We the People: Israel Reads ‘The Federalist’

A Jerusalem Parley Considers America’s Constitutional Model

By Michel Ehrlich and Sarah Zebaida

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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If the election just held in Israel showed a strong democracy in action, it also highlighted certain weaknesses of Israel’s system. There was an uproar in mid-January when a Supreme Court justice ordered broadcasters to pull the plug on the prime minister during a live press conference (which the justice said was campaign propaganda). There was apathy Election Day as fewer voters than ever turned out for yet another special election forced by a failed coalition. There is a degree of resigned fatalism now as Ariel Sharon cobbles together yet another fractious and tenuous government, its third in as many years. All of which is taken as proof of their position by those who have been arguing that the country needs a written constitution.

Momentum toward such a goal was built at a recent two-day conference in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv titled “Republicanism, Democracy, and Constitutional Government: The Contribution of The Federalist to Political Philosophy.” The conference, which drew 650 participants from around the globe and was organized by the Jerusalem think-tank the Shalem Center, was held to mark the Israeli publication of the “The Federalist,” the first-ever Hebrew translation of “The Federalist Papers.” The Forward spoke with several of the speakers at the conference, including William Kristol, the publisher of The Weekly Standard and a member of the Shalem Center’s board; Daniel Polisar, president of the Shalem Center, and historians Jack Rakove, a Pulitzer Prize laureate in history, and Paul A. Rahe, whose works include “Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution.”

When James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay penned, in 1787 and 1788, the series of essays known today as “The Federalist Papers,” their purpose was to convince the citizens of New York state to ratify the American Constitution. They were not, as far as we know, aiming to create an enduring political classic to inform the constitutional efforts of other countries centuries later. Yet the liveliest session at the conference concerned the relevance of “The Federalist” to deliberations on an Israeli constitution. Its appearance in Hebrew, the ensuing discussion of its import for an Israeli constitution and its undiminished authority in the library of political thought after 200 years would make it difficult for Israel to draft a constitution without considering the ideas so eloquently propounded by three of America’s foremost Founding Fathers.

Nor would Israel be the first modern democracy to consult their legacy. “Those who read ‘The Federalist’ immediately after it was published thought it was the best commentary in politics ever produced in human history,” Rahe said. “So it isn’t surprising that when countries begin to search for a framework by which to govern themselves in a democratic manner, they turn to a constitution that has been effective for 200 years, and to the document that expounds that constitution in the most authoritative fashion…. [I]t’s not surprising that countries with democratic institutions that work in a rough-and-ready kind of way, but also give rise to great dissatisfaction, should rethink their institutions in light of the American experience.”

For his part, Polisar said one source of strength for “The Federalist Papers” is that its authors were men of both action and thought. “Most works on political theory are written either by scholars who have little practical experience, or by practical politicians who don’t understand political philosophy,” he said. The principal authors of “The Federalist” were Hamilton and Madison, who were absolutely instrumental in setting up not only the American Constitution, but in Madison’s case, the American Congress as well. So they had the practical side but were both well read in the fields of law and political history. Thus they wrote a work that deals with the nuts and bolts of institutions and mechanisms, but they connected it with the nature of man. What are we like as people? What is it like when we join societies? Are people not good? And if they are not good, then how can government help them to improve [themselves]? So they dealt with the entire spectrum from the most basic to the practical.”

Perhaps it was the authors’ stature in American public life that led them to write “The Federalist Papers” with the directness and candor that Kristol sees as one of its crucial qualities. “What strikes me is how candid the authors were,” he said. “They were politicians involved in politics, but they were able to say — and they were willing to say — that democracy has its flaws, that the people aren’t always right, that there is tension between liberty and security, for example, between some of the good things we want from government. Modern politicians so often pretend you can have all good things at once, that there are no tradeoffs, no difficulties. The authors of ‘The Federalist’ were much more realistic. And I think people appreciate their candor.”

It still surprises some people that Israel has no written constitution, but Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, thought that what Israel least needed in 1948 was a debate which might threaten Jewish unity. Existential questions such as the meaning of the term “Jewish state” — questions a constitution would have to address — were a luxury the nascent Jewish state could ill afford as it struggled to establish its existence. Hence a constitution was postponed indefinitely. More than half a century later, Israel is still, in Rahe’s words, working in a rough-and-ready kind of way. Yet done responsibly — respecting precedent and established practice but demonstrating imagination and a willingness to adapt to changing times— such muddling through can be a sophisticated and flexible approach, as demonstrated by the United Kingdom, whose own constitution has never been formally written.

So why is it that now, when the Jewish state is, arguably, once again struggling for its survival, a discussion of a constitution has rekindled? Polisar said that a constitutional discussion at this moment could be potentially unifying. “If it’s not done at the founding, then the best moment, the only moment for a constitution is when a country is in crisis,” he said, “when the people are looking for something that can unify you, and give you a clear sense of where the government is going.”

“The Federalist Papers” is not a fix-it manual for Israel’s domestic political problems. Rather, it is an example of how to think about the foundations of state, both practical and philosophical, as one sets out to design a system that is democratic, balanced and stable. As Rakove put it: “I don’t think the impact would be direct. It’s rather that the essays get you thinking about underlying problems. They don’t offer solutions that anyone could apply today, but they raise important questions about the nature of representative government.”

“How do you constitute a government and divide power amongst different institutions so that no one can be dominant?” he added. “‘The Federalist’ is very much concerned with the proper relationship between the voters and those they represent. It worries about how to create the right kinds of deliberation within government. And given that under the parliamentary model, there is such a strong tendency for the executive to dominate the legislature, for the legislature, to be a rubber stamp, thinking about the kinds of deliberations that ‘The Federalist’ encourages would be a pretty stimulating exercise.”

It is impossible to say whether Israel will adopt a constitution or what form it would take if it did. There are those who fear that a constitutional debate would still today be divisive rather than unifying. Yet there are reasons to be glad that the question is not only kept alive, but debated vigorously. “I think it’s something of a tribute to Israel,” Kristol said after the conference. “They have suicide bombs, and yet they are also thinking about how they are going to improve their form of government. It’s impressive that so many Israelis are willing to debate and think about these issues at such a time.”

Michel Ehrlich and Sarah Zebaida, based in Jerusalem, London and Brussels, contribute reports regularly to BBC Radio, National Public Radio, The Times of London, The Jewish Chronicle and The European Voice.

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