Yohanan Plesner

Let’s heed the prophets of Israel

The Declaration of Independence expresses a deep commitment to freedom, justice and peace in the spirit of the vision of the Biblical prophets, those semi-tragic figures who rebuked the people and their leaders for their behavior. Or in other words, the gatekeepers.

“The State of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” (Israel’s Declaration of Independence)

Israel is engulfed in conflict. At the time of this writing, it remains unclear what the celebrations of Israel’s 75th Independence Day will look like. Will we mark the occasion as one, sharing our common belief in the justness of our cause and in our common goal, as befits a state that has bravely survived so many wars and struggles and maintained its own unique character? Or will we mark it with continuing protests and demonstrations, under a hovering cloud that casts a dark shadow over our democracy?

Our present situation demands that we revisit Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Doing so reminds us again of the remarkable circumstances in which our founding fathers drew up this document – facing a truly existential war with no certainly as to whether the tiny country could survive—and produced a Declaration that even today, decades later, serves as a source of inspiration and vision.

The sentence “The State of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” is one of the most quoted phrases of the Declaration and is often referenced in stormy debates in the Knesset, in television and radio panel discussions, and, these days, at public protests. And with good reason: This concise commitment distills the yearnings, aspirations, and core values of the State of Israel, both Jewish and democratic, universal and particularistic. The first part of the sentence (the foundations of freedom, justice, and peace) is aligned with the universal principles to which the Jewish state was obligated under the terms of UN Resolution 181 (the Partition Plan), while the second half (the vision of the prophets of Israel) presents the unique connection of these values to Jewish heritage. But what exactly does this mean?

To me, the prophets of Israel represent what today we call “gatekeepers,” those entrusted with protecting the State of Israel’s core moral, ethical and legal values, and who stand up and defend the State of Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state. In the Bible, the prophets were usually unpopular, certainly among leaders, but also among the people. They would warn of dangers at the city gates, expose corruption, and berate the people and their leaders for their behavior. For example, the prophet Nathan sharply rebuked King David for sending Uriah to his death so he could take his wife, using the parable of the lamb (2 Samuel 12:1-4). And many of us can quote the words of Elijah to King Ahab, who had Naboth killed so that he could take his vineyard: “Shall you murder and also inherit?” (1 Kings 21:17-19)

The universal values on which the State of Israel was founded echo the opening sentence of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The trilogy of values cited in the Declaration of Independence – freedom, justice, and peace – represent the three circles of freedom of human existence: the freedom to live according to one’s preferences and beliefs; the freedom from oppression and arbitrariness at the hands of the ruling powers; and the freedom to express one’s views and opinions without fear.

The most universal and Jewish law passed in Israel so far is the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which rests on the recognition that all men were created in the Divine image. Paradoxically, instead of serving as a shared platform for all Israel’s citizens, regardless of religion, race, or gender, it is this law that has become the subject of fierce disagreement.

The first section of the law states, “Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon the recognition of the value of each and every human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all individuals are free; and they shall be upheld in the spirit of the principles included in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.”

The phrase “free people” (in Hebrew, ben-horin, which in the Passover Haggadah refers to the Jewish people’s freedom from bondage in Egypt) imbues the law with the historical memory of a people who were under foreign rule and were freed from slavery. Justice is the value that embodies the relationships among individuals and between individuals and the State. As the political philosopher John Rawls has explained, justice is closely linked to people’s sense of fairness (“justice as fairness” is Rawls’s phrase). In Israel’s political and civic culture, there is often confusion between “being right” and “acting justly (and fairly),” as the two words share a common root in Hebrew. Often, those who believe they are right, forget to act with fairness, patience, empathy, and compassion toward those they believe are not right.

Justice in relations between the state and its citizens is embodied more than anything else in the activities of the judicial system. Thus, it is difficult to understand how this system has become, for certain sections of the public and certain politicians, an enemy of the people. The courts are charged with ensuring justice for citizens, equal and fair treatment, and a fair distribution of resources, and with combatting discrimination, which deals such a severe blow to our sense of fairness and degrades human dignity. Is it not the case that those who seek to constrain the independence of the courts, seek, in fact, to undermine the principle of justice?

Again and again, we see new incarnations of hatred against the prophets of Israel, as the obligation to act justly is rooted in the foundations of Jewish tradition. The justice system operates according to the commandment given in the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous.” Given that it is charged with enforcing the principles of justice, it is no surprise that there are those who seek to undermine a system that is not deterred by power and office and is subservient to nothing except to the law itself.

The value of peace on which the State of Israel was founded from the beginning, has faded from public and political discourse in recent decades, and one cannot help but wonder whether the waning of the efforts to reach a peace agreement with our enemies reflects also an inability to maintain peace within the Israeli public.

Recently, we have seen just how deep the internal rifts are in Israeli society. Two years ago, riots in mixed Arab-Jewish cities scarred the relations between Israel’s Arab citizens and their Jewish neighbors and this year’s protests against the “judicial reforms” / “regime revolution” have highlighted a growing polarization that may prove irreversible. However, the State of Israel has faced many severe crises and overcome them all. Hopefully, then, the current crisis will give rise to a new vision of peace among us, and in time, of peace between us and our neighbors.

Right now, a fierce battle is being waged over the values of the Declaration of Independence and how to interpret them. This is a difficult and complex argument, but the principles should be clear to us all. As Israel turns 75, we must ensure that the country continues on the path of freedom, justice and peace, and that the modern-day prophets – our gatekeepers – continue to fearlessly defend these principles and values.

About the Author
Yohanan Plesner is the President of the Israel Democracy Institute. He served as a Member of Knesset for the Kadima party from 2007–2013. He lives in Hod HaSharon with his wife and four daughters.