The Jewish majority alone matters

“We declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel,” declared the People’s Council that convened in May 1948, and then written in the Declaration of Independence. The nature of the State of Israel, its principles, and the nature of its regime was supposed to be determined by the “Constituent Assembly” through adoption of a constitution no later than October 1, 1948. This promise to the United Nations, however, was never fulfilled, and instead the Constituent Assembly which was elected in January 1949, enacted the “Transition Law,” which stated that it had become a “Knesset” (The Israeli parliament). The Constituent Assembly failed its duty.

In the absence of a constitution defining their rights, citizens had to settle for the same brief line that became the constitutional basis of Israel. It promised to maintain “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” The word democracy, today proclaimed by everyone, was not even mentioned in the declaration of independence.

Today, 75 years since that historic announcement, the word constitution is on everyone’s lips. The constitutional crisis that split Israeli society in two has given rise to a new recognition among those, whose freedom and way of life this constitutional coup threatens, that their democracy is extremely fragile and must be safeguarded through a constitution that will guarantee the foundations of Israel’s democratic regime. So far, the place of the constitution has been filled by a series of basic laws enacted in the late 1990s, headed by the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Relying on this law, Judge Aharon Barak drafted numerous constitutional rulings in what is dubbed the “constitutional revolution,” which angered the ultra-orthodox parties, religious Zionism and the right in Israel due to their liberal approach.

The Declaration of Independence did not clearly establish the relationship between religion and state in Israel. The multitude of Shabbat laws that directly impinge on individual freedom and express religious coercion exerted on the secular public, are based on the status quo letter written by David Ben-Gurion to the ultra-orthodox “Agudat Israel” political party, which establishes Shabbat as the official day of rest. David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the state, but left a black constitutional hole that swallows up the entirety of Israeli society. As Aaron Barak’s constitutional revolution expanded, so did democracy at the expense of religion. It is not only about Basic Law Freedom of Occupation that anchors the opening of supermarkets and public transportation on Shabbat, equality in the burden of serving in the army for ultra-Orthodox youth, laws that allow combat service for women and recognize same-sex married couples. It is also about opening the doors of the Supreme Court to the Arab public in a series of issues concerning their status in the country.

All of these were an attempt to adapt Israel to the twenty-first century, and to normalize it among the family of nations as a democratic state. However, the more the Supreme Court expanded the space of democracy, the more its position was criticized among a growing segment of citizens who were brainwashed by national and right-wing religious demagoguery. In their eyes, and through relentless propaganda, the judiciary came to be seen as the chief obstacle to governance. The more the status of the Supreme Court was undermined, so did the internal division within Israeli society, which today has reached the boiling point. It turns out that the attempt to expand and interpret the Declaration of Independence only deepened the gap between liberals and conservatives. The conservatives strove with all their might to turn Israel into a Jewish state, as stipulated in the Declaration of Independence, while minimizing its democratic character. According to the right-wing view, democracy is reduced to rights of the Jewish citizens only. Any decision of a constitutional or political nature that does not receive the support of a Jewish majority becomes illegitimate.

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was considered the opening shot for creating a new Israeli consensus. The Oslo Accords did not win a Jewish majority in the Knesset and since the majority was achieved with the support of Arab MKs, the accords were illegitimate in the eyes of the right and religious Zionists and the road to political assassination was extremely short. From that historical moment, the Israeli right pushed the liberal opposition into a corner. The demonization of the Knesset’s Arab factions rendered it illegitimate to rely on them to form a ruling coalition. The Naftali Bennett-led Government of Change, which was established in June 2021 with the Islamic movement and disintegrated a year later, was completely boycotted by Netanyahu and his partners. Three members of Bennett’s own right wing faction abandoned him, unable to justify their alliance with an Arab party. Their crossing over to Netanyahu, led to the government’s ultimate collapse.

This consensus is so entrenched that Yair Lapid, the candidate to replace Netanyahu should the latter’s government fall, promises he will not rely on votes of the Islamic movement to obtain a majority, and will allow it into a future coalition only after securing a majority from among the Jewish factions. The protest movement against the right-wing coup also operates by this same principle. The struggle is “inter-Jewish” and there is no place in the protest for Arab citizens, lest the protest be perceived as illegitimate and unpatriotic in the eyes of the general public.

To emphasize the Jewish nature of the country, over its democratic character, the right-wing had to reiterate 70 years after the declaration of independence that “the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people.” In the Nation-State law approved by the Knesset on July 19, 2018, by a majority of 62, 55 against and 2 abstentions, there is no mention of Israel as a democratic state that grants equality to all its citizens. The Arab citizens were thus denied any part in determining the fate of the country. They are allowed to vote, but not to influence its course.

The coup d’état of Religious Zionism (party of Betzalel Smotrich) goes one step further, acting to disqualify the Arab lists from participating in Knesset elections at all. Its rage is lashed at the Supreme Court, which overturned the Central Election Commission’s decision to disqualify one of the three Arab parties” the National Democratic Assembly (Balad) faction. According to all polls, and despite an increase in support for the Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid cannot obtain a majority to form a government without including the Arab parties. His promise not to rely on the Arabs to form the government is based on the hope that, after Netanyahu’s departure from the political arena, he will succeed in forming a centre-right government with the remnants of the Likud party. Without a change in the paradigm stated in the Nation-State law, the result will be: neither a constitution nor democracy for all, but the preservation of the oxymoron, defining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The relationship between religion and state and the relationship between the state and its Arab citizens will remain in limbo.

Therefore, it is quite possible that Yair Lapid’s hopes will be dashed. The liberal current of Israeli society is currently going through such a deep transformation that it might push its leaders to determine that the democratic foundations are the basis for the state’s existence and future.

Added to all this is the fateful question of what will be the place of the Palestinians under Israeli control. Religious Zionism and the entire right strive to impose the Israeli law to what has become in the eyes of the Israeli public “Judea and Samaria.” The first step in this direction was made with the transfer of the Military “Civil Administration’s” powers to Minister Bezalel Smotrich, thus forgoing the Israeli claim that the territories are held by Israel until a solution is found in the future.

As the two-state solution is no longer relevant, today all opponents to the occupation have come out with the slogan, “Democracy for all from the Jordan to the Sea.” This is indeed a correct and legitimate demand, but its realization is only possible in one state, where a liberal and democratic Israeli and Palestinian majority can realize it. This could be  based on the establishment of that forgotten Constituent Assembly which never convened, but this time not to establish a theocratic Jewish state but a democratic state that includes all the people living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Relying  on religious and nationalists to ensure a Jewish majority brought us to today’s constitutional crisis, as well as the recognition of the fact that without democracy for the Palestinians, there will be no democracy for the Jews.

About Yacov Ben Efrat