Fireworks over the Knesset (Image credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Government Press Office of Israel)
Accounting for the State of Israel's survival into the 21st century exercises the mind, given the external threats and internal deficiencies it has had to cope with from the outset. The state's congenital defects are myriad and generally stem from the staunchly secular, socialist vision of many of its founders.
Israeli politicians regularly intone the mantra that Israel must be both “Jewish” and democratic, and most privilege democratic over “Jewish”. Yet Israel's electoral system and parliamentary impotence make a mockery of democracy and excommunicate the state's Judaic character.
Democracy entails elections whereby people are canvassed for consent, but Israel's fixed party lists absolve members of the Knesset from accountability to their constituents. When the entire nation is a single constituency without candidate districts or voter ridings, the interests of the electorate are not represented and the purported representatives are beholden to party leaders, not voters. And the low electoral threshold means the Knesset is glutted with special interest parties cobbled together into coalition governments that thereby wield disproportionate national influence.
Moreover, prime ministers populate their cabinets with rival party leaders and elites, resulting in a plural Executive branch of government that constrains peremptory actions, often causing petty infighting among ministers and even the disintegration of governing coalitions. Furthermore, a cabinet constituted with MKs means there is no arm's length separation of the Legislative and Executive branches of power.
In addition, Israel still has no formal constitution, only a series of sporadically enacted Basic Laws, and does not accept the constitution of the Jewish people — the Torah — as the foundation for its state charter. So much for the democratic nature of the State of Israel.
The Judaic nature of Israel is arguably in worse shape. Due to their entrenched secular, socialist ideologies, those who have steered the ship of state since its inception have largely refrained from instilling Judaic character into national institutions. Absent the compass of identity and the helm of heritage, over the decades Israel's leadership has made numerous gratuitous concessions without reciprocation, and has surrendered sacred lands and holy sites to its sworn enemies as part of the fatal charade known by the misnomer of "peace process."
Identity infirmity in a region crowded by strident neighbors mired in a medieval mentality is an invitation to annihilation, even if only through piecemeal accords for which Israel employs goodwill diplomacy and its foes ill-willed or martial diplomacy, i.e., warfare waged by other means. Without a profound and expansive understanding of Jewish patrimony, Jewish posterity is imperiled. Israel's palpable absence of ethno-national authenticity makes it prone to foreign pressures and to misguidedly engaging in political self-immolation.
Setting Israel’s House in Order
There are remedies to Israel's institutional ills, though reform will be inadequate where overhaul is necessary. One key remedy would be to establish a bicameral legislature: the lower house, the "Knesset" of 120 elected members, would possess an administrative and legislative capacity and be open to Jews and non-Jews alike, thereby enshrining the democratic aspect of the state, while the upper house, the "Great Sanhedrin" of 71 appointed members (rabbinical sages selected based on merit), would possess a legislative and judicial capacity and be open only to the most respected Judaic legists, thereby ensuring the Judaic aspect of the state.
Restituting the Great Sanhedrin of 71 rabbinical sages as the legislature's curule body, equivalent to a Senate or House of Lords, would bolster world Jewry's sense of renewal and signal the supremacy of Israel's Judaic character. Historically, the Great Sanhedrin was a council and court concerned foremost with religious law and adjudicating cases. Nonetheless it had different powers in different epochs, including political and legislative powers, and always maintained a legislative component even strictly within religious affairs, as in its issuing of takkanot (innovative laws) and gezeirot (preventative laws).
Re-establishing the Great Sanhedrin as a Senate would only modestly modulate its mandate. A reconstituted Great Sanhedrin would serve as a combined legislature and magistrature/judicature overseeing the Knesset, offering sager counsel to lawmakers of the lower house while acting as guardians of Israel's Judaic nature in line with the rich teachings of the Torah, Talmud, and authoritative halakhic codes, in addition to operating within the discrete realm of Jewish religious affairs by issuing rulings and deciding cases of utmost import for world Jewry according to Judaic law.
Both the upper and lower houses in Israel's legislature would be able to introduce bills, but only a majority (whether simple, absolute, or extraordinary) of the Great Sanhedrin could enact a bill into law. An authoritative Great Sanhedrin, along with local courts (battei din), would also obviate the need for a Chief Rabbinate, an institution imported into the State of Israel from the Diaspora, which has proven all too often to be prone to controversy and scandal.
Historically, there was also a lesser Sanhedrin of 23 rabbinical jurists as well, and re-establishing this body as the supreme court of Israel would also remedy many ills currently plaguing the state. Israel's current Supreme Court has been the world's activist court par excellence, overreaching into the purview of legislators at every possible opportunity and frequently negating the state's Judaic content, thus threatening both Israel's democratic and Judaic aspects. Such juridical overextension is facilitated by the radically liberal Supreme Court's ideological homogeneity and overt disregard for the will of the populace, much of which is religious or traditional. Unelected justices arrogating to themselves powers beyond their remit is a travesty of the first magnitude, an oligarchic threat to democracy.
Partial Structure of the Restored Judaic State, based on “Israel 2.0: Anticipating the Jewish State's Coming of Age” by Brandon Marlon
In any nation the corporate good requires leadership that is coherent and resolute, which comprises a government, legislature, and judiciary rooted in the nation's reason for being. Is Israel's premise to be a democracy? Democracy is a method, not a vocation. It is important, but it cannot supersede Israel's Judaic substance (in which many "democratic" elements are already enshrined). A nation's allies extol strength and its adversaries exploit weakness. Resolving Israel's identity crisis domestically would additionally go a long way in strengthening its international posture.
Upgrading to Israel 2.0
Stage One of Israel's statehood — the State of Israel 1.0 — involved the preliminary ingathering of exiles, the establishment of rudimentary national institutions, and fighting for survival in armed conflicts with neighboring aggressors. In Stage One, land and people (nation and nation-state) remarried, but the marriage has yet to be consummated.
Having fulfilled its first 70 years, Israel should now confidently segue into Stage Two of its statehood — the State of Israel 2.0 — which entails a Judaic renascence so that the nation-state of the Jews naturally evolves into a Judaic state, a polity proudly embodying the exemplary morals, ethics, values, virtues, and principles of Judaism.
One of the ideal ways to do this would be to introduce a Declaration of Restoration, sequel to the Declaration of Independence, that would not be merely symbolic, but would entail a pragmatic agenda comprising long overdue measures:
a) the enshrinement of a constitution governing the Judaic state, to whose letter and spirit all other laws must conform, which would formally replace the existing Basic Laws while incorporating them, with or without amendments, as necessary;
b) the re-establishment of the Great Sanhedrin council of 71 rabbinical sages as the upper chamber in a bicameral legislature and the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate;
c) the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin tribunal of 23 jurists (at least a quorum of which — 13 justices — would adjudge cases) to replace the Supreme Court;
d) the administrative redivision of Israel into electoral regions/provinces, counties, and wards/ridings/boroughs, from which Knesset members would be elected by constituent citizens to whom members would be politically and professionally accountable, including via a formal recall provision;
e) the final indigenization of institutions such as the Jewish Agency for Israel (merged into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration) and the Jewish National Fund - Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael (merged into the Israel Land Authority, which is legally subject to the Ministry of Housing and Construction, and into the Israel Nature and Parks Authority under the Ministry of Environmental Protection).
While today hybrid Israel — part Hebraic republic, part Judaic state — remains the Middle East's target of choice, it may yet progress into a self-respecting, ergo respected, state, fulfilling its premise as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and its purpose of serving as a light to the nations.
Brandon Marlon is a Canadian-Israeli writer. He received his B.A. in Drama & English from the University of Toronto and his M.A. in English from the University of Victoria. He is the author of "Inspirations of Israel: Poetry for a Land and People" and "Judean Dreams." His play, "The Bleeding Season," won the 2007 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition, his poetry was awarded the Harry Hoyt Lacey Prize in Poetry (Fall 2015), and his writing has been published in 250+ publications in 28 countries.
This article is part three of Mr. Marlon’s tripartite series on the history and organization of the Jewish commonwealths. “Will Israel be a Hebraic Republic or a Judaic State?” was followed by “Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Judaic Statehood.” An earlier version of this article appeared in The Jerusalem Post and in Israel Rising.