New Book: Building Democracy On Sand: Israel Without A Constitution

Tuesday, December 3, 2019
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

“A vital read for policymakers and the public interested in Israel’s future. Carmon’s dissection of factors creating the chasms within Israeli society and his prescription for change are likely to promote a healthy and overdue debate about these issues.”

— Daniel Kurtzer, Princeton University, US Ambassador to Israel (2001–2005)


Since its inception over seven decades ago, the State of Israel has defined its identity as “Jewish and Democratic.” But the current crisis in Israel has exposed the biggest threat to long-term stability in Israel: the lack of a national constitution to provide a foundation on which to guarantee stability and define Jewishness in the “Jewish and Democratic”.

Arye Carmon is the founder of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and he served as the respected think-tanks’ first president. Building Democracy on Sand: Israel Without a Constitution (Hoover Institution Press; ISBN 978-0817923150; on sale December 1, 2019; $21.95) is Carmon’s clear eyed look at the inherent challenges in solidifying Israel’s 71-year-old democracy in light of the fact that the country operates with no written constitution.

Israel is a diverse country that has welcomed Jews from all over the world with different traditions and cultures. However, the stability of its democracy has been challenged with what Carmon calls “a religious counter-revolution” that emerged from within the Zionist secular revolution. Without a constitution, the role of religion in the shared public spheres has not been defined and without a mutual understanding of religion’s role in the public square major political and cultural disputes have followed. The assassination of Yitzak Rabin in 1995 at the hand of a nationalist, religious zealot who claimed to be following Halakhic law is an extreme example of that conflict. Another would be disqualification of over 300,000 migrants from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized as Jews according to the Halacha as well as the disqualification of the two major American Jewish traditions: Reform and Conservative.

Through personal accounts and anecdotes from his own life and experience, Arye Carmon illustrates how the vibrant tapestry of immigrants came to a young Israel determined to build a new life for themselves, even if it meant leaving family, tradition, and culture behind. In its early years, Israel missed the opportunity to build a secular country with “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion”. Hence, Carmon argues that not addressing the question of religion at the time of the founding was a mistake. The resulting void allowed the growing role of a Religious Orthodox monopoly in defining the nation’s collective identity.

Carmon believes that finding a way for religion and democracy to co-exist is a major existential challenge for Israel. Embracing the spirit of the founding of Israel as a country that brings together a people with a shared heritage while respecting the many cultures and identities of her citizens is a possible way forward. But without a formal constitution, Carmon maintains that Israel faces further internal strife and discord.

About the Author

Arye Carmon is the Founding President of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI). He helped to found the institute in 1991 as an independent think tank dedicated to promoting and strengthening democracy and democratic values in Israel. He is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Carmon received a B.A. in History and Philosophy and an M.A. in History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin with a major in European History and a minor in Educational Policy Studies. Since then he has taught at prestigious institutes around the world including Max Planck Institut in Germany, UCLA and Stanford University in the United States. He also taught at Hebrew University's School of Public Policy.

In the 1960s, Carmon was an Educational adviser at the Boyer School in Jerusalem, and he later served as Deputy Principal of the ORT Alliance High School. In the 1970s he was Head of the Curriculum Division of the Youth Department of the Ministry of Education, and Academic advisor and moderator of the educational series "Open Circuit" on Israeli Educational Television. In the 1980s he served as Chairman of the Israeli National Committee for Fostering Democratic Education. Carmon has been a member of the International Council of Yad Vashem since 1979, and President of the Israeli-Diaspora Institute.

Carmon has written extensively on Israeli political structure, education, Israel-Diaspora relations, and the Holocaust.