When Israel was founded, the intention of her leaders was to create a Constitution that would serve as the Foundation Stone for the Jewish State. They believed in this need for laws that show the world and the generations of Israelis to come, how Israel as a nation defines freedom and democracy. The belief was so strong, they made a point to include it in their founding charter, Israel’s Proclamation of Independence. The authors of that historic document even named the first day of October, 1948 as the date for which the spine of the Jewish State was to be delivered. It never was. For 71 years, Israel has been relying on Ottoman, British Mandate and Jewish Law to serve as the guide for her Judicial system. The Knesset has passed laws and it is up to the courts to determine legality based on texts meant for another time, another country, another people. For 71 years, Israel has been using laws designed to subjugate and oppress and discourage dissent amongst those who dwell within her borders. This might be the extreme but based on the foreign Ottoman and British interest in controlling the region, the previous sentence is fact.
Today, Israel is a couple of months away from its second election of the year, a product of a stalemate, no doubt, with roots that can trace their way back to October 1, 1948. The country is paralyzed, held captive by conflicting ideologies on the kind of country Israel should be, no doubt, with roots that trace their way back to that missed opportunity as well. Economically, Israel has a bloated bureaucracy that is riddled with corruption and financial mismanagement; an overtaxed minority workforce accounts for a majority of the Tax revenue, revenue which is needed to support an adamantly unemployed population nearing twenty percent.
Every country is flawed, no system is perfect and no government or laws will be agreeable for everyone. Even America is divided politically, with a vibrant, young progressive-minded electorate emerging to challenge the status quo socially and alter America’s national identity, politically. The situation with Israel is different, though. Israel was never given an identity, the founders determined that numerous questions were too difficult to answer in the beginning, and each successive government since the first has just the same. Yes, Israel is the Nation State of the Jewish People, it is more of a fact than a law, and what that fact actually means is a very toxic discussion.
Without any formal constitution, Israeli politicians often turn to the text of the 1948 Proclamation when justifying a stance on some position, a fatal flaw as the Proclamation is the “Why” whereas the Constitution is the “How.” In the Proclamation however, Israel’s founders do outline what type of State they envision, and they do so in the same breath where they direct a constitutional convention and place a deadline on the process. The official Israeli English translation states:
“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it 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; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions…”
Based on this paragraph, it is easy to ascertain the motives of those who fought to bring a Jewish homeland to the world on the same soil as their ancestors. As a post-World War Two country who’s founding was in part planned and supported by Western Democracies, the Israeli founders believed in a more modern approach, allowing inclusion of all the varieties of Jews that wandered the earth. As with America’s founding fathers, they envisioned laws rooted in the Laws’ of Moses but not too much that it would turn the Nation into a religious state. Israel’s founders looked to the laws of the West in writing this, and it is clear they favored a secular State with religious freedoms for all.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the chief architects of America’s foundational laws believed strongly in their faith. They also believed strongly that the intertwining of religion into a governing structure would corrupt the purity of the freedoms they based their dissolution from England on. From human history they learned a State should not do the bidding of a God, noting that rarely has anything positive ever come from that. And the citizens of the State should be allowed to honor God, to follow God in the manner that suits the individual without unreasonable restriction. Israel’s founders saw this as important as well although the task was too big given the realities of the first year of Israel’s existence.
So, how did that first day of October, 1948 pass with no Constitution? The fear that the State would fail before it even had a chance to begin was the driving force. The State was new and war raged on, Israel needed bodies. They needed the Exiles to gather and build the nation but feared without religious support they would not be successful. The Agudath Israel movement, created in Europe prior to the first World War, represented the religious and was comprised of many factions, the modern Orthodox from Germany and the many ultra-orthodox sects from Eastern Europe. Many secular Jews deferred to Agudath Israel and specifically, the local groups that comprised it on all Jewish related matters.
The ultra-orthodox sects were concerned about the loss of tradition through modernization. They wanted to rebuild the life Hitler destroyed and honor those he killed by keeping to tradition and that meant not modernizing or assimilating to contribute to a modern, secular culture. It was these factions which effectively held up the constitutional process. Throughout Israel’s young history, splinter groups have extorted governing coalitions for preferential treatment of their constituents to the disadvantage of their fellow citizenry. The irony is that too-many ultra-orthodox do not believe ideologically in the Jewish State, and yet so much consideration for their way of life was given to them by the founders and the governments which came after.
Earlier this week Israel’s friend the United States, led by a man who arguably is Israel’s favorite American President of all time, issued a report that criticized Israel’s religious freedoms. The report was critical of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate owning civil functions such as marriage, divorce and Jewish burials as well as poor bureaucratic treatment of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish Israeli citizens. It should be an alarm that within a year of America moving her Embassy to Jerusalem and officially recognizing the Israeli Golan as sovereign land, America is raising the alarm. The Israeli government can downplay the significance of the report, it will not alter the fact that Israel is governed by laws that were not intended for a sovereign nation living and governing themselves.
Israel needs a Constitution of her own. What that looks like is not important, the process of creating it and following through on delivering it is. The end result will serve to ensure Israel’s future is not always shadowed by its past.