Israel has never had a calm political system, with the turmoils often coming because of internal disputes around the character befitting a Jewish state. This was true when governments fought over defining Shabbat in the public sphere; it was true when they argued about how to treat non-Orthodox Jewish denominations; and it is also true now, as the “Jewish state” bill threatens to tear apart the coalition.
Many prominent figures have written about the bill. Some have argued it is needed in order to maintain Israel’s Jewish character as the idea of a nation-state is on a decline, as well as in the domestic judicial system. Others have spoken out against it, saying Israel should be “reaffirming” its democratic values, not strengthening the Jewish ones. A third group has said that while such a law was needed, the current legislation was far from perfect and needs to be amended.
But all of these arguments, as punctuated and thorough as they may be, seem to miss the main point. Everyone keeps addressing the proposed legislation instead of the key issue. They’re treating the symptom, not the disease: the real issue is that Israel has no constitution, and no idea what that constitution should look like.
In a country as complex as Israel, there is a need to make clear what the basic assumptions – and rules – are. The first document to try and define these crucial guidelines was Israel’s Declaration of Independence. And, while the declaration names Israel as the Jewish homeland, it also states Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
With time, Israel grew up and developed as a “Jewish and Democratic” state, two sets of values living side by side. And though the declaration was viewed by the courts as an important and guiding document, many of the statements in it weren’t given legal status. That changed slightly over 20 years ago, with the introduction of Israel’s “Basic Laws”, meant to be a legislative alternative to a constitution.
Some of the politicians backing the current Jewish state bill have said it was needed to act along with, and complete, the two main Basic Laws which are meant to defend fundamental democratic rights of individuals. These laws have a special legislative status, overruling other legislation and needing special Knesset majorities to change them.
However, these laws were legislated over 20 years ago in order to fill a void left by the lack of a constitution. Any attempt to legislate yet another law at their statutory level is another way of avoiding the confrontation bound to take place if a proper constitution was ever proposed. In fact, since its creation, Israel has searched for a way to word a constitution that pleases everyone – and chosen the easy way of procrastinating and not adopting one.
In a sense, it’s like trying to mend a broken leg by using a Band Aid. The person sticking the plaster might feel like he’s doing something big, but the real damage isn’t being treated – and it will just get worse with time.
Israel needs a constitution, one that will cement its Jewish and Democratic character and ideals in binding terms, both legal and moral. They must be said side by side, word by word, on the same piece of paper. Having separate laws dealing with each (Democratic/Jewish) is bound to do the opposite – it will continue to fuel the dispute between those who say Israel must be only one, and those who say Israel must be only the other.
Instead of arguing for this bill or that, we should argue for one legislative move — an Israeli constitution.