- - Wednesday, November 6, 2019


The current political crisis in Israel has exposed the greatest threat facing the future of a stable Israeli democracy as the absence of a national constitution and the continuous corrosion of an increasingly diverse society slipping down a slope of divisiveness.

The current political gridlock in the Israeli political system can be explained by a few noticeable factors: The erosion in the classical structures of Israeli political parties; the 25-year absence of two big parties in addition to the escalating extortion power of the small ones; and the problematic political conduct of Benjamin Netanyahu who faces a possible indictment.

These factors, while perceptible, conceal the fundamental origin of the vulnerability of Israel’s political system — the absence of a solid constitution to provide a foundation on which to guarantee some enduring stability.

Since its inception over seven decades ago, the State of Israel defined its identity as “Jewish and Democratic.” However, from the very beginning, the essence of this definition has been a point of contention, which has hindered the possible establishing of a consensual underpinning for the Israeli collective.

The dispute centered on the definition of “Jewishness” in the “Jewish and Democratic” equation. As such it also challenged the meaning of “Democratic” in that equation and became a major cause for the conflict of identities currently dividing Israeli society. Without a written constitution, Israeli society suppresses the root of this “conflict of identities.”

The role of the Halacha (the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from written texts and oral traditions) in public spaces, or the presence of “the word of God” in various areas of the public sphere in general and politics in particular remained denied and unresolved.

Today, at the end of the second decade in the 21st century, Israeli society is a disharmonious mosaic of minorities. When the state was founded 71 years ago, its population was comprised of 806,000 and was quite homogeneous: It included 108,000 Arabs (13 percent) and among the Jews 85 percent were immigrants from European countries (“Ashkenazi”) and 15 percent Jews of Asian-African background.

In the course of seven decades, the country’s population increased by 1200 percent and has become highly diversified. About 75 percent of the current population are Jews, about 20 percent are Arabs and 5 percent “others.” The Jewish population is comprised of Seculars (45 percent), Traditional (25 percent), National Religious Orthodox (16 percent) and Ultra-Orthodox (14 percent).

In addition, Israeli society is diversified horizontally by a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds. The conflict of identities has deteriorated diversity into a threatening divisiveness originating from two leading sources. It has been elevated by the accelerated changes in the demographic make-up and by the Orthodox monopoly on the definition of the Jewishness of the state. The latter, resulting from political arrangements that crystallized over the years, characterized by the power that the Orthodox rabbinate has over the definition of Jewishness and the way it enforces Orthodox rules on marriage, divorce, adoption and many other areas of life — both religious and civil.

The weight of the demographic changes coupled with the lack of a written constitution whose void keeps upsetting what should have been the characteristics of our collective identity, affected the denial of the existential necessity to grapple with the issue at the heart of the conflict of identities: What should be the role of the Halacha in the shared public spheres? Throughout the years, the ramifications of this issue keep resurfacing and deepen the tears in the fabric of common life. Hence, the issue itself — the presence of God in various parts of the public sphere and politics in particular — remains refuted and unsettled.

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 24 years ago was a striking example of a rabbinical meddling in a resolution of a democratically elected government. Another example is the distress of one-third of the million immigrants from the former Soviet Union that arrived in Israel in the 1990s who are not recognized as Jews according to the Halacha. And another one is the continuous and consistent disqualifying of the two major Jewish religious streams in the United States — Reforms and Conservatives — to provide the basis for religious pluralism in Israel.

The Jewish nation is the only among nations defined by religion. The linkage between religion and nation in the Jewish historical heritage is a Gordian knot. The document which substantiates sovereignty that we neglected to form in 1948 — a constitution — should have set the foundation for the untying of this knot. And so, we are left with the relentless orthodox effort to insert what emanates from a metaphysical-messianic tradition into the secular foundations of a modern democracy.

Israeli compatriots on the two sides of the dividing barrier who wish to substantiate a common future for the torn Israeli society — seculars on one side and religious on the other — should be prepared to confront the question of the role of the Halacha in the shared public spheres. As a starter for a thorough dialogue, I propose to see the inclusion of the principles of universalistic humanism by the religious observers a precondition, not an option, for integrating into a modern Western democracy. Without such inclusion, we might find ourselves on a track that negates the universalistic underpinnings of democracy and the ability of living together.

Facing the orthodox monopoly in Israel, we ought to present a clear goal, the implementation of which will ensure the resilience, sustainability and continuity of Israeli democracy: The imparting of legitimacy for multi-cultural/multi-identities’ definitions of Jewishness. Still in the genesis of becoming a political sovereignty, the young country of an ancient people is the place where the Jewish nation exercises its right for self-determination. Accepting this assertion as a historical fact, and internalizing it in the collective consciousness of the Israelis, might kindle the process of change that is so badly needed. 

• Arye Carmon, founder of the Israel Democracy Institute, a 2009 recipient of the Israel Prize, is the author of the forthcoming book “Building Democracy on Sand: Israel Without a Constitution” (Hoover Press, Stanford).

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