Israel Needs the Second Coming … of James Madison


Most Americans may have missed it, but last week, in schools across the country, students commemorated the 220th anniversary of the Constitution during what a presidential proclamation had designated as Constitution Week.

The philosophical foundations of the U.S. Constitution deserve to be studied not only by students of American politics, but also by those who wish to spread democracy to the Middle East, and by Israelis debating whether and how to craft a constitution for the Jewish state.

Though the U.S. Constitution begins memorably with "We the people … ," the founding fathers adhered to a cynical view of human nature, which in practice meant that the last thing they wanted was to hand raw power to "the people."

Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, for all of their differences, agreed that men loved power and would, if left to their own devices, act exclusively in their own interest, unmindful of the collective good. That's why the founders concluded that power concentrated in any one place — whether with a majority, a minority or any single branch of government — would be abused.

Thus, the architect of the Constitution, James Madison, argued for a system where "ambition must be made to counteract ambition." Power should be set against power, so that no one faction, group or institution could overwhelm any other. As long as no single center of power could capture the entire government, tyranny could be avoided. This explains why Madison's constitution called for a complex system of checks and balances, and a separation of powers ensuring that neither "the people" nor the self-interested elites (meaning Madison and his contemporaries) could hijack the country.

The far-sighted founders came up with a framework in which power would be diffused among the elite and the masses. What America's sages produced was not a participatory democracy, but a republican form of representative government. They did this not to hoodwink the masses but to protect them from themselves.

Men were not angels, in Madison's assessment, thus the constitution's architects needed to design a regime that would take the harsh reality of human nature into account. However, he wanted the people granted maximum personal liberties, while constraining the government's ability to impose itself on the individual citizen.

Yet, it would be dangerous to think America's unique experience could serve as a template for spreading democracy in the Middle East.

The architects of the U.S. political system would probably be aghast at the notion of tyrannically oriented masses voting in an ambiance that lacked permanent rules and political institutions. They would see such balloting as contributing nothing to political development, minority rights, civil liberties or stability. Using the Madisonian yardstick, the January 2006 elections held in the Palestinian Authority that brought Hamas to power would, I suspect, be the antithesis of representative democracy. The same would apply elsewhere in the region.

Using the U.S. experience as a template for an Israeli constitution is also a nonstarter. Creating permanent political rules for a 59-year-old polity may appear long overdue, but, when that society also happens to be an ancient civilization risen from the ashes, prudence should trump speed.

Israel faces this constitutional dilemma: how to conserve and develop the state's Jewish character, while not impinging on the civil liberties of individual citizens. And, regrettably, there are no altruistic and wise elites to lead the way. Instead, Israeli politics is largely dominated by small-minded politicians, phony holy men and moneyed oligarchs. Not surprisingly, they cannot seem to agree about where we've been, where we are or where we should be heading.

Israel's hyper-pluralist system — in which narrow-minded and single-issue groups are empowered to run amok, while irresponsible, benighted and self-interested elites profiteer — has led many Israelis to lose faith in our government's legitimacy.

Given the dearth of Madisonian-like wisdom and the fractiousness of Israeli society, perhaps the way ahead is for the Jewish state to reform its election system first, and only afterward turn to overhauling the rules of the political game.

America's youngsters are fortunate in having the opportunity to study anew why their Constitution deserves to be cherished. It's too bad that there's no Madison anywhere on the horizon for their Israeli counterparts.

Elliot Jager is the editorial features editor of The Jerusalem Post.



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