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Israel Studies 3.2 (1998) 193-214

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David Ben-Gurion and the British Constitutional Model

Shlomo Aronson


IN THIS PAPER I WILL discuss David Ben-Gurion's views on constitutional issues as they relate to his overall Zionist ideology and praxis. The double anniversary of the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel is an opportune time to examine these matters. Ben-Gurion's unsparingly critical view of Jewish character traits, traditional and modern, led him to believe that the Zionist revolution's main task was not simply to regain the ancient Land of Israel (or parts of it), but to rehabilitate the Jewish people's political behavior. He emphasized the twin needs for radical change in Jewish economic habits and a belated cultural renaissance synthesizing Jewish and non-Jewish values. He stressed the urgency of amending Jewish "sovereign" behavior as well. In action and speech, Ben-Gurion reiterated the role that "organization" must hold in Zionist life: in labor relations, in the party, and in the Jewish state. His obsession with "organization" was characteristic of his generation's Eastern European origins. Indeed, Ben-Gurion was at times even compared to Lenin in creating a planned "Bolshevik" system. 1

I shall try to demonstrate, however, that Ben-Gurion's political model was based on the British system (with some differentiation) and not on the Soviet one. Ben-Gurion regarded the "lack of organization" as typical of Jewish separatist, schismatic tendencies. He linked them to other unflattering traits, such as group infighting, endless quarreling, and bids for personal power dressed up in moralistic terms. He abhorred the Jews' inability to control themselves in heated ideological debate and their incapacity to unite even during national emergencies. He ascribed these undesirable characteristics to an historical lack of political awareness, disgraceful according to normative Western standards. He claimed that Israel's political irresponsibility, a national propensity in Biblical times, had been further exacerbated during the two millennia-long exile and must now be redressed by the Zionist revolution. [End Page 193]

This critical view of Jewish life in the Diaspora was a key element in Ben-Gurion's Zionism and a major reason for his rejection of an American-like constitution for the nascent State of Israel. Yet, upon close inspection, this position seems paradoxical. Constitutions are supposed to alleviate the kind of "pejorative collective behavior" he deplored by formulating and implementing social values when politicians fall short of fulfilling their duties due to myopic calculations and disputes. Hence, Ben-Gurion's refusal to adopt a written constitution during the legislative period of the First Knesset can be interpreted as a short-range tactic to retain maximum maneuverability for himself and his party in a parliament splintered into numerous rival factions. (The First Knesset was convened as a constitutional assembly in the 1949 election, albeit without an absolute majority for Mapai—Ben-Gurion's political base). This allowed Mapai to play a decisive role in all parliamentary legislation, whereas a written constitution could have considerably limited its clout. It seems, then, that Ben-Gurion vigorously promoted the British model in his arguments so that Mapai's parliamentary supremacy would remain intact thanks to the absence of a constitutionally decreed separation of powers. In this way he could enhance his own power-base and pursue his ideological goals, which had been rebuffed at the polls. This contributes to explaining why Ben-Gurion's evocation of the British political model was appropriate even though the needs and character of Israeli society apparently had little in common with the British experience.

The Constitutional Revolution

I shall attempt to show that Ben-Gurion adopted the British model on principle (albeit with salient discrepancies), not only as a tactical ploy, but because of his fundamental commitment to democracy. Secondly, I shall demonstrate that, even today, Israel may benefit from a relevant discourse on democratic methods and civil rights, especially in light of the recent public airing of a "constitutional revolution" as expounded by Justice Aharon Barak and leading members of the "Constitution for Israel" movement. This should be compared to...


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