‘We are facing an unprecedented historical crisis,” says Prof. Avner Ben-Zaken, head of the Institute for Israeli Thought.
Ben-Zaken, chair and co-founder of the institute together with Mr. Boaz Amitai, addresses the public and political debate surrounding the judicial system. “There is no malice. One side wants to preserve the existing order, and the other wants to destroy the existing order. Any side that wins will be a defeat for the State of Israel.”
The Institute for Israeli Thought, established two years ago, places on the agenda the structural and fundamental problems of the state in various fields, such as economics, law, religion and state, and the relations between local government and central government. These issues, along with the constitutional crisis that has befallen Israel, were combined in an Israeli charter that was launched and was the focus of discussion at the institute’s annual conference, which was held on April 23 at Tel Aviv’s ZOA House.
‘Any side that wins the current crisis will bring defeat to the State of Israel’
“If the supporters of reform win, the state will fall apart,” declares Ben-Zaken. “On the other hand, if the opponents of the reform win, the state will also fall apart because there will always be an unhappy side. The third option, to promote a discussion at the President’s Residence in order to reach a compromise based on the existing dilapidated structure, will only bring us closer to the next crisis. The only solution is for the political leadership to think about stepping into a new area of possibilities and designing a state where all its citizens feel like landlords rather than guests. A country with equality, a state in which we can, through real reforms, eliminate our deep-seated problems.”At the conference, the institute launched an Israeli charter emphasizing core issues, including Israel as the Israeli nation-state; determining a regional electoral system for Israel; establishing a new layer of government in Israel – regional government – separation of church and state; Israeli economy solidarity; and social and ethical rules for a just society. The conference presented the constitutional framework required for the writing of a constitution for Israel.
“Our perception is historical,” Ben-Zaken explains. “Many of the state’s institutions have been renovated since its inception in a patchwork fashion, and these institutions are reaching the point of collapse. We founded the institute on the assumption that we were heading toward such a moment, so we were not surprised, but we did not think that it would arrive so early. Our goal is to try to distill what we call Israeli thought, in the same way that there is Israeli food or Israeli music.
“To this day, no one has dared to formally articulate Israeliness – to say that this is the identity of the state and our identity as citizens.”
What is our identity?
Senior figures from across the spectrum from the worlds of government, humanities, academia, economics and more participated in the Institute for Israeli Thought conference. The speakers discussed issues that touch on Israel’s fundamental problems. Ben-Zaken explains that the charter will strengthen the status of the state, in part by determining its borders.
“We don’t know where the country’s border begins and ends. It is untenable,” he asserts. “We don’t know where Israeli law begins and ends. We are like a child who does not know where his body begins and ends, and he grows and grows until he develops a split personality. That’s what happened to us. We don’t know who we are and what our identity is.“The second critical thing to do is to change the electoral system. The current system constantly encourages groups to organize politically around sectoral identities. This system has dismantled Israeli society, and we see how it allows extremists on both sides to dictate the agenda and be the significant force in any coalition.”
‘Our goal? To distill what we call Israeli thought, in the same way there is Israeli food and music’
Ben-Zaken notes that the solution is a transition to a regional electoral system, which he deems necessary. “The current system encourages politicians to organize themselves around narrow identities, to promote hatred and polarization between different groups, and to undermine Israeliness itself. For the first time, we at the institute developed a method using an intelligent system that divided the country based on voter distribution into 120 constituencies.
“This system will abolish identity politics and encourage civic political discourse, give rise to new local elites, and allow all Israelis to feel represented by the political system. As citizens, we will have a representative in a certain region to whom we can turn, ask for assistance and demand that he/she be an address for constituents.
“Until now, the constitutional debate in Israel has been in the hands of jurists, but this is not a legal question. They are missing the primary objective – to create an outline in which the overwhelming majority can agree on the rules of the game. In order for us to write a constitution, there are preconditions; and structural reforms in state institutions are required. In the charter, we propose a sketch of the outlines for a new area of opportunity.”
The outlines Ben-Zaken lays out include an awareness of history – that we have a historical destiny to complete the process that began with the Declaration of Independence – “to define the identity of the state as an Israeli state, to separate religion from state, to build a new social ethos of a fair society, to divide Israel into new autonomous governmental areas, and to build a solidarity economy based on a welfare state. All these will give citizens the feeling that the country is their own and that their identity is reflected in the state itself.
“It is odd that here people avoid defining themselves as Israelis. It is absurdly almost against the law to be Israeli in Israel, to the extent that the Supreme Court denied a request of Israeli citizens to mark their nationality on the ID card as Israeli. However, if we define the identity of Israel by quantitative variants such as borders (defining the body of the state) and citizens (defining the content of the state its citizens), then the State of Israel is getting closer to the character of other Western states. In that case, Israeli-Jews and Israeli-Arabs could share an all-encompassing identity, a civic identity – Israeliness.”
Dr. Tamar Hostovsky Brandes, an expert in constitutional and international law and a fellow at the institute, emphasizes the need to create a constitution.
“In 1992, the Knesset established two Basic Laws dealing with human rights – Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty; and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation. These two Basic Laws enshrined, for the first time, basic rights as constitutional rights,” she explains. “From the right to human dignity, the Supreme Court derived many rights that were not explicitly recognized in the law: freedom of expression and the right to equality; freedom of religion; and freedom from religion – all recognized as part of human dignity. Over the years, they became, out of this recognition, central constitutional rights themselves.
“This far-reaching interpretive move was not made concerning social rights. The interpretation given to these rights was more limited and focused on the minimum required for existence. They are perceived, to this day, as stepsisters of civil and political rights.
“This approach cannot be justified. Social and economic rights – first and foremost, the right to education, the right to health, the right to housing and the right to an adequate standard of living – are basic rights that constitute a central pillar of the contract between the state and its citizens. The human right to live with dignity is not a right to a minimal existence but a right to exist that allows a person full and equal participation in social life and social institutions.”
A new layer of government
Another issue raised by the institute was regional government.
“The goal is to divide a layer of government into between 11 and 20 regions, which will pool all the resources,” explains Ben-Zaken. “The state will delegate civil powers and allow tax collection, which will enable them to operate in a local democratic manner and formulate a certain character adapted to the population and resources, so that each group will be able to take care of its own affairs.”
Mordechai Cohen, former Interior Ministry director-general and an institute fellow, adds: “The municipal division in Israel has preserved communal identities and pitted neighbors against each other in competition for regional resources. They settled on a structure of local government that effectively reflects the reality of Israel in 1949, a young state that tried to stabilize its borders by establishing existing cities, and by establishing regional councils and border development towns.
“In light of the vast experience accumulated in many countries around the world, and in light of the serious failures in the proper functioning of local government in Israel, we propose to promote structural change whose main goal is the creation of a new layer of government in Israel – a regional level of government. In order to strengthen the public’s trust in the government, reduce socioeconomic gaps and promote social cohesion in divided Israel, democratic regional rule must be promoted.”
Prof. Eva Illouz, a senior sociologist and institute fellow, says, “Common and permanent mistrust is a disease of society. This disease penetrates the small arteries of daily life and is responsible for the widespread feeling that we are not respected, that we are not seen, that we are not recognized, and that the country is ‘difficult.’ These feelings may seem minor compared to major political issues, but they directly express whether or not social institutions benefit us. Feelings of suspicion, hostility and mistrust threaten the foundation of coexistence, and the political institutions we live in are largely responsible for the relationship we maintain with others.”
As part of the conference, as every year, the institute awarded special prizes: the Hillel Kook Award for nonfiction book of the year; the Jacqueline Kahanov Prize for Israeli prose; the Eli Klir Award for documentary films on Israeliness; and the Zvi Kese Doctoral Thesis Award on Israeliness. The goal is to deepen the social connection with the citizen.
“We are dealing with emotions,” says Ben-Zaken. “The premise of a joint social contract is a call for direction for a turbulent Israel, menaced by its own people who threaten to destroy the ship of its great achievements. The safe haven of a worthy life is connected to the decision to be a state like all other peoples, with stable democratic institutions, with citizens who feel that they own the state, and with a constitutional agreement for generations.“This will make the dream of many Israelis come true, for those who are with us today and those who are not yet with us.”
This article was written in cooperation with the Institute for Israeli Thought.
Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.