Israel, Justice, Politics, Religion

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution

So the State of Israel has gone 59 1/2 years without a written constitution. You can’t blame them really — when the state was declared in 1948, there was a war going on. And then other things just kept coming up. Ok, it wasn’t just procrastination; Israel has been able to stay in business only by sweeping certain deep fissures (Jews vs. Arabs, secular vs. Orthodox) under the rug, and sitting down to come up with a constitution would have required all of these sectors of the population reaching a consensus on the character of the state. In the meantime, Israel has been making things up as it goes along, and the Knesset has passed a series of Basic Laws (English and Hebrew text) which function collectively as a sort of constitution. The Basic Laws outline the procedural rules governing each of the branches of government, and some of the more recent ones are the beginnings of a Bill of Rights. (Don’t worry, “Freedom of Occupation” isn’t what you think! It says “Every Israel national or resident has the right to engage in any occupation, profession or trade.”) The Basic Laws don’t say anything about judicial review (in which judges can use the Basic Laws to overturn other laws as unconstitutional), but hey, neither does the U.S. Constitution.
PM Ehud Olmert has announced that he wants to roll out a constitution in time for Israel’s 60th anniversary, and a Knesset committee is hard at work, led by MK Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson. A draft of the preamble has been released to the press — here’s the English and Hebrew text (both with commentary from Ha’aretz).
It looks like it’s really not going to be easy to come up with something that everyone will agree on. The current draft says “The State of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state”, but there are some who will take issue with the “Jewish” part (the Arab parties are boycotting the committee meetings), and others who will take issue with the “democratic” part (the haredi parties are opposing provisions that would guarantee equal rights insofar as this conflicts with their understanding of Jewish law, and separation of church and state seems to be off the table), and still others who will take issue with the “is”. (I place myself in the latter camp, seeing “Jewish and democratic” as an aspiration, but not an accurate description of the status quo, and not attainable without a change in the status of the territories.)
A significant provision of this draft says “A Jew who immigrated to Israel by virtue of the Law of Return shall be eligible for Israeli citizenship in accordance with the terms and timetable determined by law.” This opens the door for a change in the current law, in which Israeli citizenship is awarded immediately upon arrival. Note also that “Jew” is not defined (the committee wasn’t interested in waiting another 60 years).
Keep watching over the next several months to see how these and many other issues are addressed, and start placing your bets on when (or whether) a final text will be ready for ratification.

4 thoughts on “I'll tip my hat to the new constitution

  1. Well, it sort of was. The Declaration of independance stipulated there would be elections for a constitutional convention which decided to avoid the hassle and declare itself the first knesset instead. The supreme court has since declared that the knesset is still a constitutional convention (i.e. it has been actively procrastinating for a while now). My bet is that it will happen, but for all the wrong reasons, and that it will be so flexible and will be changed every five minutes, that it won’t make a difference anyway.
    (Except the preamble, which will give people things to quabble about for the next 60 years)

  2. The proposals for a new constitution, as a concession to to the fervently Orthodox, guarantee religious control to the Orthodox world of religious matters.

  3. I love the fact that this is /still/in the works. It’s like when my shul’s Tishrei newsletter shows up in my mailbox during Sukkot.

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