Can Israel be Jewish and democratic?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued that the nation-state law is necessary to bolster the Jewish character of the State of Israel. But the contentious bill has everyone asking if it is possible for a Jewish state to also be democratic.
I believe it is entirely possible.
The challenge with answering the core question is that while the definition of a democracy can be reasonably expressed, the question of what constitutes a Jewish state has many possible answers. At one extreme, a halachic state in which a majority of the decisions of the state are based on the interpretations and value systems of unelected rabbis could not be a democratic state.
On the other hand, a state that presents its “Jewishness” in a manner consistent with the many approaches to Judaism and Jewishness evident in Israel today can be both a Jewish and a democratic state without question. In Israel today, Jewishness is expressed in many ways – despite the entreaties and limitations proffered by the Orthodox rabbis who control certain aspects of Jewish life (inappropriately, in my view). Judaism in its many forms is alive and well in Israel in a way that is highly democratic, offering choice, opportunity to agree and disagree, and the decision of Jewishness left to the individual.
The fact that Judaism continues to exist (some might say flourish) despite historical challenges is evidence of the ability of the Jewish People to evolve while still retaining their fundamental character.
Jews have adopted democracy as the best approach to government, as evidenced by the State of Israel itself and by the way our institutions in the Diaspora operate. In fact, most Jews are comfortable that democratic values are consistent with Jewish values, even though they are not necessarily the same at all times.
Of course, there are challenges to overcome in order to ensure that the forces of Jewishness do not overpower the forces of democracy and vice versa. Virtually all western democracies were established with Christian values in evidence, and until the more recent rise of secularism, such states could easily have been defined as both Christian and democratic without attack. Necessary separation of church and state has ensured acceptable coexistence. One wonders why the same evolutionary approach comes under such attack and scrutiny when it occurs in Israel, and why there is so little appreciation for the fundamentally strong elements of democracy evident in Israel.
This issue need not be divisive among Jews. Those who have invested in Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People, either in Israel or from the Diaspora, did so in order to form and maintain a Jewish state. Otherwise, why bother?
And yet, a state that is for the Jews but also includes minorities must, in order to maintain a healthy democratic essence, adapt itself to also meet the needs of those minorities. Indeed, special regard must be paid to non-Jews in Israel who feel excluded because of the Jewish nature of the state. There are already success stories in Israel’s Christian-Arab communities, where levels of education and achievement are as high as or higher than among the Jewish majority. The comfortable relationship with the Druze is another bright light. There are more difficult issues remaining with the Muslim and Arab minorities, but they are not going to be solved by limiting the Jewishness of Israel.
Israel is under attack in too many ways to list here. The strong desire to repel such attacks is the continuance of the reason why Israel exists – to be a Jewish state. That there must be other attributes of a healthy democratic state is without question. But this is a challenge of implementation, not policy.
Netanyahu has said he intends to enshrine in the nationality law “full equality before the law of every citizen regardless of religion, race or sex, alongside ensuring Israel’s identity as the national state of the Jewish People. There is no contradiction between the two, and I will not allow these two basic principles to be undermined.”
The intent of those words should be applauded, even as we add constructive suggestions to assist with the evolutionary process that must occur to reach such a laudable and necessary goal – a Jewish and democratic State of Israel.
Michael Diamond is a business consultant, entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. He is involved extensively in Jewish and non-Jewish community life.