Yoram RabinForeword | Roots of Israeli Democracy | Jewish Tradition | Parliamentary Democracy | Declaration of Independence | Rebirth of Jewish Sovereignty | Freedom of Expression | Gender Equality | Arab Sector | Children’s Rights | Socio-Economic Rights |  Democracy Index | Democracy in Wartime | Democracy in the Middle East

As witnessed by the breadth of social legislation enacted, Israel has not neglected the Judeo-Zionistic vision of a modern welfare state despite more pressing budgetary concerns (such as security) and ideological detachment from the original socialist ethos of its founders. Due to the recent global recession, felt in Israel as well, social legislation has had to compete with government objectives to reduce the state budget and minimize government intrusion into the free market. Understandably, maintenance of a modern welfare state places a considerable strain on Israel’s economy.

The proposed constitution submitted to the first Government one year after the establishment of the state, contained a comprehensive list of social rights. However, in 1950, the Knesset elected to defer the adoption of a formal constitution and agreed to the gradual enactment of a number of Basic Laws which would one day be incorporated into a final constitution.

The first basic laws to establish individual rights were adopted in 1992, in the form of Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation which were hailed as a "constitutional revolution" by the President of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak. Human rights were thus established by supreme law (which supercedes regular legislation), and Knesset legislation became subject to judicial review.

These Basic Laws gave voice to the classic line of rights such as the right to dignity, the right to liberty, the right to privacy, the right to property, the right to exit the country and the right to freely pursue one’s trade and occupation. Although lacking a Basic Law dealing expressly with the issue of socio-economic rights, the Supreme Court has held that "the right to a minimal standard of living" is derived from the right to human dignity. As the President of the Supreme Court stated:

"Human dignity inherently contains… a guarantee of a minimal standard of living. A person who lives in the streets and is homeless, is a person whose dignity has been eroded; a person who is hungry, is one whose dignity has been lost; a person who has no access to elementary medical care, is one whose dignity has been harmed; a person who is forced to live under severely humiliating conditions, is one whose dignity has been assaulted,".1

Some of the Basic Laws are still in the formative stages and the laws pertaining to education, health and housing rights are to be embedded in Basic Law: Social Rights which is under review in the legislative chambers of the Knesset.

Until the Basic Law: Social Rights is passed, the Supreme Court has assumed the duty of protecting these rights and several Supreme Court cases have in fact bolstered these protections. For instance, in a well publicized case, Justice Dalia Dorner held that there is a basic right to education in Israel.2 This judgment is based on a number of sources: the diverse legislation on education; the focus on education in Israeli and Jewish tradition; international law which secures the rights to education and other social rights (under the 1966 United Nations Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991).

Despite the delay in the adoption of a constitution, and the existence of opposing interests, the Supreme Court has made great efforts to protect the poor. As Justice Yitzhak Zamir stated:

"One should not declare that the role of government is to protect human rights. Period. Indeed, this is a supreme role. However, it is merely one of the roles. One must also declare, in the same breath, that an additional role is to promote the human welfare of all human beings. Another role is to create social justice. Justice for all. Human rights should not overshadow human welfare and social justice. Human rights cannot only serve the satiated man. Every man ought to be satiated so that he can enjoy, in practice, not only nominally, human rights."3

1. Gamzu v. Yeshayahu, 55(3) P.D. 360.
2. Yated-Children with Downs Syndrome v. Ministry of Education, 56(v) P.D. 843.
3. Contram v. the Finance Ministry, Customs and VAT. 52(i) P.D. 289.

Dr. Yoram Rabin is a law professor and author of three books about constitutional rights in Israel. His most recent book (co-edited with Dr. Yuval Shany) is Economic, Social & Cultural Rights in Israel (Tel Aviv, 2004).

 A Free People in Our Land: Welfare and Socio-Economic Rights in Israel

Premature babies ward at Wolfson Hospital in Holon
(Photo: Israel Government Press Office / Milner Moshe)

 A Free People in Our Land: Welfare and Socio-Economic Rights in Israel

Women at the Day Center for Senior Citizens in the town of Shlomi
(Photo: Israel Government Press Office / Milner Moshe)