In 1850, tensions in the US Senate over the issue of slavery were reaching a boiling point. On April 17, a fierce debate between Missouri Senator Thomas Hard Benton and Mississippi Senator Henry Foote escalated, despite Vice President Fillmore’s desperate attempts to impose order. The portly senator from Missouri charged up the Senate aisle at the diminutive senator from Mississippi, who promptly pulled his loaded pistol. “I have no pistols!” shouted Benton, “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!” Foote eventually surrendered his weapon and Benton escaped unharmed. But far worse violence was soon to follow.
The angry chaos on the floor of the US Senate in this period is instructive because, like the ongoing legal turmoil in Israel, it took place as the country approached the 75th anniversary of its independence. The constitutional issues that prompted these crises were not new. They did not suddenly emerge out of the blue, three-quarters of a century after the creation of the United States and Israel respectively. Nor were they the simple products of malice or incompetence by leaders, though such leaders certainly provided windows of opportunity. Rather, these crises were the result of fundamental tensions that both countries had failed to resolve in their founding decades while their attentions had been consumed with national survival.
In their first decades, the United States and Israel, like all young countries, focused their policies on external threats. Consider how similar the US and Israel were and are in this regard. By age 75, the United States had fought and survived a series of difficult wars to secure its borders: Against Great Britain (1775-1783), briefly against France (1798-1800), against Britain again (1812-1815), and against Mexico (1846-1848). It had now signed peace agreements with all of its primary rivals. Though fierce campaigns against Apache and Navajo tribes would continue into the 20th century, the “American Indian Wars” were now contained in the western-most states.
When California joined the Union, in September 1850, the continental US achieved its current shape and size. Like Israel today, it would continue to face many distant enemies and foreign wars in years to come, including the daunting threat of nuclear war, If before parties had risen and fallen based on their foreign policy or grand strategy, now elections hinged on domestic and constitutional issues that had festered under the surface. If before deep social divisions were set aside so that the nation could unite to face its enemies, peace allowed social fissures to reemerge with a vengeance. This should sound familiar to all observers of recent elections and recent crises in Israel, the first of their kind not to revolve around the Arab or Palestinian issue. Though Israel continues to face security challenges, the end of the Arab-Israeli wars has created a novel opportunity for Israelis to turn inward and see whether their house is in order.
What they found was turmoil, disunity, and a neglect of fundamental constitutional concerns including checks and balances, separation of powers, and religions vs. state. Here too a comparison with the US is instructive. It is easy to forget how fragile a democracy the United States was on its 75th anniversary. Only 12 of the 27 constitutional amendments known to us today had been proposed or ratified by that point in its history. Key concerns relating to abolition, due process, equal protection, suffrage, and taxation had not yet been addressed, let alone resolved. Neither the size of the Supreme Court, nor the direct election of senators, nor had the order of succession to the US president been determined prior to 1850. It would take another 70 years before women would be granted the right to vote.
It is good and natural for young states to transition from the “emergency politics” of their founding years, when they are embroiled in wars of survival, and onto the “normal politics” that characterize mature states. Yet the history of the US holds a dire warning for Israelis. Normal party politics can be as dangerous as the emergency politics of wartime. Whereas some of the issues at stake might only involve marginal preferences (be it a national prohibition on alcohol or a ban on bread in hospitals during Passover) and merely hint at deep underlying disagreements, other contentious debates expose the most difficult and fundamental cleavages in society.
In Israel, these dividing lines — between rich and poor, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrachi, religious and secular, core and periphery, Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli, men and women — have been ignored for too long. Those who believe that the crisis in Israel today is merely about Netanyahu, reform, or corruption severely underestimate its significance and perils. It is a crisis about Israel’s democratic identity, 75 years in the making.
If ever there was an urgency to negotiate a new social contract that can bridge the fault lines that divide Israeli society, this is it. On the 75th anniversary of the United States, the most divisive issue was slavery. A mere decade after the standoff between then-senators Foote and Benton, it engulfed the United States in its deadliest conflict, consuming more American lives than all of its prior and subsequent wars combined (including both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam). The United States was 85 years old when that terrible war tore the nation apart. On Israel’s 75th birthday, Israelis should take heed.