what Israel can learn from the American model
The lack of rules and discipline within the Israeli system of government – emanating from the absence of a national constitution – is propitious to recurrent calamities, and excites people and organizations to take action. But consider the flip side: The Israeli indetermination of governmental structure inhibits social change and has slowed the nation’s progress.
“Israel’s primary economic problem is its governance,” wrote Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv, in a 2008 blog. He recalled Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann’s visit to Israel, where he was taken aback, Grinstein wrote, by “the outstanding level of frustration surrounding the government's performance.” Agreeing with Hausmann, Grinstein noted that “in most countries, it is normal for the private sector to criticize the public sector's efficiency. In Israel, even senior members of the Government doubt its ability to efficiently make and implement decisions.”
Last year’s fire at Mount Carmel, which many Israeli commentators saw as emblematic of the country’s unpreparedness for a crisis, underscored that the deficit in governance goes beyond the question of which governing coalition may be in power. It even goes beyond any single institution in government.
“The Carmel disaster highlights the outrageous gaps in Israel's strategic and day-to-day readiness,” read a December 5, 2010 Haaretz editorial. “It also underscores the discrepancy between Israel's image and reality.”
To be sure, the disaster produced action. Individuals and organizations, in Israel and abroad, rushed to be helpful. But indeed, it took a disaster for activism in Israel to kick into high gear. But efforts subside with the extinguished fire, or are rather channeled to the next fire-de-jour. Contrast that to the United States, where social change is eminently long-run, and emergencies and impasses inspire activities to address long-term goals, to obviate future predicaments beyond immediate relief.
Take the US Congress’ recent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, for example. From the moment it was enacted in 1993, American activists could articulate not only their goal of repealing the law, but also their options in trying to repeal it: by statute, executive order or court decision. Activists did not wait for a military crisis to map out a plan with paths to victory.
Or consider the movement for marriage equality, with national and statewide organizations. Five states and the District of Columbia have already reached the objective. In fact, in the United States, where clear ways to change the law produces clear goals, one social activist organization proudly went out of business when it crossed the finish line. Search for the Connecticut marriage equality organization, and online you’ll find the following declaration: “Having accomplished our core mission to win marriage equality for same-sex couples in Connecticut, Love Makes a Family & the Love Makes a family foundation have closed our doors as of November 13, 2009.”
The United States, of course, has a plethora of irritating bureaucracies – including lumbering agencies and conflicts between local, state, and federal governments. But with a clear legal system and politics predicated upon the simple structure of individual responsibility, American activists at least know the rules, and from there, the activists shape their goals.
Many Israeli activists, on the other hand, search for clear goals in the absence of legal structure and are forced to base their actions solely on immediate exigencies or vague non-binding vision. They often value participation for participation’s sake, without strategically considering how to channel it effectively. Last year, for instance, three gay pride parades marched on the same day in Tel Aviv: the official parade, an opposition parade, and an alternative parade. New York City somehow manages to make do with one parade, which unifies activists and enables them to create change as a powerful community.
Without effective policy making in Israel, the country’s activist organizations often treat the right of expression and protest as an ultimate goal, even a duty, rather than also ask what might come next. The public squares by the Tel Aviv Museum, the Tel Aviv Cinemateque, and Independence Hall have hosted rallies in recent months to save democracy and promote human rights – eminently worthwhile goals but so mind-bogglingly broad that they go far beyond the scope of what rallies can achieve. Despite the hyperinflation of rallies and protests in Israel, activists still flock to them - an indication how vivid Israeli activism is, even if misguided.
Perhaps out of frustration, sometimes protests in Israel turn to gimmicks rather than substance. In October 2006, members of the left-wing political party Meretz – a party which, in full disclosure, I was a member of – protested the swearing in of Avigdor Lieberman as a minister by holding in front of the Knesset “an official burial service for the Declaration of Independence.” The question is not so much whether the gimmick was disrespectful, a valid question that made me refrain from participating. The bigger question about the action is, “So what?” Who in Israel, of whatever ideology, could such a protest ever hope to influence beyond an editor who will place the event’s photo in the newspaper?
Israeli activists and experts may take pride in the fast-expanding Israeli codex of law, as a sufficient framework of action. But social activism is conditioned on procedural rules about governmental decision-making, and resolution of conflicts between agencies. The ballooning constitutional law, in particular, cannot replace a resonant absence of a premise, and, if anything, is indicative of the want of a constitution that would justify decisions by Knesset, cabinet and court, ensure their consistency and preservation, clarify the powers of the governmental agencies, and minimize uncertainty about officers’ authority and responsibility.
Embarrassingly, I had to live in the United States to learn the basics of my home-country’s system, or lack thereof. While commuting between New Jersey and New York, I couldn’t help noticing how the American Constitution predicates all my experience, and the study of the American fundamental documents intrigued me to explore Israeli constitutionalism. Israel is the only Western democracy without a constitution, neither codified nor uncodified. Even Israel’s neighbors, a far cry from governance powerhouses, are constitutional. Since a constitution sets the rules of the game, the Israeli game is not played by basic rules. It simply doesn’t have any.
Regrettably, Israelis often erroneously evoke the false example of the United Kingdom as an effective democracy without a constitution. This mistake is especially grave, because the British Constitution inspired fundamental political writings, including Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, and was a model from which evolved the constitutions of the several American States, and consequently the federal one. The British and American constitutions are lucid where Israel is struggling: clarifying sovereignty, authority and power, as evident by searching online American institutions, such as Congress or the Supreme Court, or British ones, such as the Queen or Her Majesty’s Government.
Like many Israelis, I have a dual-citizenship. So, as a subject of Queen Elizabeth II, my passport is a showcase of the constitutional executive supremacy of the monarch, who reigns by “Dieu et mon droit” (By god and right). This constitutional role was famously recognized by the American Declaration of Independence that justified the decision of independence on the “history of repeated injuries and usurpations” of “the present King of Great Britain.”
For social activism in Israel to mature, Israeli scholars and activists alike should heed the centuries-old words of James Madison. Writing in the Federalist, Madison advocated for an American constitution and wrote about the connection between law and action:
“It will be little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; or if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated; or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what it will be tomorrow.”