While some argue that the Israeli legal system does require changes, the urgency with which the government is promoting this issue raises concerns. However, this is not the primary issue causing division in Israeli society in recent months. The debate is about the fundamental essence of democracy, and how to reconcile Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state while ensuring equal civil rights for all groups.
All of this occurs while the country’s prime minister is embroiled in complex legal proceedings, further exacerbating the situation. Following mass protests and the creation of a crisis point, discussions are taking place at the President’s House in an attempt to reach a compromise. Any solution, however, would just be a temporary fix that, at best, will help restore previous behavior patterns. For the Heschel Center, the solution should be focused on healing and growth. To address the underlying issues, a more comprehensive approach is necessary that involves deep work within Israeli society and governance. The appointment of judges through legal and technocratic means will not be sufficient to resolve the deeper questions at hand.
To this end, we propose five guiding principles for a reform that Israel really needs. First, we need to focus on the common ground that exists, and restore trust of citizens in each other and in democratic institutions. This is not as hard as it sounds, as surveys have shown that Israelis actually have broad agreement on many issues, such for example, on the need for a good and accessible public health system, reliable public transportation, quality and safe education, and affordable housing for all. These get lost in the shuffle in the current divisive terrain of Israeli politics and are so often ignored.
Second, we need to invest in the long-term rather than focus just on short-term solutions. This will require a profound shift in seeking the long view in policies that can invest in things we all need, but that often carry little sway at the ballot box: strengthening buildings to face earthquakes, or creating food security and climate readiness.
Third, recognize the strength in diversity and find ways to leverage the power of the mosaic of Israeli society to increase resilience and creativity. We must ensure adequate representation of all groups in society, including women, Mizrahim, Arabs, ultra-Orthodox, and other minorities, in government institutions. Fourth, we need to balance the playing field and ensure that the rules of the game are fair, giving everyone an opportunity to thrive and use their abilities to contribute as full partners in meeting the ongoing challenges of Israeli society.
Finally, we need to update democratic mechanisms by developing innovative tools for citizen engagement, such as for example by adapting the model of citizens’ assemblies. Governments should be chosen based on their ability to work towards goals that have broad consensus among the public, while disputed issues could be addressed in citizens’ assemblies or other mechanisms that embody principles of decency and respectful deliberation to reach solutions for the common good.
To make this scenario possible, we need first to believe that it is possible to appeal to a wider political imagination. Recalling that the establishment of the State of Israel itself was once considered a political impossibility, we can equally set into motion democratic innovations and become the “startup democratic nation”. The peaceful protest movement has broken ground and is an important first step. By implementing the above trajectories for reform, we can create a turning point for an Israeli society that aspires to provide a good life for everyone, today and for future generations.