A Democracy Fix for Israel

By Haberman, Clyde | Moment, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview
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A Democracy Fix for Israel

Haberman, Clyde, Moment

The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last

By Bernard Avishai

Harcourt, Inc.

2008, $26.00, pp. 290


If Israel may be said to possess original sin, it is the founders' decision to forgo a written constitution. That is a central theme of The Hebrew Republic, Bernard Avishai's latest dissection of what ails the country he has long viewed with both affection and despair. How different things might have been, Avishai says. After Israel came into being in 1948, it was supposed to have a constitution guaranteeing basic rights and affirming "the principle of the complete equality of all citizens." But David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, had more pressing concerns, not the least of which was appeasing Orthodox Jewish political parties looking for special status. He needed them to build a working coalition. A written constitution? A nice idea, Ben-Gurion decided, but future generations could deal with it.

Only they didn't. An Israeli constitution seems destined to be like the arrival of the Messiah: ever in the future. In the meantime, Ben-Gurion's "surrender," to use Avishai's word, has become "a recurrent legal ricochet."

Israel, though unquestionably a democratic state as well as a Jewish state, can hardly be described as a bastion of equal rights. Israeli Arabs are second-class citizens. They cannot readily own land or buy apartments in the big cities. Institutions like the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, which seemed destined for extinction with the creation of the state, remain formidable reinforcers of discriminatory practices. Israel's Arabs are much poorer than its Jews. Their towns are short-changed when the government hands out money for schools, health programs, housing, roads and bridges. Thanks to the Law of Return, a Jew who has spent his entire life in Brooklyn may make aliyah and immediately enjoy more rights and privileges than an Arab whose family has been on the land for generations.

Then, too, there is effective discrimination against secular Jews, who cannot be married, divorced or even buried in the manner they may wish. Orthodox rabbis have a monopoly over these and other rituals; it's their way or the highway. That also goes for arguably the most fundamental issue of all: defining who is a Jew. Avishai reminds us that the people who live in Israel are not officially recognized as Israelis. They are recorded by the government as being not Israeli nationals but rather members of a particular religious or ethnic group.

Avishai's solution is to replace the Jewish state with his Hebrew republic. Israel would become a country of all its citizens, an egalitarian society comparable to any country in the European Union. It would have a formal constitution with a Bill of Rights, similar to what had been anticipated in 1948. The Law of Return would disappear. Religion and state would be kept separate, ending rabbinical control over defining Jewish identity and Jewish values. "In a Hebrew republic," Avishai writes, "rabbis would have to compete for minds and hearts with, say, poets."

This is the enlightened republic that the early Zionists envisioned, he says. It doesn't mean that Israel would lose its essential Jewish character. That would endure, he says. Jews would simply lose the privileged treatment they now claim as a birthright.

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