Israel needs new rules, constitution writer says in S.F.

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According to Israel's Declaration of Independence, the country must establish a constitution no later than Oct. 1, 1948.

Israel still has no constitution. What's taking so long?

Uriel Reichman, a law professor who appears to be the James Madison of Israel, said "petty political maneuvering" has undone his and others' attempts at establishing a constitution that would include a Bill of Rights and separation of religion and state similar to those in the United States.

Now, Reichman warns, it may be too late.

"Our very unity is at stake," said Reichman, who in 1987 oversaw a team of lawyers that drafted a constitution. "Unless we create new rules, we may have a disaster."

Reichman made his comments in San Francisco last week. He was here to spread the word about The Interdisciplinary Center, a private university which he helped establish in Herzliya and speak at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The Tel Aviv resident has spent over a decade looking for any cracks or coalitions in the government that would provide the opening he needed to push through the constitution.

The upcoming elections may give him his chance. "It's a real possibility a secular, Zionist coalition can be formed between major parties without having to be dependent on the ultra-Orthodox vote," Reichman said in an interview. "Leaders only have to have the willpower and readiness to cooperate."

But they've let Reichman down plenty of times before.

Few political leaders listened in the late '80s when Reichman pitched the constitution to campaigners. Reichman said most politicians nixed the document because it would have curbed their power.

After mass public demonstrations in 1992 in favor of the constitution, civil rights legislation was for the first time added to Israel's Basic Laws — the body of laws that most closely resemble a constitution. However, a measure introducing the constitution to the Knesset that year was killed easily by religious parties.

Despite that setback, Reichman found reason for optimism because the Knesset did pass an election reform which he had authored. That bill shook the Israeli government, since it allowed for the direct election of the prime minister. It appeared to Reichman that religious parties would hold less sway and there would be "a constitutional revolution."

He's still waiting.

"That year was supposed to be the beginning of constitutional reform," Reichman said. "Unfortunately, not much has happened since. Everyone's focus has been on religious issues and the peace process, leaving the constitution without sufficient advocates."

Reichman claims a majority in Israel support freedom of religion, including the option of having a non-Orthodox officiated marriage or burial.

If a full constitution is still out of range, as a first step Reichman hopes a bill for freedom of religion — that also allows for "freedom from religion" — will be added to the Basic Laws.

"Many of us are really furious the ultra-Orthodox have an absolute monopoly on judicial and Jewish life in Israel," Reichman said. "Reform and Conservative movements are just pushed to the corner. Our constitution should prohibit any legislation merely based on halachic law and not allow any discrimination for religious beliefs."

Such laws would still be beneficial to those who are Orthodox, Reichman said. For example, the laws would protect someone who was fired because his or her religious beliefs conflicted with a business practice.

But few Orthodox in Israel see Reichman's constitution as a blessing. Reichman, however, maintains he'd be "the first to fight for the right of every Orthodox person to live and celebrate our tradition in a way he or she pleases. A constitution must protect every individual."

At the heart of the matter, Reichman said, is whether Israel should be "a democracy or a theocracy." According to Reichman, Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, considered democracy the only way to protect religion by allowing for individual choice rather than state mandate.

"If we want to increase our tradition, the best way to go about it is to allow people to search independently through their roots without coercion," Reichman said.

He wants the public to rally for the constitution during this election. It's not just a matter of celebrating Jewish tradition, Reichman added, it's also about stemming Jewish civil war.

"This time, there is a possibility politicians will rise to the occasion after 50 years and finally bring about the full performance of the promise made to the Israeli people."