Moshe Halbertal, Dorit Beinisch, and Stanley Fischer discuss the "miracle" of Israel's democracy

On Monday, December 2, Professor Samuel Rascoff, the faculty director of the Center on Law and Security, welcomed a full house to the center’s last fall event, “Israel, from the Inside Out.” The discussion, moderated by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor at The New Republic, probed the fissures within the state of Israel.

Leon Wieseltier, Dorit Beinisch, Stanley Fischer, and Moshe Halbertal

The guest speakers included Stanley Fischer, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is widely considered to be President Obama's top choice for the vice chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Bank; former President of the Supreme Court of Israel Dorit Beinisch; and Moshe Halbertal, Gruss Professor of Law at NYU School of Law. Together, they explored Israel’s economic, judicial, and cultural-political facets, respectively. This was also the sixth night of Hanukkah, and more than once, the participants alluded to “miracles,” suggesting a collective amazement that Israel has accomplished so much and can today maintain such a fragile status quo.

Fischer described an economy that, viewed from the outside, is doing well. In fact, he joked, “Israelis don’t like to think they’re successful in this area because that would imply that somebody in the government was doing something right.” As the governor of the Bank of Israel, he oversaw an economy that was largely unaffected during the global economic recession. In recent years, it has in fact grown at a rate between three and three-and-a-half percent, he said. However, he claimed educational disparities and demographic changes are feeding Israel’s growing economic troubles.

“To think of what has been achieved since 1948 is to understand that there has been a miracle in Israel,” he said. “It has to continue, and Israelis can do it if they look the facts in the face.”

Israel’s internal divisions became central to the discussion as Beinisch described the court’s role in Israel. There, she said, the judiciary is vital in dealing with Israel’s internal, as opposed to external, troubles.

Israel is a “Jewish democratic state,” she went on, but the problem is that there is no consensus about what a Jewish state is or which democratic values Israel should uphold. As a result, the “consensus of the state is on a very narrow basis.”

Halbertal put the hostility this way: “The left and the right see the other as a threat to the lives of their children.”

And yet, while the participants acknowledged the obstacles Israel faces, they were hopeful of finding a solution. Halbertal said Israel needed to, in part, assure Arabs of their full citizenship, welcoming them into a pluralistic democracy. At the same time, he warned that the ultra-Orthodox must curb the desire to use the “coercive machinery of the state to adjudicate Jewish identity.” Otherwise, he warned, “the more the state will be Jewish, the less its citizens will be Jews.”

During the Q&A, an audience member asked about the viability of a two-state solution. Wieseltier underscored a fundamental theme from the conversation: the hope that Israel will remain whole. Choosing a divisive solution would be, he said, a failure. “It would represent such a defeat for both nationalism and democracy to give up on multiethnicity, on heterogeneity, on otherness… There’s no reason to give up on that.”

Watch the full video of “Israel, from the Inside Out” (1 hr, 24 min):

Updated on December 12, 2013