The Declaration of Independence (May 1948) states that the State of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Though the Declaration is not legally binding, it is expressed in the Supreme Court's interpretation of laws. It is a task of this court, the watchdog of Israeli democracy, to safeguard human and civil rights.
On attaining independence (1948), the Knesset (Israel's parliament) passed the Law and Administration Ordinance, which stipulates that the laws prevailing in the country prior to statehood would remain in force, insofar as they did not contradict the principles embodied in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, or would not conflict with laws to be enacted by the Knesset. Thus the legal system includes remnants of Ottoman law (in force until 1917), British Mandate laws, which incorporate a large body of English common law, elements of Jewish religious law and some aspects of other systems. However, the dominant characteristic of the legal system is the large body of the uniquely Israeli independent statutory and case law that has been evolving since 1948.
Israel's constitutional system is based on two fundamental tenets: that the State is democratic and that it is also Jewish. These principles are rooted in the 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which also established Israel's commitment to guarantee equal social and political rights to all its citizens, irrespective of religion, race or ethnic background. Although the Declaration is not a binding constitutional document, the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty explicitly provides that the human rights it articulates shall be interpreted "in the spirit of the principles in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel" and that the purpose of the Basic Law is to establish "the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state".
Following the establishment of the State, the Knesset was empowered to enact a series of basic laws relating to all aspects of life, which would eventually be brought together to form a formal written constitution. Most chapters have already been passed as Basic Laws outlining the fundamental features of government such as the President, the Knesset, the Government, the Judicature, the Israel Defense Forces, the State Comptroller, Freedom of Occupation (dealing with the right to follow the vocation of one's choosing) and Human Dignity and Liberty, which addresses protections against violation of a person's life, body or dignity. The normative superiority of Basic Laws over ordinary legislation was confirmed in 1995, when the Supreme Court assumed the power of judicial review of Knesset legislation violating a Basic Law.
The Basic Laws so far enacted are:
The Knesset (1958)
State Lands (1960)
The President (1964)
The Government (1968)
The State Economy (1975)
Israel Defense Forces (1976)
The Judiciary (1984)
The State Comptroller (1988)
Human Dignity and Liberty (1992)
Freedom of Occupation (1992)
At present, the drafts of three additional basic laws - namely, Due Process Rights, Social Rights and Freedom of Expression and Association - are being circulated prior to submission to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation.
In the absence of a formal Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court has largely contributed to the protection of civil liberties and the rule of law. In addition to the Basic Laws, a body of case law has developed over the years, through Supreme Court rulings which protect civil liberties, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and equality as fundamental values of Israel's legal system. In its capacity as a High Court of Justice and acting as the court of first and last instance, the Supreme Court also hears petitions brought by individuals appealing for redress against any government body or agent. These petitions play an important role in guaranteeing individual human rights for both Israeli citizens and Palestinians.
The Supreme Court developed a principle according to which statutes should be interpreted in a manner which presumes that the legislature has, generally speaking, no intention to curtail liberties or to empower other public authorities to do so. In practice this is a very strong presumption which enables the court to modify the ordinary meaning of statutory provisions and to make them consistent with the concept of civil liberties. As a result, Israelis enjoy the same civil liberties as citizens of other Western democracies.