2023 has been an important year for thinking about Israel. First, since 2023 is the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state as announced in Israel's Declaration of Independence in 1948, there has been a lot of discussion of the Declaration and of how it might illuminate the history of Israel's successes and failures. This discussion has been deepened by the publication of two books--Neil Rogachevsky and Dov Zigler's Israel's Declaration of Independence: The History and Political Theory of the Nation's Founding Moment (Cambridge University Press) and Daniel Gordis's Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders' Dreams (HarperCollins). Rogachevsky and Zigler offer a history of how the Declaration was written and how it has been interpreted. They have summarized their argument in an article for the Jewish Review of Books. Gordis uses the Declaration as a statement of the high standards for judging whether Israel has fulfilled the hopes of its founders.
A second reason for why 2023 has been a year for thinking about Israel is that it has been a year of crises in Israel--both domestic and international. The domestic crisis arose after the election in November 2022, when Benjamin Netanyahu managed to put together a ruling coalition of the Likud party with several far-right parties, which looked to many people to be an extremist government that might destroy Israel's liberal democracy.
The first proposal from the new government was to have the Knesset enact a series of laws for "judicial reform" that would effectively weaken if not completely deny the power of the Supreme Court to overturn laws and administrative policies that seemed to violate human rights. Proponents of this proposal said it was necessary to protect the democratic rule of the majority against the excessive power of unelected judges. But opponents said this would eliminate the institutional checks and balances that protect individual rights from being infringed by otherwise unchecked legislative or executive power. The opponents organized mass public protests and strikes over many months that threatened to paralyze the social and economic life of the country. Perhaps most disturbing was that some military reservists said they would refuse to show up for military service.
In his Afterword to his book, Daniel Gordis warned that this showed the danger coming from "the most extreme government in Israel's history" (290). Gordis also coauthored an essay--"An Open Letter to Israel's Friends in North America"--asking North American Jews to join the protesters in Israel in opposing the government's threat to Israeli liberal democracy.
Neil Rogachevsky has joined Gordis in opposing the proposals for judicial reform. Far from supporting the rule of the majority, these proposals, Rogachevsky argues, actually show the tyranny of the minority, because Netanyahu's government has promoted these proposals only to satisfy the demands of the Haredi ultra-Orthodox religious minority parties in his coalition who want to protect their special legal privileges against the Supreme Court's claim that this violates the principle of equality of rights. In 2012, the Supreme Court overturned a law that secured the deferment of military service for Haredi students because this violated the principle in the Declaration of Independence that Israel "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex."
Then, however, on October 7, this intense debate over the judicial reform proposals was quieted by the attacks on Israel launched by Hamas from Gaza. Netanyahu has assembled a new coalition of parties that normally oppose one another that are now part of a "national unity" government in wartime.
So now, Israel faces the second crisis of 2023--a bloody war against Hamas that renews the endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This conflict has lasted for over a hundred years because there seems to be no peaceful resolution between the Zionist demand for a Jewish state in which Palestinian Arabs will always be a minority and Jews the majority and the Palestinian claim that all of Palestine belongs to the Palestinians.
Both of these crises point to the fundamental problem of how to achieve the equality of natural rights proclaimed by the Israeli Declaration of Independence in the circumstances of the Middle East. How can there be equality of rights for all ethnic and religious groups if the ethnic identity of Israel as a Jewish state must necessarily be Jewish, thus favoring Jews over non-Jews? If the ethnic identity of Jews depends on the Jewish religion, does that require some form of Jewish theocracy? Or must secular Jews have equal rights with religious Jews? In other words, if "the People" consent to government to secure their natural rights, who are "the People"? What makes a People a People? And who has the authority to interpret and enforce those equal natural rights of the People?
In some future posts, I will consider whether the Israeli Declaration of Independence suggests answers to those questions, and thus could resolve the crises that Israel now faces.