They sat for two days, Arabs and Jews, Russians and Ethiopians, ultra-Orthodox and secular, young and old. People in wheelchairs, an elderly man with a seeing-eye dog. Two hundred Israeli citizens, both ordinary and extraordinary, were invited to Jerusalem by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) to discuss what human dignity and respect for the other actually means.
At the end of it, they came up with a Declaration of Human Dignity, a draft document that is due to be discussed and refined over the next few months in town meetings around the country and online, and then presented to President Shimon Peres on Israel’s Independence Day in May.
Only at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station does one find such a wide cross-section of Israelis, and even then it is limited by the fact that the more privileged strata of society is not likely to take the bus. But this Assembly of 200, chosen randomly by polling organization HaGal HaChadash, reached into an incredibly diverse variety of communities in the hope of coming up with a true citizens’ document that could someday become part of an Israeli constitution.
“I see the declaration as the formal product of the meeting but not necessarily the most essential one,” explained IDI Fellow Prof. Tamar Hermann, the project’s academic director and professor at Tel Aviv University known for the monthly Peace Index.
“We usually meet with top decision makers, civil servants and the academic community − the elites,” Hermann said as participants who’d come to know each other over two intense days of discussions grazed on afternoon tea at the Dan Hotel on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, where the ground-breaking conference was held. “We had no experience whatsoever in bringing together people who are from all walks of society and have nothing to do with academia or decision-making. It’s almost like a form of crowd-sourcing. It’s a random sample, in a way, and doing it through a survey institute helped us to get people who wouldn’t otherwise be represented.”
In several cases, she says, they did a kind of affirmative action and boosted the number of certain groups relative to their percentage in the population. “You need a minimal number of people of a minority to give them a voice. So instead of two or three Ethiopians, we have 10, and the same for people with physical disabilities.”
This process, which borrowed some notes from a 2011 “deliberative democracy” project in Germany, was launched by the IDI last June when it convened a Council of 20 prominent members of Israeli society. The hand-picked score of leaders and thinkers was as diverse as renowned author Eshkol Nevo, Pinhas Wallerstein, former head of the Yesha Council of settlements, and Adina Bar-Shalom, who founded the Haredi College of Jerusalem and is a daughter of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. They began the process by sharing stories of times in their younger years when they felt their dignity was harmed, and from there came up with a list of topics to be addressed.
Building from that list, participants in this week’s meeting of 200 came up with a draft, merging and editing their text late Monday night by using Google docs, explains the IDI’s Dr. Dana Blander, the project’s content manager.
“I didn’t believe that the draft would be so advanced, so I was surprised by the product we got at the end. What’s interesting is that this declaration started, as it did in the group of 20, from their personal stories. It upgraded the issue to the national level, but it started from personal stories,” she says.
From here, they will move the draft to an online platform where they hope to have 200,000 Israelis give their input.
The document touches on many subjects that one would expect in a Bill of Rights, which Israel lacks. For example, the first line starts with “We, the People of Israel, without regard to nationality, religion, race, sex, origin or community group, call for Israeli society to be founded on the value of human dignity.” Later in the draft document, in a section calling for tolerance of different groups, it calls Israel a “Jewish democratic state that includes different populations” and goes on to call for each of these groups to have the right to an identity that differs from the majority.
Not everyone amid the 200 was pleased with this definition.
“I felt some opposition to that wording, calling it a Jewish democratic state that honors other groups. I would like it to be a state of all its all citizens,” says Rafiq Hamadi, who comes from Tamra, an Arab village in the Lower Galilee. “Still, 90 percent of the things that were in this declaration were good, and people came here to advance things, so it’s a positive direction.”
Although there are hopes among the IDI staff that this draft could be a kind of forerunner to a constitution, Hermann says that’s not the focus for now. The IDI had been involved in a campaign for Israel to adopt a constitution in the late 1990s, going so far as to come up with a detailed draft, but the initiative was shelved for lack of broad political support.
From the lack of clarity regarding the relationship between synagogue and state to the uncertain legal status of the West Bank, there are many reasons why opponents said Israel isn’t ready for a constitution. Some oppose the concept on religious grounds. Israel does have a Declaration of Independence, of course. It includes a promise that Israel “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.”
Hermann says this declaration, when it makes it to Peres’ office, might be the forerunner to something more expansive. “In the widest sense, yes, in a normal constitution it starts out with a Bill of Rights, and what we do here may converge later with that effort,” she says. “But right now we have no plans to relaunch the constitutional campaign, because people in the Knesset didn’t feel it’s the right time.”
The group didn’t just discuss the declaration that could make it into the annals of history, but also everyday civility in Israel. Hermann says the organizers were pleasantly surprised to see how well people from radically different backgrounds got on, given the chance to talk.
“People were extremely well-mannered. We were left with our mouths open when we saw some ultra-Orthodox men speaking to a woman in leggings or Ethiopians talking to Russians,” she adds.
That wasn’t coincidental. Part of the discussions focused on how people behave in public life. How often do Israelis really listen to each other before they interrupt, criticize or attack? For many participants, something switched.
“I’m leaving this process with some improvements, because I’m short-tempered and this experience made me question how I react to people and how I could treat people differently,” says Relly Salomon, who runs a tour company in Tel Aviv. “Now we have to bring this to a wider audience, and I think one day I’ll be glad to say I was among the 200.”