Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?
I am consistently astounded by the simplistic slogans, the false polarities, the epidemic of idiocy that distorts discussions about Israel. In the 1970s, the Soviets and the Palestinians improvised what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “the Big Red Lie,” framing the national conflict between Jews and Palestinians as a racial one, claiming that Zionism is racism and that democratic, colour-blind Israel is somehow similar to racist, colour-obsessed South African apartheid.
The latest propaganda line has people debating another false choice: “Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?” fools ask – and demagogues then try robbing Israel of its right to exist by catching Israel in some contradiction.
On one level, the answer is “of course not.” If the question means can Israel be both completely Jewish – adhering to every minute medieval Jewish law – and completely democratic – following the purest, simplest form of a town meeting democracy – the answer clearly is “no.”
This is partially because all countries combine ideas, structures, and systems, putting them in healthy tension. Canada does fully empower both the federal government and the provinces – but navigates between the two, sometimes artfully, sometimes awkwardly. The United States does not always honour majority rule nor does it always honour minority rights. However, by cherishing both values it charts its own path, for better and worse.
Moving beyond the rhetorical framework, realistically, the answer to the question is “of course.” Israel is a state with a Jewish majority and certain Jewish characteristics that is also a democracy. Acknowledging those categories’ fluidity, and the constant tensions inherent involved in governing, we can see many elements of “Jewish” and “democratic” shaping Israeli life.
That Israel even aspires to be democratic puts it in an exclusive club, which the Palestinians and most Arabs do not even try joining. It is impossible to read Israel’s Declaration of Independence fairly without seeing a country that is deeply Jewish, rooting its legitimacy in the Bible and Jewish history, but also deeply democratic, offering civil rights to all its “inhabitants,” aware that not all of them were Jewish – or even friendly and loyal to the new state in 1948.
So, let’s move beyond demagogic debates. Let’s stop trying to magnify whatever imperfections one finds in order to question Israel’s very right to exist. Instead, let’s ask the question more fairly, more elegantly. The proper question is, given Israel’s aspiration to be a democratic Jewish state, what resonances does it experience and what shortcomings does it endure?
That kind of question opens up a fascinating inquiry rather than a hostile inquisition. My short answers would be:
1. Israel is clearly on the democratic spectrum, providing a stable civil society, rule of law, free elections, basic civil rights, freedom of speech and religion, independent courts, and an aggressive press – all of which allow for democracy’s most miraculous asset, its self-correcting mechanism.
Israel is also clearly a Jewish state, living in a Jewish space, on Jewish time, with a public space that is deeply Jewish and not neutral, while trying not to be hostile to others. Of course, given that the Jews are a people, a Jewish state is like a French state, not a theocracy but the expression of a people with a particular language, culture, and yes, a religion too. It is perfectly valid for a majority in a nation-state to express some of its cultural and even religious heritage in public.
2. Nevertheless, there are tensions, contradictions, and shortcomings. The rabbinate is too intrusive regarding marriage and divorce. Israeli Arabs should feel fully equal as citizens in the Jewish democratic state of Israel. And the ultra-Orthodox minority should not use democratic interest group politics to demand too many rights – and subsidies – without fulfilling democratic responsibilities. But, unlike most, I see progress on all three major issues -- and I retain my deep faith in Israel’s vibrant, sometimes exhausting democracy, to find the right balance… eventually.