Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Cause for Optimism?

Cover of vol.1 of 'Selected Knesset Debates,' photo by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Whether it’s because I have an M.A. in Communications (with a thesis on the language of the news) or am simply a glutton for punishment, I find it impossible to cut myself off from the nightly news broadcasts on television. The anchormen and women do their best to present the facts in measured tones, keeping personal views out of the picture, but once they are surrounded by a panel of journalists and pundits with varying political views all hell generally breaks loose. No one has the patience to hear anyone else’s opinion, and the moderators invariably find themselves trying in vain to keep some semblance of order and civilized debate as everyone keeps interrupting everyone else.

It’s then that I switch from one channel to another in the hope of finding some modicum of decent behaviour, but am generally disappointed. In Israel there are several channels presenting the evening news at more or less the same time, and when the level of argumentation gets too unbearably high I sometimes seek respite in one of the remoter channels, such as the one about travel to distant lands, the one about advances in medicine, or the one with demonstrations of how to roast a joint of meat.

Recently, 12th September, in an unprecedented event, we were ‘treated’ to a full day of live TV coverage of the review by Israel’s Supreme Court. The subject was the appeal against the revocation of the amendment regarding the concept of Reasonableness as a criterion for striking down or accepting a law. According to Wikipedia, “In constitutional and administrative law, reasonableness is a lens through which courts examine the constitutionality or lawfulness of legislation.” Israel has no written constitution, and consequently it is the concept of lawfulness that has to be considered.

Because the issue is regarded as being of paramount importance for current and future legislation, TV cameras were allowed into the inner sanctum of the Supreme Court, where all fifteen Supreme Court justices sat in judgement – another unprecedented event.

The case for the government, namely, in favour of striking down the concept of Reasonableness, was a distinguished and capable lawyer, Ilan Bombach, while a number of lawyers presented the case for retaining it. What struck me as I watched the proceedings (admittedly not for the full thirteen hours) was the happy realisation that it is still possible in Israel to have a reasoned and civilized discussion about issues which are of salient importance. Mr. Bombach presented his case in measured tones, and the justices asked him questions or made comments in a way that was neither heated nor inciting.

In the course of his argument Mr. Bombach stated that the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, drawn up and issued on 14th May 1948 and signed by the thirty-seven member of the People’s Council (the predecessor of the Knesset) was not legally binding in a court of law or the Knesset. This view was criticized by the justices, and was later retracted by Mr. Bombach. That Declaration states inter alia, that the Jewish people, though exiled by force, kept faith with their land in all the countries of their dispersion..and in recent generations came home in their multitude. It goes on to state in paragraph thirteen: “The State of Israel will be open to Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the exiles. It will devote itself to developing the land for the good of all its inhabitants. It will rest upon the foundations of liberty, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel. It will ensure complete equality of social and political rights for all its citizens, irrespective of creed, race or sex. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture. It will safeguard the holy places of all religions. It will be loyal to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

It so happens that I possess all six volumes of the English edition of ‘Major Knesset Debates,’ most of which I translated several years ago (edited by Netanel Lorch). I have studied the Hebrew and English versions of the Declaration of Independence therein and must admit that no mention is made of Israel being founded on democratic principles, although the content of paragraph thirteen and the reference to the Charter of the United Nations imply this.

Mr. Bombach and several justices referred to Israel as being a Jewish and democratic country, and this seems to be generally taken for granted. Now all that remains is to define democracy, and everything will fall into place. Unfortunately, opinions still seem to be divided in Israel as to what democracy means, and whether Israel is a country in which the rule of law prevails, and by whom it should be upheld. This constitutes the basis of the issue which is currently dividing the country, and it is up to the Supreme Court to clarify the issue.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.