Some democracies – certainly not all – were bequeathed formative documents formulated by prescient founding fathers who deliberately devoted utmost care to address every conceivable future interpretation. The least such seminal documents deserve is special deference from the nations fortunate enough to have inherited them.
They most certainly don’t deserve to be expediently turned into the proverbial rope in a political tug-of-war. Sadly, our Declaration of Independence – doubtless Israel’s most basic and vital text – is being misused in precisely this manner.
It all has to do with the “democratic and Jewish” catchphrase that has gained broad but unsubstantiated acceptance as the Declaration’s bipolar blueprint for the state’s character.
It’s perfectly acceptable that some politicians would oppose the Jewish State Law. That’s their democratic prerogative. Without taking sides in the raging controversy, what should trouble us is the disingenuous attempt to base current political positions on words written in 1948 and which in no shape or form conform to what’s now attributed to them.
Thus Finance minister Ya’ir Lapid asserts that David Ben-Gurion would have disapproved of the Jewish State bill. Lapid even mobilized posthumous backing from Menachem Begin and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Because the Declaration, personally authored by Ben-Gurion, is so often misquoted – in the artificial debate on what weight ought to be accorded “democratic” versus “Jewish” components and whether they can at all coexist – we’d do well to actually read it and delve into how it came to be.
The preliminary draft of the Declaration, completed on May 10, 1948, features the word “democracy” once, in the fifth paragraph only. Its glaring absence from subsequent revisions indicates that it was erased and intentionally so. It’s imperative to note this, especially given the endless quibbles and quarrels that ensued among the Declaration’s hair-splitting framers over every shade of meaning and fragment of potential connotation.
Moshe Sharett, in time Israel’s second premier, headed the committee that drafted the second version. It was debated on May 13, less than a day before independence. At this point the word “democracy” had already been expunged from the text.
Ben-Gurion then became sole hands-on editor. His final draft’s comprehensive historical prologue passionately affirmed the Jewish national claim to this country. This was the essential motif – continually and forcefully emphasized.
The word “democratic” is entirely missing. The Declaration Ben-Gurion produced only cursorily lists assorted fundamental individual (as indisputably distinct from collective/national) freedoms “in the light of the vision of the prophets of Israel.”
Considering the meticulous attention to every nuance during a series of ultra-exhaustive consultations on quite literally the eve of the state’s birth, this omission was no accident.
Nonetheless, in recent years, the Supreme Court has treated the Declaration’s imaginary conjoined “Jewish-democratic” adjective as an unassailable quasi-constitutional directive. Moreover, more frequently than not, the justices confer substantially greater weight to “democratic” than to “Jewish.”
Critics of the Court’s interventionist proclivities see this as a dynamic that might turn Israel into an amorphous “state-for-all-its-citizens” at the direct expense of its “national-state-of-the-Jewish-people” designation.
During the last Knesset’s term, this sufficiently alarmed MK Avi Dichter – then of Tzipi Livni’s own Kadima faction – to submit legislation that would firmly secure the Jewish state characterization and accord it preference in judicial deliberations. Dichter’s original bill has now been resubmitted, in a significantly softened version.
Nevertheless, it is opposed – principally by Justice Minister Livni and Lapid – as grossly violating the embryonic constitution and spiritual legacy of the Declaration’s presumably postmodern progenitors. But did Ben-Gurion and the committee that approved his choice of words really intend their Declaration as a proto-constitution to validate discrepant political fashions decades later?
It’s important to stress that Ben-Gurion repeatedly argued that “this is no constitution,” and that the terse reference to civil liberties was required by the General Assembly Partition Resolution. “We inserted the basic elements demanded of us by the UN,” he explained to members of the Provisional People’s Council (Israel’s emergent parliament).
Ben-Gurion treated every iota of every detail with pedantic judiciousness. The least we owe him and his colleagues is to respect their sense of circumspection and the Declaration they left us.