Yaniv Cohen

The Israeli democratic message that must be heard

On a recent visit to Israel, retired US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer stressed the importance of measured progress and broad consensus when enacting significant societal changes. Breyer, a distinguished jurist and true mensch, was invited to Israel by the Tachlith Institute, and spoke at a professional conference held at Reichman University.

In an Interview to Dr. Ilana Dayan, Justice Breyer emphasized that Israel’s challenges cannot be resolved by outsiders. Israelis themselves must work to find consensus while maintaining a united, democratic society that continues to uphold the rule of law. 

At just 75 years old, Israel is a very young but vibrant democracy experiencing growing pains and still defining itself, much like young democracies in other parts of the world and at different times over the past 300 years. But the last seven months have powerfully and undeniably showcased just how engaged and responsible Israel’s democratic DNA and civil society are. Moreover, that Israel has maintained this democratic path and ideal, in spite of constant threats to its existence and the daily reality of loss, war, and terrorism from implacable enemies speaks to the heart, deep strength, and yearning for self-determination, democratic freedom, human dignity and peace that defines us as Israelis. In profound ways this phenomenon represents one of the foundational miracles that is the Jewish State. 

The ongoing intense and spirited public debate about Israel’s fundamental values as a Jewish and democratic state reflects a variety of strongly held views and priorities and can, at times, be unsettling. Recognizing this challenge, Tachlith (purpose or practical in Hebrew) the policy Institute we established, seeks to promote broad political consensus on foundational matters of national interest. As the professional advisors to President Herzog, my team and I have been deeply involved in the recent negotiations under the President’s auspices and, while a final agreement  has not yet been achieved, and despite the headlines and dire proclamations, we remain optimistic about Israel’s ability to mitigate our differences, since we have far more in common than it may seem, and what separates us is smaller than it may seem.

The silent majority of Israelis, as reflected in recent polls, are calling for unity and consensus building compromise which should not be surprising, and is uniquely achievable in Israel, where Tachlith’s research demonstrate that 70% of the population in fact agree on a critical mass of the foundational issues. In the context of the current tense, borderline dysfunctional political environment and harsh daily discourse (which is often exacerbated by the media, both traditional and social, and antagonistic language from politicians and activists), this broad underlying consensus is the defining data point that should focus the minds of all of our political leaders as well as our civic society.

With this important benchmark as a backdrop, we all must rise to meet today’s challenges together; Israel’s people and the sacrifice of those who came before deserve and demand it. 

As we work to resolve our differences, we all should take some comfort from the fact that it is specifically Israel’s strong democracy that has so far facilitated the responsible, relatively peaceful struggle playing out in our political institutions and streets to define our ideas and ideals and determine the way forward together. This is no small achievement, and it is hopefully a precursor to an accommodation that respects the anxieties, dreams and aspirations of all segments of our society. At 75 years young, perhaps this is even a necessary public struggle for Israel to resolve those foundational issues that have always been kicked down the road and set up for a future of powerful growth and impact. 

In fact, if Israel was a weak democracy, then the government would have enacted far more powerful measures to prevent the protest and certainly not hold a dialogue with it, which would inevitably have led to an outbreak of extreme violence with dangerous outcomes. This has not happened so far. At the same time, we are currently witnessing, in real time, the magnificent Israeli democratic social contract that is treasured by a large majority of Israelis.

I for one, am certain that we will also overcome this challenge and that Israel will emerge stronger for the experience, more resolved, united, powerful and successful, a modern, liberal democracy fulfilling the dreams and aspirations of all its citizens. 

Yet, in an emotionally charged atmosphere, there is no room for complacency. Therefore, our political leaders both in the government coalition and the opposition bear the heavy weight of our history and our future on their shoulders, and this demands that they must simply continue to work together for as long as it takes to find solutions to the few matters that divide us. 

While other parts of the democratic world have at times suffered inadequate or unwise leadership – and borne the bitter costs thereof – Israel does not have the luxury of doing so. Yet, the ongoing discord in Israel suggests that our political leadership on all sides of the debate is falling short. Right, Left, Center, Religious, Secular and minorities can surely all agree, on this point. 

Consequently, this message applies fully to all sides of Israel’s current political leadership as well as its civic society. And if the road that they took until now has failed, then they must find new ones. They must embrace the values of dialogue, willingness to compromise, cooperation and practical and purposeful solutioning. It is what we call in Israel: tachlis. When political leadership steps up, Israel emerges even stronger and more united, setting an inspiring example for the rest of the world.

About the Author
Yaniv Cohen is the head of the Tachlith Institute.
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