated it until we reached an agreement, which usually was a compromise. We called the whole endeavor a "Constitution by Consensus," because we didn't believe we should enforce it on unwilling people.

But reaching a consensus within IDI wasn't enough. Therefore, we created a Public Council of 100 members, comprised of the best people we could have gathered — politicians, political scientists, jurists, philosophers, sociologists, intellectuals at-large, and people representing a wide spectrum of the society, like Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and others. Every chapter we have finished was debated within this able group for two consecutive days, and the remarks of the participants were processed and incorporated in our continuous work.

As an example of how sensitive and delicate this process was, let me mention two Israeli leaders who participated in our Public Council deliberations: the ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Rabbi Avraham Ravitz and an Israeli Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi. You can hardly find two people in Israel whose visions of our common future are so wide apart.

If Rabbi Ravitz had his way, he would have liked Israel to become a halachic state, in which everybody would have to eat kosher, marry and divorce in rabbinical courts only, refrain from driving on Sabbath, etc. Needless to say, many in Israel would find this unacceptable. Yet the rabbi is sitting in the Knesset, using his political leverage to keep Israel as close as possible to his dream.

Tibi has a totally different agenda. As an Israeli Arab who feels he belongs to the Palestinian people, he is torn apart. First, there is the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which puts him and the rest of the one million Arab citizens of Israel in a delicate position. As one of the leaders of the Arab community in Israel has put it, "My country is at war with my people."'

Yet on a deeper, more basic level, Tibi has a problem with the whole idea of Israel being a Jewish state. Of course, as a democrat he accepts the fact that the Jewish majority can rule, but he feels that by defining the state as Jewish, the Arab minority is immediately discriminated. If he had all the political power he wanted, Tibi would have stripped Israel of many of its Jewish characteristics.

This phenomenon is not unique to Israel. There are in the United States enough groups that, if given the freedom to take the country their way, would have turned it into something that might have repulsed many other Americans. Native Americans, Mormons, Brooklyn chasidic Jews, Bible Belt evangelists, die-hard liberals and many others — all have their dream of how America should look.

Yet above all these groups there hovers the U.S. Constitution, reminding them that there is a limit to their ambition to mold America into something that will fully satisfy them. That is the beauty of the Constitution: It allows all these groups to live together peacefully, reassuring them that no one will monopolize America some day. And that is exactly what's missing in Israel.

Ravitz and Tibi may stand for two groups that are peripheral in Israeli society and are, like many minority groups elsewhere, more vocal in their attempts to tilt the society toward their direction. Yet in the middle, there nests the silent Israeli majority, which is fed up with being pulled to any extreme. We, at IDI, believe that we gave this silent majority a voice.

So now we have a draft. Many people have already criticized it. Orthodox Jews think the constitution is not Jewish enough. Non-Orthodox Jews, on the other hands, find it to be too Jewish. Arabs attack it because it reaffirms the Jewish nature of the state. Nationalists and right-wingers suspect it favor the Arabs too much, by highlighting the ideal of equality. Some people believe we had entrusted too much power in the hands of the Supreme Court. Reform Jews are disappointed because we have left out of the constitution some core religion and state issues, which, they claim, secure in the hands of the Orthodox in Israel the ultimate veto power in this arena; and so on and so forth.

Despite different groups criticizing our work, gradually they will feel the moderating effect of the process we have gone through and come to accept this uneasy compromise. Why? Because, rhetoric aside, deep in their hearts they know that a constitution will do their minority groups a lot of good: It will secure their rights and protect them from the arbitrariness of the majority. It won't give them the "perfect" Israel they want, but it will guarantee for them an Israel in which they would feel at home. 

This article was first published in The Jewish Week on May 30, 2006. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's own personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Israel Democracy Institute.