The strange case of the Israel Democracy Institute

The IDI is our secular left-wing elite thinking out loud.

Sometime before Independence Day, the High Court of Justice will decide whether the Israel Prize ought to be awarded to the leading left-wing think tank, the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI). The prize was awarded by a committee of three distinguished academics, all of whom have participated in IDI programs. The committee was set up by former MK Nahum Langenthal, who went directly from the IDI's employ to become former education minister Yuli Tamir's adviser on the Israel Prize. Before she recused herself, Justice Miriam Naor, who is also a graduate of IDI programs, headed the panel scheduled to hear the case. It's not surprising that so many people involved in IDI's prize appear to be connected to the institute. IDI assiduously pursues influence. Established not quite two decades ago, it quickly established close links to the unelected elites, chiefly in the legal establishment, the media and academia, who determine so much of public policy. IDI engages a significant proportion of the country's good and great and provides its affiliates with prestige, media exposure and, not infrequently, money. IDI dispenses a budget of five or six million dollars a year. That's very big by Israeli standards. One of my colleagues, a doctoral candidate at Bar-Ilan University's law school, told me, "I look around at my fellow grad students and it seems nearly everyone is on the [IDI] payroll." To be sure, IDI's resources also support respectable social science and public policy research, as well as the prestigious media trade journal, Seventh Eye. If the Church of England was once described as the Conservative Party at prayer, IDI is this country's secular left-wing elite thinking out loud. The IDI's ideal model of Israel is a secular, nonnational, economically and socially liberal society with its Jewish character and ethic pressed as much out of view as possible. Of course, the head of the institute, Dr Eric Carmon, has always recognized the need to engage representatives of the Arab and Orthodox communities, in order to help build consensus for IDI's ideas. Unsurprisingly, those who choose to affiliate most closely with the institute tend to accept all or part of IDI's philosophical assumptions. IN THE FIRST decade of its existence, IDI played a significant role in legitimizing market-oriented reforms. In the past decade, however, it has devoted its efforts to two main objectives: entrenching the power of the unelected elites with which it is closely associated while fending off demands to make them more accountable, on the one hand, and promoting a draft constitution that would dilute the country's Jewish character, on the other. IDI's draft constitution, which it somewhat disingenuously terms "the consensual constitution," would entrench the current power and insularity of the judiciary and make many classical Zionist policies unconstitutional. During the 17th Knesset, the IDI made a real effort to get its constitution adopted. The former chairman of the Knesset Constitution Committee, Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, was an enthusiastic backer. He held frequent hearings on constitutional matters and appointed Prof. Yedidia Stern of Bar-Ilan, one of the IDI constitution's authors, as the committee's formal, ostensibly impartial adviser on constitutional affairs - a piece of presumption that some of Ben-Sasson's Knesset colleagues resented. At one point IDI tried to invite members of the committee to an exclusive weekend resort in order to plug its constitution. MK Arye Eldad, head of the Knesset Ethics Committee, decided this smelled of junket-for-votes and forbade it. My colleagues and I at the Israel Policy Center and the Institute for Zionist Strategies tried to educate Knesset members about the implications of the IDI's "consensual constitution." Our strategy was simple: We just explained to MKs what the draft meant, and how the Supreme Court, based on existing decisions, could use it to nullify the country's Jewish character. That was usually enough for MKs, including those from Kadima and Labor. Ben-Sasson never made bold to actually bring the IDI's draft constitution up for a vote. The decision to award IDI the Israel Prize comes at a time when its relevance has been slipping. New social trends and new agendas have emerged. Jewish values and identity are increasingly important to broad segments of the population in their personal lives, and the erosion of these values is associated in the minds of many with the erosion of both quality and ethics in government. External and domestic threats to the Jewish character of the state are a source of rising concern. So too is dissatisfaction with the power and insularity of the unelected secular elites, with whom IDI is closely associated. These elites seem unfitted by philosophy and interest to take the public's new concerns seriously or to do anything about them. If the IDI does receive its prize - characteristically - at the hands of a panel of judges, few people will be surprised, and few will be convinced. The writer heads the Israel Policy Center, whose mission includes reinforcing Israel's character as a Jewish, democratic state.