‘It’s time to complete Declaration of Independence’ - Prof. Ben-Zaken

a proposal for a new social contract between citizens and the state was presented at a conference this week.

 PROF. AVNER BEN-ZAKEN, founder and head of the Institute for Israeli Thought.  (photo credit: IIT)
PROF. AVNER BEN-ZAKEN, founder and head of the Institute for Israeli Thought.
(photo credit: IIT)

At the Institute for Israeli Thought’s annual conference this week in Tel Aviv, the “Israeli Charter,” a proposal for a new social contract between citizens and the state, was presented.

The first speaker was the institute’s co-founder, along with Mr. Boaz Amitai, and head, Prof. Avner Ben-Zaken.“We are trying to [reset] Israeli thought. Over the past three years, we have concentrated on writing the charter. From the very beginning, we knew that a major crisis was coming, but we didn’t know the timing.”

Ben-Zaken warned of politicians who have wounded society, leaving it in a state of conflict. “The need arose for a common Israeli spirit that would enable us to reach a promising future,” he said, explaining that the source of the conflict dates back to its establishment.

“The state was established with institutions that sought to organize the public sphere, but its founders did not insist on the need for the [establishment of] rules for living with each other,” he said. “It was established with temporary arrangements between religion and state, irregular relations between the government and the judiciary and between the local government and the citizen. It created patchwork solutions, but they no longer work. The framework is decaying, and the building is teetering.”

The ITT head warned that Israelis have lost faith in the institutional structure of the state, in each other and in their shared future. “If the problems are disagreements over the rules of the game, different groups will not agree to a structured order that makes the country not theirs. Distrust led to identity politics and unraveled the principles of solidarity.” 

 a proposal for a new social contract between citizens and the state, (credit: IIT) a proposal for a new social contract between citizens and the state, (credit: IIT)

“The time has come to complete the Declaration of Independence, to establish a new order based on a new framework of thought: on a common Israeliness. We propose a charter in which Israelis are sovereign in their own state, based on human dignity, equality, distributive justice, integrity and an existence led by citizens through brotherhood and shared destiny.”

The proposal is based on several principles, including the separation of religion and state and changing the existing electoral system to a regional system. “We need to unravel the tangled connection between religion and state,” Ben-Zaken said. “A state with a religious identity cannot belong to all Israelis. Some political forces see the state as an empty wagon, whose role is to provide resources or bring the Messiah. The stronger these forces become, the weaker the state institutions become.

“We must change the electoral system,” he added. “The current system encourages extremists, gives them too much power, inflames hatred and keeps politicians from fighting for the common good. We should change to a regional electoral system – one that reflects Israel in its political field, so that the periphery will also receive adequate representation in the Knesset. We must build a new layer of regional governance that will unite neighboring municipalities, which will lead to local cooperation that will give rise to new moderate Israeli elites.”

Ben-Zaken stated that the economy must also serve the vision of “Israeliness” and called for the social and economic rights of citizens to be enshrined in law.

Following his remarks, a panel discussion on “Constitution as Part of the New Israeli Identity” was held, with the participation of IIT Fellow Dr. Tamar Hostovsky-Brandes, an expert on international constitutional law and a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law of Ono Academic College, and Prof. Ron Shapira, Rector of the Peres Academic Center. 

“One of the interesting things about the protest is that the call for a constitution came up among the protesters,” she said. “It’s an interesting statement, but it’s not enough. What interests me, and this is what the charter is about, is the constitution’s content – what people really want and what kind of problems they want to solve. The task is to create a separation between constitutional politics and ordinary politics. One cannot write a constitution the way ordinary laws are written.

“The Basic Laws are not the constitution,” she said. “It is impossible not to speak of the drafting of haredim [the ultra-Orthodox] to the IDF or [of] the rabbinical courts. At the moment, we are discussing vague terms, such as the meaning of democracy or the Jewish state. We are circling around terms that are identity terms, with no ability to inject real content into these issues.”

Shapira argued, on the other hand, that the power of the court should be limited. “A strange thing has been created. The same body that writes the constitution uses its constitutional powers to limit future legislation. A process has been completed where the judicial system pulled itself up by its own shoelaces and was left hanging. It’s an intolerable situation.”

Mordechai Cohen, a senior institute fellow, presented the changes necessary for the structure of local municipalities. “The local government reflects the beginning of the problem – the Israeli melting pot did not succeed, because we each live in our own community,” he said.

“Israeli governments made sure that there was a divide-and-conquer strategy, and there was no encouragement to bring down barriers,” he explained. “It created hostility between communities through competition for resources, borders and revenues. We must create a situation in which the authorities cooperate, and consider their geographical area outside the closed community. We need to reorganize local government, create new areas and transfer powers to that new level of government.”

What did Sa'ar have to say?

National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar spoke next, addressing the meetings being held at the President’s Residence on the issue of legal reform. “The talks are serious, but it will take time before we know if we can reach an agreement. We have a seventy-five-year-old country with no constitution and no agreed-upon rules of the game between the authorities. The attempt to aggressively try to take over the judiciary is the worst thing imaginable. It’s a wound that will take a long time to recover from.” Sa’ar also addressed the issue of the military draft of haredim, saying that “as part of the service agreement, everyone will have to bear some of the burden.”

The final speaker of the evening was Prof. Eva Illouz, a sociologist and senior ITT fellow, who said: “Institutions shape the texture of our lives. They determine how much we trust others, how difficult or easy the state feels to us and how good we are to each other. Economists and political scientists have presented studies showing that societies with a very high level of trust and a flourishing economy are societies with high cooperation between the population and its democratic institutions. The time has come to return Israel to its citizens, and make it Israeli.”

Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.