Israeli police confront protesters during ongoing demonstrations in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2023, against controversial legal reforms being touted by the country's hard-right government. Credit - JACK GUEZ-AFP
Israel, my homeland, was built by people who came together from all over the world to escape ruthless persecution, and for nearly 75 years, it has enjoyed prosperity beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams. Today, Israel teeters on the edge of the abyss. The current crisis, sparked by proposed changes to the judiciary, hides both the root cause and a fundamental solution. Israel needs a constitution, or its equivalent, now.
By constitution, I mean a set of shared, fundamental principles coded into law. A contract that people are willing to uphold, regardless of whether they personally win or lose, is the glue that holds diverse societies together. Constitutions are not panaceas—they are often politicized and vigorously debated —but they provide a framework to tackle seemingly unbridgeable differences from the deepest common ground.
In the Israeli military, soldiers learn to navigate the desert by moving from one waypoint to the next. We teach those who get lost to retrace their steps to the last point of knowing where they were. This is no different. Countries with constitutions can start at their shared principles, their last known waypoint, then debate how to apply or evolve them to move forward. If they get lost, they know where to restart the journey. Countries without that shared foundation debate what their principles are in the face of every new challenge, and risk getting permanently lost in the desert.
That is what is happening in Israel. The easy explanation for the current conflict is to blame it all on the politicians. They certainly bear responsibility, especially the many who act in self-interest. But half of Israel supports this government’s actions, and the other half is on the verge of revolt over them. The hard truth is that Israel is being destroyed by disagreements because it has not done the work to build a sound foundation of the most important things its people agree on.
Looking back, the debate over a constitution has been deferred for decades. Deep social, political, and religious differences, which should have been a big incentive to define the common ground, instead became an excuse for leaders to shy away from the challenge. We claim shared ideals, but with not nearly enough written down, and with the most important things left vague and assumed, it has been too easy for anyone to claim the moral right. That is precisely what is happening between Israel’s branches of government and the people on either side of the current conflict.
Now, the accumulation of each incremental failure to compromise based on agreed upon principles has expanded Israel’s margins, as more and more people are squeezed out and pitted against each other. It is evident in the country’s inability to govern, with five general elections in the past four years, and in the current conflict. Any one of the judicial proposals presented opportunities to come together. We failed to do that. Not just once and not just on this topic, but many times, over many years. The myriad unresolved issues that by themselves were manageable have now metastasized into a fundamental divide and an attempt by those in power to overthrow the entire system.
Forming a constitution will be extremely difficult; it always is. The history of other nations shows that it is usually these moments that bring the highest risk of destruction but also the biggest potential for evolution. Politicians will cite past failures as reasons to defer yet again. That kind of thinking has brought the country to this unimaginable brink.
Israel does not need to tear itself apart over whether the judiciary should be protected or reformed. Israel needs to pause the current legislation to focus on the root cause and find a more sustainable means of addressing this and our many other divides. This means a constitution or its equivalent, with stronger checks and balances on all three branches of government, defined by the people who will bear the consequences of them.
We are two weeks from Pesach, Passover, the holiday that commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. At first, they were held together by the persecution they were running away from. Eventually though, as they moved beyond Pharaoh’s reach, they began to consider what they were running toward, and the Ten Commandments became the foundation they decided to build around. Just as it was 4,000 years ago, Israel can no longer survive glued together only by fear and common enemies. With prosperity gifted by the sacrifices of our ancestors, we now must build a shared foundation, the next waypoint that will keep us from wandering too long in the desert.