What Israel's Founding Fathers Never Imagined

No one ever envisioned that power would fall one day into the hands of people for whom the oppression of another nation was second nature.

zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell
Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who declared the establishment of the state in a secret ceremony at 16 Rothschild Blvd.
Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who declared the establishment of the state in a secret ceremony at 16 Rothschild Blvd. Credit: Fritz Cohen
zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell

Contrary to the prevalent assertion that what protected Israeli democracy in the state’s early days was ambiguity on fundamental constitutional questions that arose at the time, ambiguity was part of the problem, not the solution. The policy of obfuscation that David Ben-Gurion decided upon for reasons of political convenience allowed the Arabs to be kept under martial law for the entire period of his rule. The shame of the Shin Bet security service state was lifted only in 1965, though Arab inferiority was perpetuated.

It was the political elite’s decision not to bind itself with principles, not necessarily the opposition of the religious, that prevented the drafting of a progressive constitution. The religious Zionist community was open and liberal then, and the small Haredi community was focused on itself and its own survival. If the State of Israel’s Jewish community of that time had only possessed the political will, a democratic, liberal constitution ensuring human rights could have been passed into law with no difficulty during the grace period of the state’s establishment, or right after the War of Independence.

But Ben-Gurion and the ruling elite were not interested in repairing the world. They were nationalists who had come to Israel to build a state for the Jewish people. Ben-Gurion himself attributed no decisive importance to equal rights or social equality, and ignored the fact that establishing the state had caused a revolution in the status of the people who were living there. Not only did the Jews become citizens of their own state, but the Arabs also became citizens of it. A community of citizens was added to the Jewish national entity – a community whose connections were political and legal rather than ethnic, national or religious. This revolution required a profound change in thought and behavior patterns.

As is well known, no revolution of this kind took place because the nationalists saw the concept of citizenship as secondary, while democracy was defined as majority rule. So citizenship remained in the gray area, and the human rights clause was never set down as the first clause of an entire constitution, or at least of an enshrined Basic Law. If the Knesset had done its job as an enlightened legislative body, there would have been no need to wage a battle over the state’s character as if it had been established just yesterday.

Another aspect of this early failure is the fact that the founders made laws for themselves, not for human beings as such. They never imagined that the Feiglins and Elkins would have ruling power in the most persecuted nation in modern history. Their great foe was Jabotinsky, whom Ben-Gurion and Katznelson knew, and against whom they fought for power and for the means to achieve their common goal, but not for the goal itself.

Even in the second generation, that of Menachem Begin and his comrades in the underground, the type of politicians such as Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel, Miri Regev and Ayelet Shaked would not have existed because the occupation and the settlements that created them did not exist at the time.

No one ever envisioned the actual possibility that power would fall one day into the hands of people with the demeanor of masters, for whom the oppression of another nation was second nature. Who ever imagined that the Jewish community might one day turn into a colonialist entity and lay the foundations of an apartheid regime as a permanent condition, and would want to engrave that shame in its law books on top of that?

The gravediggers of liberty and equality of our time are dragging Israel down toward the violent and fanatic Third World that surrounds us. The politicians of the centrist parties would do well to draw their own conclusions as the election approaches, and use all the energy and honesty that they still have to prevent the disasters that are on their way.

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