Israel at 75: The Rebirth of Israel?

The current crisis presents a historic opportunity to refashion the Jewish state in a way that embraces the original aims of the founding: protecting both democratic rights and freedoms and also the unique Jewish character of the state.
April 20, 2023
Amir Levy/Getty Images

It took the United States of America 74 years to get from its constitutional birth in 1787 to the Civil War in 1861. It took the Soviet Union 74 years to get from revolution in 1917 to dissolution in 1991. 

I’m no expert in the rise and fall of empires, but there may be something intuitive here: Nations, especially those founded on an idyllic vision of the future, begin with a generation of founders — charismatic warriors and ideologues. These founders are revered by a second generation — that of the builders, who infuse the vision with power, wealth, and a sense of permanence. 

But then comes a third generation, born well after the founding and having come of age just as the last of the founders have left the stage. Yes, they are grateful for the sacrifices of the first two generations. But many are also disillusioned. They are ready to rebel, to correct course, to right the perceived wrongs of the founding. They are out of patience. Their turn has come. 

In the third generation, the ship of state sails into a storm so violent, it may not survive.

Israel, too, has reached a breaking point in its 75th year. Our situation is different, though. We have neither the geographical expanse to allow for secession, like the Americans, nor could we survive, physically, the collapse of the state like the Soviets. 

And so, Israel’s third-generation convulsion will play out differently: Like a growing family stuck in a tiny apartment, sick of living together but unwilling to break apart.

For those of us who have spent the last four months analyzing the tactics and motives of the key players in this drama — Netanyahu and Herzog, Lapid and Gantz, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and Deri — the current pause in legislation has given us time to step back and look at the deeper currents, the historical meanings, and the possibilities of the moment.

‘Shas’ Party leader Aryeh Deri speaks to lawmakers during a parliament session on November 28, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. Amir Levy/Getty Images

We Israelis have learned a great deal about ourselves in the last four months. I, for one, am deeply optimistic.

It has become common to assert that the biggest division over the last five years has been not about ideology, policy or classic notions of left and right, but rather about Benjamin Netanyahu. His indictments and dishonesty, it is argued, have made him toxic to any party to the left of Likud. And indeed, the proximate cause for the political gridlock has been the refusal of Israel’s centrist opposition parties, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, to join any coalition led by him.

I fear that the focus on this one man, the savior or villain of the Jewish state, is a distraction. The political whirlwind, especially surrounding the Netanyahu-led effort to legislate an overhaul of the judiciary, has found us arrayed in two camps, neither of which can legitimately claim a mandate to effect fundamental change.

These two camps have been struggling for power for generations. The names and explicit causes change. The underlying dynamic does not.

These two camps have been struggling for power for generations. The names and explicit causes change. The underlying dynamic does not.

I have been engaged in the Israeli debate over the role of the judiciary since the late 1990s, when I edited an Israeli journal of public affairs called Azure. During that time, Supreme Court President Aharon Barak had announced his “judicial revolution,” in which the court had unilaterally gutted the fundamental restrictions provided by legal guardrails known as standing and justiciability, and had declared that Israel’s Basic Laws — a kind of legislative stand-in in the absence of a proper constitution — now had the weight of a constitution and could be used as the basis for striking down both government actions and laws. To top it all off, he introduced a broad notion of “reasonableness” as a criterion for adjudicating cases, which he said, demonstrating a supreme lack of self-awareness, should be defined “according to the views of the enlightened community in Israel.”

We at Azure strongly opposed this revolution, and enlisted heavy hitters like Ruth Gavison, a renowned legal scholar and warrior for civil rights, to criticize it in our pages. 

Yet at the same time, there was a second battle, surrounding the 1999 conviction and sentencing of Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Shas Party, on bribery charges. Deri was a rising star who had rallied Israel’s traditionalist Sephardim behind a rabbinically-led, semi-ultra-Orthodox movement that threatened to upend Israeli politics. Now he was going to prison.

There were massive public demonstrations against the Deri conviction. Deri distributed a video tape, in hundreds of thousands of copies, called “Ani Ma’ashim” (“I accuse”)—echoing Émile Zola’s famous 1898 essay “J’Accuse!,” implicitly comparing his plight to the Dreyfus Affair. There was also a popular song by the Mizrahi singer Benny Elbaz entitled, unsubtlely, “Hu Zakai” or “He’s Innocent.” 

Yet in the Deri affair, Azure took the side of the courts: I personally wrote an editorial entitled “What Do you Mean, ‘He’s Innocent’?” As far as I could tell (and I still believe this), Deri was indeed corrupt and justly convicted. In my view, this had nothing to do with Barak’s judicial revolution.

What I failed to understand at the time was that on a deeper level, these two battles were fundamentally intertwined. Not philosophically, not theoretically, not in the world of policy wonks like myself, but in the deepest currents of Israeli society. 

I recall the video vividly. It was more than an hour long. Much of it had Deri sitting behind a desk, with large pictures of Sephardic rabbis hanging behind him. He was speaking rapidly, like Crazy Eddie, proclaiming his innocence. Interlaced were clips of protestors and rabbis, as well as interviews with non-Orthodox Shas voters. 

One man-in-the-street said that “if they had wanted to give him a fair trial, they would have gotten three Sephardic judges … and not Ashkenazic elites.” Another went further, declaring that “Ashkenazim have a hatred in their hearts for Sephardim. Sometimes it just comes out, they can’t help themselves.” “Aryeh Deri is the nightmare of the secular-Ashkenazi leadership,” concluded a third. “Aryeh Deri is Sephardic, religious, and happens to be extremely talented.”

Looking back, of course, it’s clear that this wasn’t really about Deri at all. It was about a large population of Israelis who felt, rightly or wrongly, that they’d been left behind, locked out of the structures of Israeli success.

Fast-forward. The current push to judicial reform, the arguments about protection of the rights and consent of the governed, about judicial selection and the Knesset’s ability to override rulings — all of these are happening in parallel to an attempt to reinstate Deri, yet again, as a minister in government despite multiple criminal convictions. The legislative push for the “Deri Laws” has barely been noticed in the Western press. But to Israelis, the connection is clear. 

It is this: The deepest motivations for judicial reform come not from arguments out of “The Federalist” but from long-held resentments coming from large parts of the Israeli electorate against the same establishment that has long preserved what protestors see as rights, equality, and democratic freedoms. And at the pinnacle of that establishment sit the justices of the Supreme Court.

David Ben-Gurion reads the Declaration of Independence May 14, 1948 at the museum in Tel Aviv, during the ceremony founding the State of Israel. (Photo by Zoltan Kluger/GPO via Getty Images)

Most American Jews find it easier to understand and empathize with the camp that has filled the streets with protesters — the side that the Israeli political commentator Avishay Ben Haim has called “First Israel,” the side that sees Israel above all as a bastion of Western liberal democracy, that revels in the memory of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. This is the Israel that most American Jews cling to in their memories and aspirations. But it is only half the story.

The other camp, which Ben-Haim calls “Second Israel,” has been harder for many American Jews to understand. It is heavily populated by Mizrahim, the darker-skinned underclass who immigrated from Middle Eastern countries mostly after independence and who today make up more than half of Israel’s Jews — but are only a small fraction of American Jewry. 

It also includes the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, who once were a kind of swing-vote, giving power to whichever political side was willing to continue uninterrupted funding for their institutions, but for the last two decades have been in a full-throated alliance with Likud. And it includes the pro-settlement national-religious parties. 

What binds these three sub-camps together is not merely a sense that they’ve been left out of the mainstream power centers of Israeli life. It’s a belief in the primacy of the “irrational” elements of their Jewish identity: tradition, respect for rabbis, return to the homeland of Judea and Samaria — and the belief that an authentically Jewish state must reflect them.

To American Jews, who are overwhelmingly of European origin and culturally secular, Second Israel is the Other.

First Israel founded the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, and dominated its politics for the first three decades of its history. In 1977, however, Menachem Begin’s Likud party won the general election largely on the strength of the votes of Mizrahim; in this sense, at least, Netanyahu is indeed Begin’s true heir, a master at translating latent resentments into political power. 

But politics, as they say, is downstream from culture: In the decades since, Israel’s key culture-shaping institutions — including the military, the judiciary, the media, the universities and the arts — have remained dominated by Ashkenazim.

The last four months have forced First Israel to confront its own failings over many decades — specifically, its failure to convince large parts of the population that its true intentions are about rights and equality rather than just preserving the power structure of the old elites. 

But the other side has learned something as well.

Second Israel has seen the magnitude of the protests against judicial reform — beyond that of the anti-Oslo protests, the protests against the Lebanon War or the Rothschild protests or the cottage cheese protests or even the mourning that followed the Rabin assassination. It is beyond anything that could have come from top-down directives, or from the help of the State Department or the Mossad, as has been claimed. The movement, of course, had funding and organization. But its force, its sheer magnitude, came from the bottom up.

These demonstrations are beyond anything Israel has ever seen. 

And what’s more, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that these protestors are motivated by a genuine love of the country, a desire to preserve the Israel that was handed down from a generation of incredible warriors who emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust, to a generation of builders who expanded Israel’s might and launched an unprecedented economic miracle we today call the Start-Up Nation. 

I have never seen so many Israeli flags in my life.

These protestors are not a small minority of espresso-drinking Tel Aviv elites. They are not just the journalistic-legalistic-military-industrial-complex. Unlike much of the global “Left” that Netanyahu tries to associate them with, they proudly wave the nation’s flag. They are patriots. 

The clash, if we are to be honest, is between two contradictory patriotic Israeli movements. Two different Jewish nationalisms, two forms of Zionism, relying on two different understandings of the word “democracy.” One seeks redress of injustice and counterrevolution, and to create an authentically Jewish state. The other wants to preserve the liberal order and the “light unto nations.” One sees the Jewish state as a “democracy” whose just powers of government derive from the consent of the governed; the other sees “democracy” — as expressed in rights, freedom and equality — as inherent and non-negotiable elements of any Jewish state.

It is the successful fusion of these two conflicting sides, Jewish and liberal-democratic, that has made Israel into a miracle.

Both of these sides have existed from the founding of the nation. It is fascinating to return to Israel’s Declaration of Independence and see how they are both eternalized in its words. It is the successful fusion of these two conflicting sides, Jewish and liberal-democratic, that has made Israel into a miracle.

The Declaration, delivered at the Tel Aviv Museum by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948, is a fascinating historical document. It can be divided into three sections: (i) Historical background and justification; (ii) proclamations, not just of independence, but also of what kind of state Israel will be; and (iii) appeals to the nations of the world, to the Jewish people, and to the Arab world. 

It opens with a review of millennia of Jewish history, from our national birth in the Land of Israel to exile and unbroken longing for return, to the launch of modern Zionism and Herzl’s Zionist Congress, to the Balfour Declaration and the Holocaust.

While it gives a nod to international recognition of Jewish rights, it is clear that this is subordinate to our own inherent historical rights — not just our connection to the land, but also the fact that Jews were on the side of the allies in World War II. (Note there is no appeal to the Holocaust as a basis for our rights.) “This right is a natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.”

So the background and justification for independence can be called particularist or “Jewish” — our history, our longing, our deep connection to the land, and our loyalty to the side that won the war and founded the United Nations. 

The state itself, however, is for the most part described in universalist or “democratic” terms. The key paragraph, which became the anchor for the Supreme Court’s rulings over decades in the absence of a constitution, reads as follows:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure 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; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Yes, it will be a homeland for the Jews. But our ingathering will not be just another kingdom of power and violence and brutality. Nowhere does the document use the word “democracy,” but rights and freedoms, equality and inclusiveness are to be guaranteed. The new Jewish state will be something noble, a shining example for the world. 

And thus, it was the protestors of the so-called Left, rather than those of the so-called Right, who chose to use the Declaration as a prop, plastering a huge version of it on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Where does that leave us, as we attempt to celebrate our 75th independence day in the shadow of the greatest divide in our nation’s history?

The Soviet Union crashed and burned because its citizens had long given up on the national dream of a beautiful future of equality through communism. The United States fought a brutal Civil War that sacrificed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and required more than a decade of military occupation of the South, but which ultimately yielded a Second Founding, a national rebirth.

Israel can afford neither, and for this reason I am optimistic. 

Israel’s leaders, both government and opposition, have for the first time begun negotiating the contours of an “alternative reform” — which may actually be nothing less than a constitution for the Jewish state.

Both sides maintain their leverage in the form of a loaded gun on the table: The coalition has kept the first of the reform laws — an overhaul of the judicial selection committee that appoints Supreme Court justices — ready to pass its final Knesset votes at a moment’s notice. The opposition has continued the demonstrations at scale, ready to unleash the chaos of general strikes, civil disobedience, and possible severe actions of the judiciary, the military, the business sector and core structures of the state. 

The abyss is there, visible through the windows of the conference room at the President’s Residence, visible outside our homes, staring at all of us.

But there is also an incredible opportunity here, and both sides know it.

Perhaps the most jarring line in the Declaration says that a national Constitution “shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948” — which, as we know, never happened. 

But perhaps it can happen now, in the third generation. The current crisis presents a historic opportunity to refashion the Jewish state in a way that embraces the original aims of the founding: Protecting both democratic rights and freedoms and also the unique Jewish character of the state. Such a constitution could ensure the buy-in of long-excluded populations including Mizrahim, Haredim, and Arab-Israelis — and possibly even give a permanent, institutionalized role to representatives of the Diaspora.

Years ago, the legal scholar Ruth Gavison explained that the true purpose of an Israeli constitution would be to give every community a sense that its own vital interests are guaranteed. Today’s non-constitutional structure, she argued, has created an impossible reality in which everyone feels like they are part of a threatened minority constantly at risk of its core rights being stripped by the whim of either a simple Knesset majority or a ruling of the Supreme Court.

Only when people stop feeling like they belong to an oppressed minority will they have the security and confidence to grant the same protections to other communities. Only an effective constitution can defuse the bomb.

The challenge of a constitutional negotiation is to define and articulate those vital interests in a way that they do not directly contradict—to carve out a new puzzle that somehow holds together.

Is this really possible?

There are many reasons to doubt it, and I too have had doubts. The distrust among the leaders, it is claimed, is too great. Netanyahu has gone too far, going all-in with his far-right coalition partners and his extreme proposals, to compromise. Lapid and Gantz, it is claimed, would rather keep their role as the leaders of the most powerful opposition movement in Israel’s history, or take their chances on the next election cycle, than be seen as caving to Netanyahu’s demands. And anyway, it is said, Netanyahu is no longer in charge, having given up the reins to his son Yair, or his wife Sara, or Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. And on the core issue, that of the judiciary, the gaps are just too wide to bridge.

But politics is a strange game, and nobody knows this better than Netanyahu. It was barely three years ago that he abandoned his long-promised annexation of territories in the West Bank in exchange for full peace with major Arab states. Given the right incentives, I have no doubt that he is still at heart a negotiator rather than an ideological warrior.

The truth is, both sides have a powerful political incentive to make this work.

The truth is, both sides have a powerful political incentive to make this work. Netanyahu, it would seem, would much rather end his career as the father of a new constitution embraced by the country as a whole than as the man who led us into the abyss. Lapid and Gantz do not want to share in any of the blame for missing the opportunity for national unity and stopping the most extreme elements of the reform if Netanyahu does eventually pull the trigger. 

There are also practical obstacles to overcome. Most obvious is the need to make up for the 14 seats of Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, which will likely bolt the coalition the moment a deal is reached. If the government were to fall, we would begin another election cycle, with another caretaker government and an intensive campaign; the cards would be reshuffling, and the opportunity for a deal would be lost. Any deal would require an immediate safety net to keep the government afloat.

And there is also the delicate question of Netanyahu’s criminal trial. Because he and his supporters believe it to be entirely political in essence, he is unlikely to accept any deal that does not somehow take away the sting. 

These are the key obstacles, alongside the incentives, to the creation of a new constitution for Israel — and the rebirth of the nation. But the most important incentive, which I believe is great enough to overcome all the obstacles, is not political or practical, so much as the deep, historic needs of the nation. 

Israel has lived far too long without a clear delineation of the powers and rights, the checks and balances, and the guarantees of the vital interests of each of the major sectors of society. We have lived for too long with resentments simmering just below the surface, with mass protests alternating between left and right. We have lived too long on the brink, just barely held together by external crises, dumb luck and duct tape. 

Above all, the crisis of the last four months has shown us all that Israel faces a stark choice, between agreement and unraveling, between rebirth and abyss.

Every nation faces the breaking point in its own way, and no outcome is predetermined. America bled and was reborn, while the USSR vanished as a living idea long before it disappeared from history.

There’s another example of this dynamic — from our own history. In ancient Israel, the golden age, the great Israelite monarchy, was founded by King David, the hungry poet-warrior who conquered Jerusalem and planned the great Temple. King Solomon, his son, followed him, building great cities and expanding and firmly establishing the empire. 

Then came the third generation. Rupture and division — the kingdom split in two, Israel to the north and Judea, with Jerusalem, to the south. It took some time, but this split led, eventually, to weakness and destruction of both kingdoms, and exile.

The prospect of such a biblical collapse lurks in the back of every Israeli’s mind.

The coming months will be filled with tension, turmoil, negotiations halted and restarted, and tactical disinformation. So yes, I am scared that things could get much worse before getting better.

The coming months will be filled with tension, turmoil, negotiations halted and restarted, and tactical disinformation. Weapons will be drawn, perhaps even used, and then put back down again. Actual blood may yet, God forbid, be shed.

So yes, I am scared that things could get much worse before getting better. But I am also deeply optimistic that we will come out on the other side with a nation reborn. Not just because my analysis of the politics says it’s in everyone’s interest to pass a consensus-based constitution for Israel, but because of the incredible things I’ve learned about Israelis: The dramatic demonstrations filling the streets and highways with Israeli flags all point to an utter lack of apathy. And it’s apathy, not acrimony, that destroys nations from within.

This wild, immense Zionist spirit is the key to the nation’s success, and it’s not going anywhere.

We fight because we care. The love in this country surpasses that of any nation on earth. This wild, immense Zionist spirit is the key to the nation’s success, and it’s not going anywhere.

To me it is clear: Israel, the glorious miracle of Jewish rebirth, now celebrating its 75th Independence Day, is not nearing its end. On the contrary, it is just getting started.

David Hazony is a writer, editor, and translator living in Jerusalem. He is editor of “Jewish Priorities,” a collection of more than sixty new essays from across the Jewish world, coming out Fall 2023 with Wicked Son books.

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