Michael Boyden

Israel Needs a Constitution

The calm that has fallen upon our beleaguered country since a temporary halt was put on the government’s legislative plans should not deceive anyone.

The phrase “The calm before the storm” was first used some two hundred years ago by the author Jeremiah Jingle. Sailors are well familiar with the phenomenon and know that it does not herald settled waters ahead but rather the onset of a storm. This is the time to batten down the hatches and shorten sail.

As a nation, our political leaders should be using this lull not to formulate strategies, but to ensure that a compromise can be reached. After all, this is not weather over which we have no control but the actions of human beings.

This should not be the time for a battle between Right and Left in Israel’s fraught political arena, but rather an opportunity for our country to draft a constitution aimed at addressing the issues currently in dispute.

The events of the past forty-eight hours should have reminded our leaders that we cannot afford the luxury of tearing our nation apart.

Already back in 1949, when the State of Israel had only just achieved its independence, it was the Left-wing prime minister Ben Gurion who opposed the formulation of a constitution and argued in favour of the supremacy of the parliamentary process as well as popular authority, and the utter rejection of the possibility of investing judges with the power to overthrow laws duly passed by the Knesset. (It sounds just like Israel’s present Likkud-led Government!)

Those in power, it would appear, inevitably seek to oppose the efforts of those who would restrain them.

It is, therefore, natural that the calls for a constitution are coming from the Opposition.

More than sixty years ago Menachem Begin suggested that Israel draft a constitution. In addressing the Knesset in 1956, when he had just become Leader of the Opposition for the first time, he asked:

“Why don’t we have a constitution? … We don’t we have a legal document … defining and regularizing the authority of the branches of government, their separation from one another and reciprocal influence, the rights of citizens and their obligations.”

Now the boot is on the other foot. As ever, the Government wants unlimited power, while the Opposition seeks to restrain it.

Rather than concentrating on the Government’s legislative plans, those of good will on both sides of the House should be sitting down to draft a constitution for Israel. It is long overdue and might help turn Israel into the kind of democracy that we would wish it to be.

True. England doesn’t have a constitution, but, as Begin remarked, Israel does not have an uninterrupted legal tradition extending back hundreds of years that has defined the relationship between legislature and judiciary. Now is the time for us to act before it is too late.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.