MKs Debate Protection of 'Equality' in Future Constitution

Religious MKs reject inclusion of ensurance of equality, saying it would contradict Judaism.

Religious and secular MKs participating in a meeting of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee were at loggerheads Teusday over the inclusion of the principle of equality in the draft of Israel's constitution.

During the meeting, members of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the National Religious Party reiterated their objection to the incorporation of the concept of equality into a constitution, as they say it contradicts their religious beliefs.

"There cannot be a constitution in a Jewish and democratic state if it does not defend the unequal values of Judaism - and they are unequal," MK Yitzhak Levy (NRP) said. "Equality in fact will close the rabbinical courts," a contingency he was not prepared to allow for. "If you want equality in the constitution, it must be limited. We cannot write off the entire Jewish aspect of the country because, in the end, Judaism will be nothing more than eating a donut during Hanukkah."

MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said he was in favor of a constitution, on principle, but only on condition that equality is carefully defined.

"I am among those who want a constitution," MK Gafni said: "[But] we must decide what the word 'equality' entails. [Does it relate to] marriage and divorce? Yeshiva students? Laws of kashrut?" He said that if equality means the cancellation of those things, then it would "cancel the idea of Israel as a Jewish state."

The heated debate almost didn't take place. Eleven minutes after the meeting's scheduled start, the committee's chair, MK Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima), was the only one present, and he was about to bring it to a close. He decided to carry on with the hearing only when Meretz-Yahad chair Yossi Beilin arrived, and then only after Beilin assured Ben-Sasson that he would stay for the full two hours.

Toward the end of the hearing, Levy suggested the clause on equality read simply, "Love thy neighbor."

"I cannot commit to that," Beilin replied, while Gafni jokingly agreed to the proposal on condition that the clause be waived with regard to Knesset members.

When the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom was ratified, in 1992, the principle of equality was not incorporated into it. A High Court of Justice decision, however, ruled that one may interpret from the text that it upheld the principle of equality. Human right activists who attended Tuesday's meeting mostly agreed that a constitution that does not mention equality is a lame constitution. "I'm sorry to spoil to party," Levy told them: "But if there's no constitution and no equality, then that's a good option."

Is there a way to limit the definition of equality in way that would appease Levy and Gafni? Ben-Sasson asked if they would make do with a clause stating that High Court decisions could be overruled by parliamentary legislation. Deputy Attorney General Joshua Schoffman said that this would require the drafting of a special clause, as an existing equality provision the Basic Laws has not been to the liking of the religious parties.

"We need an improved clause," Levy said.

The jovial mood continued when a committee member asked "how Hanukkah is related to the principle of equality." Legal aide Eyal Zandberg explained that "all candles are equal when lit, and die out at the same time."

"Now that's real equal opportunity," said Beilin.