Israel’s Democracy and the Prophets of Doom The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel, Promise Unfulfilled by Dahlia Scheindlin

by June 2024

The story is told of an American journalist who went to Israel for a three-day visit. When asked on the second day what she was writing, she replied, ‘a book with the title: “Israel, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”’

Dahlia Scheindlin is the opposite of that journalist. For 25 years, she has lived and worked in Israel as a pollster, consultant and journalist. Now she has written a deeply researched history of the State of Israel’s democracy. I learned from this book, despite its infusion of political partisanship, a feature of nearly all coverage of Israel, from left to right. Sometimes after you account for an author’s politics on Israel there is little to nothing left of substance in the book or column. But this book has plenty of substance left to enjoy, after necessary adjustments. 

To her credit, Scheindlin discloses up front, “I have worked for Israeli political parties in the center and, more often, on the left…a book about democracy is no place to avoid transparency about my own priorities.” She concludes not with thoughts about Israel’s institutions or internal development but rather about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. “Zionism cannot be predicated on preventing the self-determination of Palestinians and still be democratic.”

In fact, Palestinian state building is primarily up to the Palestinians. It should be the subject of a separate book that would focus chiefly on what the Palestinians have done, and not done, to achieve statehood. The great majority of Israelis, according to consistent poll results, are mainly concerned with ongoing Palestinian threats to their security. Blaming Israel for the failure of the Palestinians to create a peaceful, functioning state alongside Israel is a one-sided conclusion that mars this book.

But there are many things this book gets right once it delves into Israel’s political history and evolution of its institutions. In her explanation of the pre-state period, Scheindlin gives perhaps the best available short synopsis of three visions of Zionism: Ben Gurion’s socialist, statist and Zionist above all; Jabotinsky’s liberal democracy and ultranationalism; and religious Zionism’s God, then State. She describes a pre-state Jewish political culture resting on political bargaining, consensus-building and power-sharing that led to Israel’s parliamentary system.

The chapter on Israel’s “stillborn constitution” of 1949-1951 resonates with revelations minor and major. The Free Irish Constitution of 1922 turns out to have been a major influence on Jewish thinking about a constitution, especially from former Chief Rabbi of Ireland Itzhak Herzog (grandfather of the current president) and Leo Kohn (drafter of the Jewish Agency’s proposal who had earlier contributed to the Irish one). She notes that “the religious parties bear the most historical responsibility for preventing a constitution.” Orthodox Jewish jurisprudential support for a secular constitution remains an elusive goal for this still young state.

Prime Minister Ben Gurion also opposed the constitution. It would have constrained his and the ruling Labor Party’s power at a critical time of state building. Scheindlin brilliantly details his various objections both public and private. She cites his speech to the constitutional committee in July 1949, “The American constitution has turned into a conservative, reactionary institution that stands against the will of the people.” Ben Gurion particularly objected to judicial review of legislation, stating “I think I am capable of understanding things as well as the best judge in the world.” He also thought a constitution in 1950 could not represent the masses of Jewish immigrants yet to arrive, but who would certainly come. Thus in his view, a constitution should await a future generation and a politically mature country. 

Scheindlin details another failed effort, that of the small opposition Liberal party to promote a bill of rights in the 1960s (the Liberals were then Menachem Begin’s junior partner in the opposition coalition). But she neglects to note that in the earlier constitutional debates of 1950-51, Begin himself, as head of the opposition, proposed a constitution with a bill of rights. In her detailed and otherwise useful description of the legal advancement of the Israeli Arabs, she also neglects to note that Begin championed their civil rights along with those of other Israeli citizens.

Another aspect of Israel’s political culture that Scheindlin describes is the habit of equivocation, what she calls “Tergiversation Nation” (a play on the jingoistic term “Start-Up Nation”). Its master practitioner was Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister, who “continued a long tradition of purposeful, even strategic, non-decision…to include non-decision about a constitution defining either borders or the country’s identity; the sources of law and authority; deferral of legislation over the most sensitive issues; and of course refusing to state openly what Israel intended to do with the Occupied Territories.”

And yet, at the same time, Israel is undeniably a liberal democracy. The promises of its declaration of independence, of “full social and political equality of all of its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex,” are being upheld in courtrooms in the most difficult of regional environments. Scheindlin cites Freedom House, the non-governmental monitor of freedoms worldwide, in her introduction on “What is Democracy.” Freedom House consistently ranks Israel as the only free country in the Middle East.

Scheindlin knows Israel too well to ignore this reality. She occasionally lets slip her feeling for this very multicultural, very democratic society, as in this passage describing an impromptu Hanukah lighting at the Tel Aviv municipal library where she was researching the book: 

Most people had left to watch the final match of the World Cup, but a small group of library rats joined, among them a young man holding the waist of a woman in a miniskirt; the man placed his other hand on his head during the blessings in lieu of wearing a kippah. Another woman wore orange flared shorts and high skin-tight boots with chunky white rubber heels. We contributed the occasional scattered “amen,” sang a few of the songs, and went back to work. It felt about as coercive as the brightly lit Christmas market on the central road of Haifa or the carnival atmosphere alongside a certain tranquility in Muslim neighborhoods during Ramadan.

Such passages remind me of the weekly Torah portion “Balak” in the Book of Numbers, a highlight of mid-summer in synagogues throughout the world. Here is a reminder of the story: 

The Prophet Balaam, famed for his eloquence and wisdom, knows his job is to curse this people, the children of Israel. He ascends a mountain overlooking the plain where the Israelites are encamped. Then as he prepares to curse Israel, he looks down and sees a sea of tents stretching to the horizon. The intended curse turns into a blessing:

How goodly are your tents O Jacob, 
Your dwellings O Israel.

Scheindlin and fellow Israeli critics find faults (that is their job). In a larger sense, however, they pay testament to the freedom of expression and the diversity of views that thrive in this embattled democracy. 

Robert Silverman
A former US diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association, Robert Silverman is a lecturer at Shalem College, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and president of the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance. @silverrj99
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