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Ariel Hirsch on Ruth Gavison's "A Constitution for Israel"; Stuart Schnee and Edward Alexander on Jeff Jacoby's "Assimilation's Retreat"; and others.




A Constitution for Israel
TO THE EDITORS:
In writing in favor of a constitu­tion for Israel, Ruth Gavison (“A Constitution for Israel: Lessons from the American Experiment,” AZURE 12, Winter 2002) deserves praise for good intentions, but her plan is ill-conceived.
First of all, Gavisons aim is to curtail the power of the Supreme Court. While that is a worthy aim, the Knes­set is already fully capable of limit­ing the courts power through legis­lation. That the Knesset does not do so is the heart of the problem. The same politicians who are unwilling to take on the Supreme Court through the legislative process are hardly more likely to do so in a constitutional convention.
Secondly, with the possible exception of Members of Knesset Michael Kleiner, Yuval Steinitz, and Natan Sharansky, there is not a Madison or Jefferson among them. It is worth bearing in mind that the last piece of constitutional legislation which the Knesset passed, the repeal of the direct election of the prime minister, essentially amounted to a disenfranchisement of Israeli voters. And when current defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer campaigned for the Labor Party in 1992, he had no qualms about declaring, paradoxically, that in the name of democracy we must eliminate the small parties in the Knesset. To politicians like these, democracy means nothing more than the ability to steamroll ones political opponents. Todays political leaders in Israel are experts at ordinary politics, and they will not part with their power in the name of higher constitutional ideals.
Finally, the United States of 1787 is vastly different from Israel of 2002. America had no functioning national government in 1787—a crucial fact which Gavison buries in a footnote. True, America resembled todays Israel, in that it was a besieged nation surrounded by enemies. But the United States at the time had no army, while Israel does. Shays Rebellion underscored the confederations inability to regulate commerce and banking or to keep internal peace. Israel can do all these things. In writing a constitution, America was not merely seeking redress of certain dangers to effective government; America had no effective government, and had to establish one quickly or cease to exist.
Gavison attempts to explain why the United States Constitution succeeded, but she misses the real reason: Americans had a unified vision of themselves. They had fought Englands King George III and forged a national identity as the nation of liberty. That is how they were able to create a government that Lincoln later recognized as being “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Israelis have yet to come to terms with the fact that they, by contrast, are a confused, lost nation, which is as a result incapable of producing as successful a government and constitution for themselves as the American equivalents are for America. Where the Americans did fail—mainly in matters of slavery and civil rights—it took many painful years to solve the problems, and the process is not yet complete. The solutions written into the constitution, which were arrived at through the give-and-take of ordinary politics, failed. And our own Israeli practitioners of petty shteeble politics on the national level will ensure that Gavisons plan never unfolds as she envisions.
Ariel Hirsch
Beit El
 
RUTH GAVISON RESPONDS:
It may well be that Israel is too rifted at the moment to allow for an adequate constitution. Too many groups hope that keeping all political decisions at the level of ordinary politics will give them more political power than an entrenched constitution.
My argument is that Israel needs a constitution precisely because it is so rifted: The constitution is needed to provide the different groups, which have inconsistent and incompatible visions of what Israel should be, with a shared political framework within which they can promote the policies that all of them need in order to flourish. The shared framework will give them the security of fair membership in their society, while permitting them to use their political power to promote their distinct interests and visions of the good life. A shared constitution neither requires nor rejects, in abstract principle, arrangements such as a presidential system or judicial review by the Supreme Court. It seeks to give Israel effective government by authorities which should enjoy broad legitimacy within society.
If Israel wants to take the path of effective constitutional politics, The Federalist and the American experience can be a source of guidance about how to proceed. An adequate constitution for Israel cannot ignore the deep rifts within it. Rather, it needs to facilitate the crucial distinction between the interests of the factions and the interests of Israel as a civic nation. The latter include the attempt to create a power structure that will meet the basic needs and rights of all major groups within Israeli society.
 
Assimilation and Secular Judaism
TO THE EDITORS:
Reading Levi Eshkols 1967 speech (“Can a Homeland Be Built in Shifts?” AZURE 12, Winter 2002) together with Jeff Jacobys review of Samuel Freedmans Jew vs. Jew (“Assimilations Retreat,” AZURE 12, Winter 2002) is telling—and painful.
In September 1967, Eshkol addressed a crowd of 6,000 young Jews from around the world who had come to the Jewish state as volunteers at the time of the Six Day War. In Israels moment of need, they put their lives on hold and rushed here to do whatever they could. Some 35 years later, Samuel Freedman writes of the Orthodox communitys success in the United States and the struggles between the increasingly traditional and increasingly assimilated ends of the American Jewish spectrum.
According to Freedman, the various contingents in American Jewry have spent the last decade or two working out their versions of a secure, comfortable existence. Orthodox Jews celebrate as Jewish day schools flourish, Oreo cookies become kosher, and kosher hotels open at Disney World. At the other end, assimilation is more comfortable than everׁboth for Jews less interested in tradition and for the greater society that seems more open to Jews than ever: Barriers to intermarriage are all but gone, the entire country loved Jerry Seinfeld, and rabbis can be included on interfaith panels discussing a variety of issues. American Jewry’s “golden age” has arrived.
Meanwhile, a battle is being waged for the land of Israel. Palestinians are galvanized for what they perceive as an imminent victory over Zionism, while Israeli citizens report for reserve duty and mourn their dead.
This is not to say that American Jews are not concerned about Israel. In kosher pizza shops across America worried American Jews discuss “the situation” in Israel. “Israeli public relations are abysmal. We look terrible.” To which the response is: “Youre right. Pass the garlic salt, please.” U.S. Jewry from all ends of the spectrum talks, supportsׁand cancels trips to Israel. Aliya? It is not even an issue. Why should it be? The Israelis will guard the shop. They’ll battle the Palestinians.
Israelis will maintain the Jewish state while American Jewry eats Oreos and attends interfaith dialogue panels.
Why should anything change? American Jewry never really stood up to the challenge of Jewish statehood and independence. Instead, definitions were blurred and well-organized fundraising frameworks were created. Funds were and still are important, and no community has been as consistently generous. However, there is a time and place for everything. While Israeli Jews try to maintain and defend Jewish statehood, it seems absurd for American Jewry to ignore the real challenges. Of course, it was absurd two years ago as well. But now with “the situation” the way it is, the lines of separation seem clearer between the Israeli reality and the surreal golden existence of American Jewry.


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