The Question of Israel as a Jewish Democracy

Israel is in danger of no longer being governed by the people; this danger does not come from the multitudes surrounding us who seek our destruction, but rather from those who wish for rabbinic fiat and Torah law to rule supreme.

The Israel that Herzl envisioned was a bastion of democracy and a haven for all Jews against the evils of anti-Semitism. This is the Israel I grew up on, and the Israel I had hoped to move to; a country based upon Jewish values and liberal ideals.

But this island of democracy in a despotic sea is in danger of no longer being governed by the people. This danger does not come from the multitudes surrounding us who seek our destruction, but rather from those who wish for rabbinic fiat and Torah law to rule supreme.

This faction of Israeli society is multiplying far faster than those who advocate egalitarian democracy, and in the past thirty years has benefitted from an unprecedented and disproportionate increase in religious party power.

What if the Masoretic mullahs of Mea Shearim succeed in the coming decades and take over, turning Israel into a Jewish Iran? Is half the Zionist vision good enough?

Sixty years ago, fearful that Israeli democracy would be overthrown in the future, Professor Yehuda Leo Kohn asserted it would be foolhardy for Israelis to delude themselves into believing that “nothing like [the fall of German democracy] could happen in Israel”.

Having witnessed firsthand the downfall of many European democracies in the thirty years prior to Israel’s founding, Kohn recognized Israel’s need for a constitution that enshrines civil liberties, prevents perfidious government action, and safeguards the rights of the individual.

Theodor Herzl
Reproduction: Emil Salman

There are measures that can and must be taken to prevent our fragile, imperfect democracy from crumbling beneath the demographic weight of black hats and coats; Israel needs a constitution.

Ben Gurion and his contemporaries balked at the daunting task of constitution building while struggling to establish the state, instead leaving it for generations to come. Today’s Israel does not have that luxury.

If Israel is to properly protect its citizens’ rights, it must finally reach a national consensus –however difficult and daunting it may be - on what laws are above the state and the people.

We the people must ratify a constitution that guarantees individual freedoms, minority rights, separation of religion and government, and a clear system of checks and balances.

With secular Jews and non-Jews together constituting a majority of the country’s population, the time has come for Israeli identity to be divested of its religious trappings.

How can a large portion of Israel’s population uphold the current state if they do not identify
with the religious Judeo-nationalism it promotes? And what if this ultra-Orthodox perversion over the law only intensifies with time?

An Israeli constitution needs to separate Israel from its Jewish religious trappings, and make the state impartial to the religious identities of its citizens.

If this does not happen, many Israelis my find themselves forced out of this Mediterranean sanctuary, preferring to live a free Jew in another country than shackled by injustice in a Jewish one.

Ilan Ben Zion is an active blogger currently living in Be’er Sheva; he is a graduate of Tel Aviv University with a Masters in Diplomacy.