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Yedidia Stern
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Restoring the covenant of fate

In order to renew trust in the future of our democracy, Israel must regulate the distribution of powers among the branches of government

A year we would like to forget is ending. Three-quarters of the Israeli public feel that the country’s situation has worsened over the past year. A large majority of those who voted for the governing coalition (61%) and a huge majority of opposition voters (93%) share this view (Kan News survey). Accordingly, we will usher in the Jewish new year with the traditional greeting, but with greater intensity: “May the year with its curses end, and the new year with its blessings begin.”

It must be admitted that this optimistic and comforting saying rings a bit hollow. Why would the mere turning of a calendar page affect reality? It is more likely that the worst days of the dark storm beating down on us lie ahead. The centrifugal forces driving Israel’s “tribes” apart, to the point of calls for separation, show no sign of abating.

In order for the ill wind of the Hebrew year 5783 not to become a hurricane that devastates Israel’s future in 5784, action must be taken based on a correct framing of current developments. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, more than half a century ago, proposed such a framework. He distinguished between two covenants that characterize the Jewish people: a covenant of destiny that undergirds a shared vision of the future (as offered on Mount Sinai), and a covenant of fate founded on identification and belonging that binds individuals into a single collective (as in the Exodus from Egypt).

Is there a covenant of destiny in Israel today? Most Israelis stand behind Israel’s definitional identity as a “Jewish and democratic” state, but they are divided, according to their respective identity groups, over the true meaning of that definition. Regarding the country’s Jewishness, some emphasize demography – a state of Jews; some emphasize nationality – a state where the Jewish people can exercise its right to self-determination; some emphasize culture – only here can Hebrew culture flourish; others emphasize religion and its influence on the public sphere. There is also disagreement over what it means to be a democratic state: some emphasize the formal aspect of elections and procedures; some emphasize the commitment to a specific value system and culture; and some believe that democracy requires giving up any Jewish-particularistic dimension to how the state is run.

Sometimes the dispute over the covenant of destiny is suppressed (the “melting pot”), and sometimes it is celebrated (“multiculturalism”). Sometimes it seems to subside, and a “Jewish spectrum” of observance and engagement is accepted. Be that as it may, the dispute fuels an “Israeli melancholy” as none of the various identity groups can “fully” realize the vision it regards as optimal. But the controversy also fuels Israeli vitality, making life here fascinating and rewarding.

And what about the covenant of fate? The history of modern nationalism shows that the establishment of nation-states has usually been accompanied by civil war. In the United States, for instance, over 600,000 soldiers perished in the war between the North and the South. The Zionist movement is an exception: we managed to establish the State of Israel without large-scale bloodshed between fellow Jews (notwithstanding, of course, the Saison and the Altalena). We owed this lack of intra-Jewish conflict to a stable covenant of fate.

The covenant of fate is the secret recipe that has made Israel a phenomenal success, despite our lack of consensus regarding destiny. Again and again, we have rallied – that is the correct word – for joint action out of a deep solidarity we generally perceived as unconditional. The covenant of fate has driven the Zionist movement since its inception; it motivated the halutzim – the pioneers who built the state; the Yishuv; the unimaginable sacrifice of the War of Independence; the return to Zion; the absorption of massive waves of immigration – from the ashes of Europe, from hostile Arab countries, from a collapsing Soviet Union, from an Ethiopia hungry for bread.

It was the covenant of fate that made it possible to rebuild the Torah world lost in the Holocaust, and to renew the Hebrew culture that was silenced in exile. The covenant of fate is the engine that allowed a shattered people to become a military, economic, and scientific power.

The dramatic development of this last year was that, for the first time in our history, the dispute over destiny has shaken the covenant of fate and caused cracks to emerge within it. I am not referring here to the current wrangling and discourse of hate. We have experienced those before. What is frighteningly new are the tectonic, strategic events that undermine the covenant of fate:

Since the First Zionist Congress, it has been clear that Zionism is a democratic movement. So, the question of what kind of political system the state would have once it was established never arose. But what was obvious (with the exception of fringe voices from the right and the left) until this past year has become unsettled, uncertain, and subject to dispute. Many Israelis doubt the country’s future as a democracy. The center and left camp places the demand for democracy at the center of the protest movement because it views the present government as bent on altering the very nature of Israel’s political system. Parts of the right-wing camp and the ultra-Orthodox sector feel that, absent comprehensive judicial reform, Israel is ruled by judges, and this is not democracy.

The current debate over the judicial review of Basic Laws exemplifies the current situation. For the center and left, without this judicial review the majority could do as it pleases vis-à-vis the minority. For the right and the ultra-Orthodox, such judicial review is tantamount to an annulment of the results of the last round of elections. Either way, a perception is taking root that doubts whether the State of Israel will continue to operate as a democracy.

This doubt undermines the ability to accommodate the differences between us. Democratic rules are the safety belt we all wear in the Israeli journey. They establish agreements regarding the limits imposed on the governing power, and how power is distributed among the government authorities. They provide protection for minority and human rights. In 5783-2023, more and more Israelis came to feel that this safety belt had been stripped away and that speed of the Israeli journey had accelerated dangerously. Israelis are experiencing a leap into the unknown. Doubt in the democratic future opens a huge pit of uncertainty in the covenant of fate, which could collapse into itself.

As a result of this, a wave of refusal to serve in the IDF is sweeping through parts of the left and center camp. Former leaders of the country’s security establishment are supporting those who condition their service on political decisions they seek to impose on the government authorities. At the same time, in parts of the right-wing camp, there is a wave of unrest preparing the ground for refusing to obey future rulings of the judiciary – the branch of government entrusted with interpreting the law. Political leaders warn the Supreme Court “not to dare” rule against their political preferences. These, too, are tangible manifestations of an alarming process that is etching fissures into the Israeli covenant of fate.

It is to be hoped that in light of the frightening wake-up call we received in 5783-2023, a large centrist camp will coalesce in Israel, one capable of standing behind a comprehensive Israeli covenant of destiny in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. But in order for “the new year with its blessings” to begin, we must act immediately to restore the covenant of fate. The cornerstone of this is the renewal of trust in the future of our democracy. For this to happen, a consensus on the rules of the Israeli game is required. Constitutional arrangements – what I call a “thin constitution” – that would regulate the distribution of powers among the branches of government while separating and balancing them, are the immediate remedy required. They would assure all minorities – and each of us is a potential minority – that they will not be trampled by the majority. They would quell the uncertainty and enable us to manage the dispute over our destiny, and perhaps move toward greater agreement about what it could be.

What are the chances of success for a renewed covenant of fate? Some liken us to Lebanon, our divided neighbor. They are wrong. Lebanon is a fabricated, artificial country into which different peoples, religions, and ethnicities were grouped. Israel, by contrast, is the inalienable home to one national group (in addition to being the state of citizenship for members of other peoples); a community of memory that shares a glorious heritage unique in human history and rests on a rich bed of culture, language, and common tradition. The ancient covenant of fate was re-forged in the days of our parents and continues today – the disaster of the Holocaust and of the miracle of tekuma – our national revival in a sovereign state.

All these are tremendous resources that will enable us to reinvigorate our internal cohesion. If we wisely gird ourselves with constitutional arrangements on the rules of the game commonly accepted in liberal democracies, we will be able to restore our covenant of fate – and to tell each other, after all: “May the new year with its blessings begin.”

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a professor of law (emeritus) at Bar-Ilan University.
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