On Israel’s 70th anniversary, The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) inaugurated their Democracy Pavilion in Tel Aviv, reaffirming Israel’s commitment to the democratic and Jewish values inscribed into Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
MK Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset; Ron Huldai, Mayor of Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality; Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute; and Sean Taube of Taube Philanthropies inaugurated the Democracy Pavilion and signed the “Declaration of Independence.”
The pavilion, located at 1 Rothschild Plaza in Tel Aviv, is a large geodesic (relating to or denoting the shortest possible line between two points on a sphere or other curved surface) dome encasing a unique multimedia experience and full 360-degree technology.
Presenting the main events that shaped Israeli democracy from the establishment of the State of Israel until today, the pavilion is situated a few hundred meters from Independence Hall, where the Declaration was read and signed on May 14, 1948.
According to Professor Yuval Shany, Vice President of Research at IDI, “This location serves as a gateway to “Independence Trail,” a kilometer-long pathway of historic Rothschild Boulevard that leads to historic locations that commemorate key events in the pre-independence life of Tel Aviv and Israel.”
The pavilion’s geodesic design is also symbolic, representing the “all-encompassing effect of democracy on our lives, society and history,” added Shany. “Embedded on the arches surrounding the pavilion are quotes from the Declaration of Independence, representing the core principles of the Declaration that protect democracy against exterior threats.”
The ability to stand united and face such exterior threats while remaining true to the democratic values mapped out in the Declaration of Independence is precisely from where Israel’s democracy draws its strength, IDI’s Plesner explained.
According to Shany, Israel has been a democracy for as long as it has been a state, as the country was founded on the democratic values embraced in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Such values include the right to self-determination of the Jewish people along with the offer of full and equal citizenship to the members of the Arab minority; the commitment to basic human rights and to the principles of the United Nations Charter; and the election of administrative bodies on the basis of a future constitution.
However, not all agree that Israel should be a democracy in its present form, and take issue with the idea that Israel was founded as a Jewish and democratic state.
Yishai Fleisher, an Israeli radio broadcaster and international spokesman for the Jewish community in Hebron, maintained that the Jewish and democratic standing of Israel is an internal logical flaw. He told Breaking Israel News, “democracy” is a Greek concept that exists in opposition to the idea of an ethnic and religious state, like the Jewish State of Israel. In fact, the word “democracy” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence.
The state was founded, he said, to “Establish a state in a tough region and protect our people.” So first and foremost, he said, as a Jewish State, we must “take a step back and not going too far to defend our ethnic minorities” at the expense of our own Jewish State, and only then can we defend the ethnic minority in the region.
Such ethnic favoritism is not exclusive to Israel. Poland, Hungary, Japan, and Iceland are also ethnic states that first protect its own viability before its minorities, Fleisher said. But as a Jewish State, Israel is Biblically mandated to promote the idea of a ger toshav (resident foreigner who accepts and observes the Noahide Laws). This idea obligates the Jewish people to defend and secure its minorities, ensuring them upward mobility and success:
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I Hashem am your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Thus, while Israel is mandated to take care of non-Jews by giving them rights, upward mobility, and residency, this status does not require Israel to offer its foreign residents equal footing in determining “how the Jewish State should look and decide where our country should be going,” which could potentially “weaken the State and shift its character.”
Even without the official ger toshav status in the Declaration of Independence, Fleisher said, “we have absolutely kept with these values” of protecting minorities.
He told Breaking Israel News, “Generally speaking, Israel is very concerned with its minorities and give a lot of opportunities to them.”
Shany, despite his opposing views on the ideal Jewish State, also maintained that while democracy may not be a Jewish value, many democratic values are also Jewish values, as “Jewish history and Jewish thought underscore the need to respect the rights of minorities and the oppressed, to respect human dignity of all men and women created in the image of the divine, and to refrain – as Jewish sages have said – from doing to your fellow what is hateful to you.”
Similarly, he also argued that Israel has met many of the ideals identified by the founding fathers, where many individual rights enjoy constitutional protection.
“Its democratic institutions, though subject to many pressures and criticisms, continue to function relatively well, and uphold basic rights and liberties,” Shany told Breaking Israel News. “Over the years, Israel has become a dynamic hub of Jewish life, culture and education.”
Plesner too maintained that in light of the “challenges we have overcome over the years — seven wars, ongoing terrorism, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, waves of immigration, as well as the first and second Intifada — Israel respected the decisions made by state institutions and abided by the rule of law.”
“Adherence to these values is the secret to the remarkable achievements during the 70 years of the State’s existence,” he added.
However, Plesner maintained that Israel has not been fully successful in ensuring complete equality in law, which, diverging from Fleisher’s analysis, is the ideal for the Jewish State. He identified members of the Arab population, who he says “continue to be marginalized from many aspects of public and economic life” and argues that Israel’s “international standing and moral authority has been adversely affected by the lengthy conflict with the Palestinians and by the difficult reality pursuant to which millions of Palestinians in the West Bank have been subject to Israel’s control for many decades without enjoying full democratic rights.”
He added, “Beyond the importance of majority rule, a working democracy also requires a commitment to basic human rights and the protection of minority rights.”
In order to better reflect the values that were embedded into the Declaration of Independence, Shany said, Israel has to “finish the work that it started in 1948,” including adopting a full constitution with a comprehensive bill of rights that “subjects majority rule to meaningful judicial review across the board and without exception” and “updating its laws and practices on equality and religious freedom, and embrace global human rights values.”
Whether one views Israeli democracy as an ideal or an internal flaw, there is no doubt that, as Taube maintained at the pavilion’s inauguration, despite tremendous odds, Israel has “made the desert bloom, absorbed millions of immigrants, created a thriving first-world economy, and founded a flourishing democracy in a sea of authoritarian hostility.”
Taub continued, “We believe the Democracy Pavilion, a symbol of cultural pride, will be a magnet for visitors from both Israel and globally.”