What kind of state are we celebrating when we commemorate Israel Independence Day? According to Israel’s Basic Laws, the answer is a “Jewish and democratic state.” In this op-ed, originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth, IDI Vice President Prof. Yedidia Stern discusses the tension between these two facets of Israel's identity and explores the attacks of the concept "Jewish state" by three fundamentalist camps: religious, ultra-nationalist, and liberal.
What kind of state are we celebrating when we commemorate Israel Independence Day? According to Israel's Basic Laws, the answer is a "Jewish and democratic state." Explaining the term "democratic state" is relatively easy, since we can rely on the intellectual heritage and human experience of numerous democracies. A "Jewish state," however, is a unique, novel phenomenon, and its interpretation is still in its infancy. Long years of Exile purged the experience of statehood from Jewish memory, leaving an enormous void—a veritable black hole—with regard to the meaning, values, and desired behavior of a Jewish state.
We must acknowledge the fact that there is tension between these two defining characteristics of our state. This tension cannot be resolved in one fell swoop. Extended efforts and a process of maturation over generations is necessary in order to arrive at interpretations that will reduce the areas of conflict and smooth out the rough edges, rather than sharpening and exacerbating them. This should not discourage us, since living with complexities and contradictions is an integral part of all aspects of our individual and collective lives.
Unfortunately, however, during the past few years, the chaos of Israeli life has left no time for such maturing to take place. The "Jewish State"—a newborn concept that needs to be refined—is under simultaneous attack by three fundamentalist camps: religious, ultra-nationalist, and liberal. The first two of these camps wish to claim the Jewish state as their own, while the third seeks to eliminate this concept entirely.
The threat from the religious camp stems from the demand of certain members of Israel's religious leadership to have a monopoly on imparting meaning to the concept of the "Jewish state." According to the extremist views, which have growing support among the public, the tension between Judaism and democracy should extend to tension between sources of authority regarding political matters as well. This explains religious condemnations of the Israeli judicial system, which is deemed a system of "gentile courts" that is not binding. It also explains challenges to Cabinet and Knesset decisions on borders and peace, on the grounds that they are not consistent with rabbinic rulings, as well as calls to disobey orders in the Israeli Defense Forces on religious grounds.
The ultra-nationalists maintain that if Israel is a "Jewish state," it is permissible—and even necessary—to exclude non-Jewish citizens systematically from the private and public spheres. Loyalty tests for Arabs, ongoing discrimination against Arabs in resource distribution and in government attention to their needs, and a series of ominous legislative initiatives that are piling up in Knesset committees are just a few examples of how the concept of a "Jewish" state can be misused.
While fundamentalist religious and ultra-nationalist interpretations seek a hostile takeover of the Jewish nation state (often through cooperation that is very concerning), the fundamentalist threat to the "Jewish state" from the liberal camp calls for watering down the Jewish aspect of the state, to the point of non-existence. Some influential people, though not many, believe that a democratic state of necessity must be "a state of all its citizens" that has no national identity and maintains a neutral public space with no cultural distinction whatsoever. In their view, in order to insure equality for Israel's non-Jewish citizens, the definition of the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish People should be abolished.
The attraction of these three fundamentalist positions lies in the clear solution that they offer to the enigma of Israel's identity. This is particularly appealing in the crisis-laden, confusing, and painful reality of today's Israel, which leads people to seek definitive answers. This may also explain distressing findings reported in the Israel Democracy Institute's Israeli Democracy Index. In response to a question that asked Israeli Jews to indicate their preferred identity for the State of Israel—a Jewish state, a democratic state, or a Jewish and democratic state—less than half of the respondents (48.5%) preferred the dual, complex, constitutional definition. The rest, the majority of Israel's Jewish citizens, wish to resolve the tension completely, with two thirds of them preferring a Jewish state (32.5% of the total sample), and only one third (17%) preferring a democratic state.
Israel is a young country. In historical terms, sixty-four years is a blink in time. It is possible that the extreme mood swings and rejection of complexity that we are witnessing in our society can be attributed to the fact that we are in the adolescent stage of our sovereign life. Whatever its origins, we must dispel the illusion that it is desirable or necessary to choose between Judaism and democracy. Without our Jewish identity we have no right to exist. Without our democratic identity, we cannot exist. It is time for us to grow up.
A Hebrew version of this article was published in Yedioth Ahronoth on April 24, 2012.