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If the Declaration of Independence Falls, Israeli Unity Will Fall Too

This last bastion of consensus is under attack. If it succeeds, there will no longer be any text around which the State of Israel and Israeli society can unite.

The Jewish people are known as the “People of the Book.” A people of words. The words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence are not a hastily drafted text. They are constitutive words. In a divided and splintered society, they seemed to be the last consensus.

Unfortunately, this last bastion of consensus is under attack. If it succeeds, there will no longer be any text around which the State of Israel and Israeli society can unite. This well be an internal tragedy, and one that would allow our enemies to claim that our foundational document, and the justifications it carries for our existence, has fallen away from us and is no longer valid.

A few months ago, before the outbreak of the terrible crisis afflicting us, I participated in a seminar for high-ranking military officers on the Declaration of Independence. The underlying theme, the rationale for the seminar, was that precisely because the Declaration’s status as a national document that has not been tarnished by our pan-Israeli discord, senior army commanders should get to know it better, to delve more deeply into it. Religious and secular officers, from the Right and the Left (presumably), Jews and non-Jews, sat down together for a day and immersed themselves into this literary symbol of identity. From the wall, as customary in all state institutions, the Declaration of Independence looked down at us.

But perhaps it has lost its shine. In a hearing before all 15 justices of Israel’s Supreme Court on petitions regarding the “reasonableness standard,” the attorney representing the Israeli government (reportedly) argued that the Declaration of Independence is a document that was “written in haste and signed by 37 people.” His contention – his casting doubt on the viability of the Declaration as a normative source – was an axe blow meant to shatter the last remaining common ground to which Israeli society could cling. A document hastily written and endorsed by a small group of unelected leaders is, in any case, not a text of singular value with the power to influence our lives here.

The historical reality is as different from the above assertion as night and day. Books and articles written over the years show just how much attention Israel’s founding fathers devoted to each and every word of the Declaration. Several drafts were exchanged between them before reaching the final version. They attached much value to its written words. How hard they worked to draft it in such a way that representatives of the entire Yishuv would be able to sign it.

The identity of the signatories was not coincidental. With considerable thought, the founding fathers strove to ensure that the Declaration would be signed by representatives of all of the factions, currents, and political parties that formed the Hebrew settlement and the state – secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox, from the Right and the Left. Such were the signatories, and they regarded their signing as a sacred act.

 Photo by TPS

For 75 years the Declaration of Independence was a prism of national consensus. All corners of Israeli society regarded the document as a historical, national, and ideological common denominator for our lives here. Although never recognized as a constitution, it was granted significant weight, even within walls of the Supreme Court. Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation cited the Declaration and its values. The courts, for generations, have viewed it as a first-order source of inspiration for the state’s values and have acted and ruled in its spirit.

The current attempt by the reform’s proponents to tar the legitimacy the Declaration of Independence and its national status is dangerous and shameful. In exchange for a possible short-term gain, they are willing to sacrifice our last piece of common ground, which – at least until recently – enjoyed broad consensus.

Our common ground is being chipped away beneath our feet. Slogans like “we are not brothers” flood the social networks. The Declaration of Independence is the very basis of commonality, a beacon of values and a framework, perhaps the last, for our ability to continue living here together as one people. All of us, supporters and opponents of the reform, people of the Right and Left, ultra-Orthodox and secular, must take to heart, at the very least, this written hope.

First published by The Jerusalem Post.