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The question of whether Israel can be a democratic Jewish state, a liberal Jewish state, is the most important question with which the country must wrestle, and it can have no answer until we arrive at an understanding of what a Jewish state is. A great deal of pessimism is in the air. Many people attach to the adjective “Jewish” ultra-nationalistic and theocratic meanings, and then make the argument that a Jewish democratic state is a contradiction in terms, an impossibility. On the left and on the right, among the elites and the masses, people are giving up on the idea that both elements, the particular and the universal, may co-exist equally and prominently in the identity of the state. This way of thinking is partly responsible for the recent convulsions in Israeli politics, for the zealotry and the despair that run through it. Yet it is an erroneous and unfruitful way of thinking. It rigs the outcome of this life-and-death discussion with a tendentious and dogmatic conception of Judaism and Jewishness.
There is another way, a better way, to arrive at an answer to this urgent and wrenching question. Let us begin by asking a different one, a hypothetical one. Let us imagine the problem in a place that is not Israel or Palestine. Could a Catalan state, if it were to secede from Spain, be a democratic Catalan state, a liberal Catalan state? Catalan nationalism is a powerful force, and many Catalans wish to establish an independent state of their own with Barcelona as its capital, based on their claim that they constitute a distinct ethnocultural group that deserves the right to self-determination. Though recent developments in Spain have shown that the establishment of an independent Catalan state is far from becoming a reality in the near future, let us nonetheless consider what it might look like. In this future state — as in other European nation-states, such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany, the Czech Republic, and others that have a language and state symbols that express an affinity to the dominant national culture — the Catalan language would be the official language, the state symbols would be linked to the Catalan majority, the official calendar would be shaped in relation to Christianity and to events in Catalan history, and the public education of Catalans would insure the vitality and the continuity of Catalan culture, transmitting it to the next generation. Revenues from taxation would be distributed solely among Catalan citizens and not across Spain, and the foreign policy of the Catalan state would reflect the interests of the ethnocultural majority of the state. It is very probable that Catalunya’s immigration policy, like that of all contemporary European and Scandinavian states, would attempt to safeguard the Catalan majority in its sovereign territory.
It is important to note that these aspects of a Catalan state would not reflect anything unusual in the modern political history of the West. The Norwegians, for example, demanded all these characteristics of statehood in 1907, when they seceded from Sweden (under threat of war) since they saw themselves as a separate national group. In the matter of identity, Catalunya, like Norway, would not be a neutral state in any meaningful fashion, and there is no reason that it should be a neutral state. Members of the Catalan group deserve a right to self-determination, which includes a sovereign territory inhabited by a Catalan majority in which a Catalan cultural public space is created and the culture of the majority is expressed.
But this is not all we would need to know about a Catalan nation-state that purports to be a democracy. The test of the question of whether Catalunya, or any other state, is democratic is not dependent upon whether it is neutral with respect to identity. Its moral and political quality, its decency, its liberalness, will be judged instead by two other criteria. The first is whether its character as a nation-state results in discriminatory policies towards the political, economic, and cultural rights of the non-Catalan minorities that reside within it. The second is whether Catalunya would support granting the same right of self-determination to other national communities, such as the Basques. Adhering to these two principles is what distinguishes democratic nation-states from fascist ones.
Ultra-nationalist states are sovereign entities in which the national character serves as a justification for depriving minorities of political, economic and cultural rights. In the shift to ultra-nationalism that we are witnessing around the world today, such states also attack and undermine the institutions that aim at protecting minorities — the independent judiciary, the free press, and NGO’s dedicated to human and minority rights. In addition, ultra-nationalists states do not support granting rights of self-determination to nations that reside within them or next to them. They generally claim that no such nations exist, or that the ethnic groups that call themselves a nation do not deserve the right to self-determination.
The legitimacy of Israel as a nation-state should be judged just as we would judge any other nation-state, according to these two principles. If, in the name of the Jewish character of the state, the Arab minority in Israel is deprived of its rights, the very legitimacy of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation-state will be damaged. Discrimination in the distribution of state resources in infrastructure, education, and land, and the refusal to recognize new Arab cities and villages in the State of Israel, threatens to transform it from a democratic nation-state into an ultra- nationalist state. Such a threat to the democratic character of the state is posed also by recent legislative attempts (which fortunately have failed) to demand a loyalty oath solely from Israel’s Arab citizens. The threat is heightened by a political plan put forth by elements of the Israeli radical right, which, in a future agreement with the Palestinians, would deny Israeli citizenship to Israeli Arabs, by virtue of a territorial exchange that would include their villages in the territory of a future Palestinian state. This is to act as if the Israeli citizenship of the Arabs of Israel is not a basic right, but a conditional gift granted to them by the Jewish nation-state — a gift that can be rescinded to suit the interests of Jewish nationalism. The Nation-State law that was passed by the Israeli parliament in 2018, which formulates the national identity of the country in exclusively Jewish terms, is an occasion for profound alarm, in particular in its glaring omission of an explicit commitment to the equality of all Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. Such a commitment to the equality of all citizens was enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the founding document that to this day contains the noblest expression of the vision of Israel as Jewish and democratic. The commitment to the equality of all citizens might be legally and judicially ensured in relation to other basic laws in Israel’s legal system, yet its striking absence from this latest official articulation of the character of the state is yet another marker of the drift to ultra-nationalism.
The structural discrimination manifested in these examples constitutes an unjustified bias against the Arab citizens of Israel. It also serves to undermine the very legitimacy of the Jewish state. A Jewish nation-state can and must grant full equality to its Arab citizens in all the realms in which it has failed to do so until now. It must recognize them as a national cultural minority, with Arabic as a second official language of the state and the Islamic calendar as an officially recognized calendar. The public educational system must be devoted, among other goals, to the continuity of the Arab cultural traditions of Israel’s citizens.
In the recent elections held in Israel, three within a single year, the participation of the Arab citizens of Israel in the vote increased by 50%, reaching very close to the percentage of the vote among Jewish citizens. This is a wonderful and encouraging sign of the greater integration of the Arab population in larger Israeli politics. As a result the Joint List, the Israeli Arab party, which encompasses different ideological and political streams in the Arab community of Israel, increased its seats in Israel’s Knesset from ten to fifteen — an extraordinary achievement. But its positive impact was undone by the disgraceful failure of the left and center to form a government with the Joint List on the grounds that a government that rests on the Arab vote is unacceptable. Thus was lost an historic opportunity to integrate the Arab minority as an equal partner in sharing governmental power.
As is true of all other legitimate democratic nation-states, the second condition that Israel must maintain is the recognition of the right of the Palestinian nation to self-determination in Gaza and the West Bank — the same right that Jews have rightly demanded for themselves. The denial of such a right, and the settlement policy that aims at creating conditions in which the realization of such a right becomes impossible, similarly damage the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish nation-state. The Trump plan for peace includes, among its other problematic aspects, the annexation of the Jordan Valley to the state of Israel, which would constitute yet another significant impediment to the possibility of a two-state solution. If any Israeli government includes such an annexation in its plans, it will also create de facto conditions that will undermine the possibility of a Jewish democratic state in the future.
It is important to stress that the fulfillment of the first condition — equal rights to minorities — is completely within Israel’s power. Discrimination against citizens of your own country is always a self-inflicted wound. The second condition, by contrast, the recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination, is not exclusively in the hands of Israel. The conditions of its realization are much more complicated. It depends to a significant degree upon Palestinians’ willing ness to live side by side with the State of Israel in peace and security. The situation with regard to the possibility of such co-existence is difficult and murky and discouraging on the Palestinian side — and yet Israel must nevertheless make clear its recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination, not least for the simple reason that achieving it will lend legitimacy to Israel’s own claim to the same right.
If democracy and decency do not require cultural neutrality from a nation-state, then how should the identity of the majority be recognized in such a state without vitiating its liberal principles? There are four ways, I believe, that the Jewish nature of the State of Israel should be expressed. The first is to recognize the State of Israel as the realization of the Jewish national right to self-determination. In this era, when the meaning of Zionism is mangled and distorted in so many quarters, it is important to recognize what Zionism incontrovertibly is: a national liberation movement aimed at extracting a people from the historic humiliation of dependence on others in defining their fate. That remains its central meaning. Zionism gave one of the world’s oldest peoples, the Jewish people, the political, military, and economic ability to define themselves and defend themselves.
The most fundamental feature of Israel as a Jewish state resides, therefore, in its responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people as a whole. If the responsibility of the State of Israel were confined only to its citizens, it would have been only an Israeli state. In light of this responsibility to a people, it has the right and the duty to use the state’s powers to defend Jews who are victimized because they are Jews.
The second feature that defines Israel as a Jewish state is the Law of Return. This law, which was established in 1950, and is intimately connected to the first feature of national self-determination, proclaims that all Jews, wherever they are, have a right to citizenship in the State of Israel, and can make the State of Israel their home if they so desire. The State of Israel was created to prevent situations — plentiful in Jewish history — in which Jews seeking refuge knock on the doors of countries that have no interest in receiving them. For the same reason, Palestinian refugees in the Arab states ought to have immediate access to citizenship in the state of Palestine when it is established.
Yet the justification of the Law of Return does not rest exclusively on conditions of duress. If national groups have a right to self-determination — the right to establish a sovereign realm where they constitute the majority of the population, and where their culture develops and thrives — it would be odd not to allow Jews or Palestinians a right of citizenship in their national territory. It is also important to emphasize that the Law of Return is legitimate only if accompanied by other tracks of naturalization. If the Law of Return were the only way of acquiring Israeli citizenship, its exclusively national character would harm the rights of minorities and immigrants who are not members of the ethnic majority. Safeguarding the ethnocultural majority in any state is always severely constrained by the rights of minorities. Thus the transfer of populations, or the stripping of citizenship by the transfer of territory to another state, are illegitimate means of preserving a majority. It is crucial, therefore, that other forms of naturalization exist as a matter of state policy, including granting citizen-ship to foreign workers whose children were born and grew up in Israel, and to men and women who married Israeli citizens.
The third expression of the Jewishness of the State of Israel relates to various aspects of its public sphere, such as its state symbols, its official language, and its calendar. These symbolic institutions are derived from Jewish cultural and historical symbols, including the menorah and the Star of David; Hebrew is the official language; Israel’s public calendar is shaped according to the Jewish calendar; and the Sabbath and Jewish holidays are official days of rest. Yet a democratic state demands more. The public expression of the majority culture must go along with granting official status to the minority cultures of the state, including Arabic as the second official language of the state of Israel, and recognizing the Islamic calendar in relation to the Arab minority. Again, official symbols and practices that have an affinity to the majority culture exist in many Western states: in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Britain, Switzerland and Greece, the cross is displayed on the national flag. In all those cases, the presence of state symbols that are connected to the religion and culture of the majority does not undermine the state’s democratic and liberal nature. In many of those states, however, there are powerful political forces that wish to limit democracy to the dominant ethnicity. The historical challenge in these multiethnic and volatile societies — and Israel also faces this challenge — is to prevent the self-expression of the majority from constraining or destroying the self-expression of the minority.
The fourth essential feature of a democratic nation-state, and the most important one, relates to public education. In the State of Israel, as a Jewish state, the public system of education is committed to the continuity and reproduction of Jewish cultures. I emphasize Jewish cultures in the plural, since Jews embrace very different conceptions of the nature of Jewish life and the meaning of Jewish education. In its commitment to Jewish cultures, the State of Israel is not different from many modern states whose public education transmits a unique cultural identity. In France, Descartes, Voltaire, and Rousseau are taught, and in Germany they teach Goethe, Schiller, and Heine. The history, the literature, the language, and sometimes the religion of different communities are preserved and reproduced by the system of public education, which includes students of many ethnic origins. Jews who happen to be German, American, or French citizens and wish to transmit their tradition to their children must resort to private means to provide them with a Jewish education. In Israel, as in other modern states (though not in the United States), such an education should be supported by state funds. This commitment does not contradict — rather, it requires — public funding for education that, alongside the public education system, insures the continuity of the other traditions represented in the population of the state, the Islamic and Christian cultures of the Arab minority in Israel. The culture of a minority has as much right to recognition by the state as the culture of the majority.
There are voices that maintain that the only way to secure Israel’s democratic nature is to eliminate its Jewish national character and turn it into a state of all its citizens, or a bi-national state. This sounds perfectly democratic, but it would defeat one of the central purposes of both national communities. In this territory there are two groups that possess a strong national consciousness — Jews and Palestinians; and there is no reason not to grant each of them the right of self-determination that they deserve. Moreover, a state of all its citizens in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would, in fact, be an Arab nation-state with a large Jewish minority. It would become a place of exile for the Jewish minority. Historical experience in this region, where national rights and civil liberties are regularly trampled, suggests that Greater Palestine would be one of the harshest of all Jewish exiles.
Honoring the status of the Arab citizens of Israel and espousing the establishment of a Palestinian state ought not to focus on — and does not require — the impossible and unjust annulment of the Jewish character of the State of Israel. It should focus instead on the effort to create full and rich equality for the Arab minority in Israel, and on the possibility of establishing a Palestinian nation-state alongside the state of Israel.
In a Jewish state, the adjective “Jewish” carries within it another crucial challenge to liberal democracy, which is not tied to its national content but to its religious implications. This Jewish character, or the religious meaning of the adjective “Jewish,” might harm the freedom of religion in the state. Indeed, some currents in Israeli Judaism — and some religiously inspired ideological and political trends in the Jewish population of Israel — constitute a powerful and complex challenge to Israeli liberalism. Some voices assert that the Jewish identity of the state justifies granting the weight of civil law to Jewish law, and the use of the coercive machinery of the state for the religious purposes of the dominant community.
But a Jewish state conceived in this way could not be democratic in any recognizable manner, for two reasons: it would harm both the religious freedom of its citizens and the religious pluralism of the communities that constitute it. The attempt to “Judaize” the state through religious legislation, above and beyond the four features mentioned above, would undermine Israel’s commitment to liberalism and destroy some of its most fundamental founding principles. It would take back the pluralism that was explicitly and stirringly guaranteed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Since the nineteenth century, Jews have been deeply divided about the meaning of Jewish identity and their loyalty to Jewish law. Jews celebrate the Sabbath in a variety of ways. They disagree ferociously about basic religious questions, including the nature of marriage and divorce. Any attempt to use the power of the state to adjudicate these deep divisions would do inestimable damage to freedom of religion and freedom from religion. In this case it would be the freedoms of Jews that would be violated.
The role of the state is not to compel a person to keep the Sabbath or to compel her to desecrate it. The state must, instead, guarantee that every person has the right to behave on the Sabbath as she sees fit, as long as she grants the same right to individuals and communities who live alongside her. All attempts at Judaizing the state through religious legislation — such as the law prohibiting the selling of bread in public during Passover, or the law prohibiting the raising of pigs — are deeply in error, since it is the obligation of a liberal democratic state to allow its citizens to decide these matters autonomously, as they see fit.
The Sabbath, like other Jewish holidays, ought to be part of the official calendar of Israel as a Jewish state. A shared calendar, with Islamic and Christian holidays on it too, is an essential feature of the life of a state, and it enables a kind of division of cultural and spiritual labor, a pluralist form of cooperation among its citizens. If state institutions do not function during the Sabbath, it is not only because we would like religious citizens to be able to take equal part in the running of those institutions, but also because Israel ought to respect the Jewish calendar. The same applies as well to factories and businesses that must be shuttered during days of rest.
Such a policy, moreover, should be supported not for religious reasons, but owing to secular concerns about fairness. First, it allows equal opportunity to workers and owners who wish to observe the Sabbath. Historically, in the various Jewish exiles, the observance of the Sabbath sometimes caused Jews a great deal of economic hardship owing to the advantage that it conferred upon competitors who did not observe the same day of rest. In a Jewish state, Jews who observe the Sabbath ought to be free from such an economic sacrifice. The second reason for closing businesses and factories on the Sabbath concerns the rights of workers. The institution of the Sabbath is more widespread than most Jews know, and it is consistent with universal ethical considerations. Constraining the tyranny of the market over individual and family life by guaranteeing a weekly day of rest for workers and owners is common in European states which, in accordance with the Christian calendar, enforce the closing of businesses on Sunday. In a similar spirit, factories, malls, stores, and businesses ought to be closed during the Sabbath in a Jewish state — but art centers, theaters, museums, and restaurants should continue to function, so that Israeli Jews may choose their own way of enjoying the day of lovely respite.
The abolition of the coercive power of the state in matters of religion should be applied as well to the primary domain of religious legislation in Israel: divorce and marriage. The monopoly granted to rabbinical courts in issues of divorce and marriage must finally be terminated. It is an outrageous violation of the democratic and liberal ethos of the state. Alongside religious marriage, Israel must recognize civil marriage. Such a reform would allow a couple that cannot marry according to Jewish law to exercise their basic right to form a family. It would also recognize the legitimate beliefs of many men and women who do not wish to submit to the rabbinical court, which is often patriarchal in its rulings and financially discriminates against women in divorce agreements.
The claim of some religious representatives that establishing civil marriage would cause a rift among Jews, since members of the Orthodox Jewish community would not be able to marry Jews who did not divorce according to rabbinical procedure, is not persuasive. Many Jews all over the world marry and divorce outside the Orthodox community, and this is de facto the case in Israel as well, since many Israelis obtain civil marriages outside Israel, or live together without marrying under the jurisdiction of the rabbinate. The establishment of two tracks of marriage and divorce, religious and secular-civil, would not create division, which already exists in any case, but it would remove the legal wrong caused to Israelis who cannot practice their right to marry within Jewish law, and it would liberate those who aspire to gender equality from the grip of the rabbinical courts.
I should confess that my analysis of the place of religion in Israel does not rest exclusively upon my liberal commitments. It is grounded also in my concern for the quality of Jewish life in Israel. Religious legislation has had a devastating impact on Jewish culture and creativity in Israel. The great temptation to settle the debate over modern Jewish identity through the coercive mechanism of the state justifiably alienates major segments of the Israeli public from Jewish tradition, which comes to be perceived by many Israelis as threatening their way of life. The deepening of alienation from the tradition, and its slow transformation into hostility, suggests that the more Jewish the laws of Israel become, the less Jewish the citizens of Israel become.
The Israeli parliament is not the place to decide the nature of the Sabbath, or which Jewish denomination is the authentic representation of Judaism, or who is a legitimate rabbi. Such controversies have corrupted the legislature, creating cynical political calculations in which religious matters have served as political payoffs to maintain government coalitions. The unavoidable debate on Jewish culture and religion must move from parliament to civil society. The nature of Jewish life in Israel must be determined by individuals and communities who will themselves decide how to lead their lives without interference from the state. For instance, there is no law in Israel prohibiting private transportation during the sacred day of Yom Kippur, yet the sanctity of the day is generally observed without any coercion. Wresting Judaism from the control of the politicians will unleash creative forces for Jewish renewal and allow for new ways of refreshing the tradition and extending its appeal.
Among the precious and time-honored institutions of Judaism which have been corrupted by the state is the rabbinate. The methods used for nominating and choosing the chief rabbis, and the rabbis of cities and neighborhoods, demonstrates that the rabbinate has turned into a vulgar patronage system, used by politicians to distribute jobs to their supporters. In many places, there is no affinity between the state-appointed rabbis and their residents. It is urgently in the interest of both Judaism and Israel that the state rabbinate be abolished.
I do not support the total separation of religion and state as practiced in the United States. It seems to me that the model of some European countries is better suited to Israel. The establishment of synagogues and the nomination of rabbis ought to be at least partially supported by public funds, in the same way that museums, community centers, and other cultural activities are supported by the state. But this funding should be distributed in accordance with the communities’ needs and preferences, without allowing for a monopoly of any particular religious denomination over budgets and positions. Each community should choose its own rabbi according to its own religious orientation, as was the practice of Jewish communities for generations. And these same protections of freedom of religion must be granted to Muslim and Christian communities of Israel.
Israel can and should be defined as a Jewish state, where the Jewish people exercises its incontrovertible right to self-de-termination; where every Jew, wherever he or she lives, has a homeland; where the public space, the language, and the calendar have a Jewish character; and where public education allows for the continuity and flourishing of Jewish cultures. These features do not at all undermine the democratic nature of the state, so long as Israel’s cultural and religious minorities are also granted equal and official recognition and protection, including state funding of Muslim and Christian public education systems, and the recognition of Arabic as a second official language of the state and the Muslim and Christian calendar as state calendars. In this sense, there is nothing contradictory or paradoxical about the idea of a Jewish democratic state.
The pessimism is premature. These essential principles can be reconciled and realized. Yet there are significant limits in such an experiment that must be vigilantly respected. Any attempt to “Judaize” the state of Israel beyond those limits would transform it into an undemocratic nation-state, and compromise its liberal nature, and undo its founders’ magnificent vision, and damage the creative Jewish renewal that may emerge from the great debate about modern Jewish identity. The tough question is not whether a Jewish state can be both democratic and liberal, but rather what kind of Jewish state do we wish to have. [END]