A Jewish and Undemocratic State?

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The proposed "Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People" has the support of one third of the members of Knesset. In this op-ed, which was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth, IDI Vice President of Research Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern, who is deeply committed to the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, warns that the shift from defining Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state" to a "Jewish state with a democratic regime" is not a semantic shift, but a seismic change.  

One third of the Knesset members submitted a bill entitled "Basic Law: Israel - The Nation State of the Jewish People." The proposed legislation promises to stir up a storm in the Knesset's winter session, which just opened. This is no ordinary dispute between right and left, Jews and Arabs, or Zionists and post-Zionists. Opponents of the bill in its current formulation include prominent politicians from the right (Reuven Rivlin), leaders from the center (Tzipi Livni), and intellectuals and thinkers from the heart of the Zionist consensus.

If Israel were merely a democratic state, devoid of its Jewish dimension, I personally would not feel compelled to live in it. Living in Brooklyn on the shore of the Mediterranean has no appeal for me. I am a proud Israeli because I feel that I am participating in the historic task of reviving Jewish civilization in a sovereign state. In an ordinary democratic state, even if most citizens were Jewish, Judaism would be expressed in the lives of individuals, families, and communities–just like in Brooklyn. In contrast, the nation-state of the Jewish people, with its Jewish character and Jewish identity, offers the promise of renewal of a Jewish public sphere, with all its vibrant colors. Although the bulk of the work is still ahead of us, this promise will surely be fulfilled, even if it has not yet come to fruition during Israel's 63 years of sovereignty.

Precisely because of my deep commitment to a state that is Jewish in character and essence, I see the proposed Basic Law as dangerous. An examination of its content reveals that its drafters believe that to ensure the Jewish character of the state it is necessary to damage its democratic character. Almost all the articles in the bill focus on the practical manifestations of the Jewishness of the state. Only one section deals with the democratic nature of the state, and its allusion to Israel as a democracy is phrased in the most anemic way possible: "The state will have a democratic regime"–that is all it says, nothing more. Democracy, however, is more than a regime. It is a way of life and a political culture that seeks to promote important values. A substantive conception of democracy includes the protection of human rights. This includes a ban on discrimination based on nationality, a commitment that we made to ourselves and to the nations of the world in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The proposed Basic Law, however, turns a cold shoulder to these basic values.

The essence of the bill is radical: it changes the constitutional definition of the State of Israel. Instead of being a "Jewish and democratic state," Israel would be a "Jewish state with a democratic regime." This is not a semantic shift, but a seismic change. Today, the two components in the dual definition of the state–"Jewish" and "democratic"–have equal status; for this reason, we must work to create a dialogue between these two components, in an effort to broaden and deepen the areas of overlap between the state's unique Jewish character and its general democratic values. If the proposed legislation is passed, however, a clear hierarchy will be created in which the state's Jewish character supersedes the state's democratic character; in other words, while the existing definition of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state" seeks reconciliation between its two components, the proposed bill seeks to decide between them and impose one over the other.

The concerns raised by this bill are great. The proposed legislation is not smart because it gives ammunition to our enemies who seek to delegitimize the State of Israel. Israel's commitment to democracy, which gives it a relative advantage over its neighbors in the region, will become shallow and unconvincing. The legislation is not fair because it excludes the Arab citizens of Israel unnecessarily. It is also dangerous because it pushes Israeli Arabs into a corner and gives them no way out. Finally, the bill causes huge cultural damage to the concept of a Jewish state. It is misleading, implying that in order to be Jewish, the state must diminish its democratic nature.

I support the existence of a Jewish nation state that has a rich and full Jewish identity. So does the vast majority of Israeli Jews. As seen in the 2011 Israeli Democracy Index, when asked which part of Israel's dual constitutional definition they think is more important–"Jewish" or "democratic"–only 23% of Israelis express a preference for "democratic." All the rest–over 75% of respondents–indicate that the two aspects of the state's identity are equally important (46%) or that the Jewish aspect is supreme (30%). You don't have to live in Brooklyn to know: if it's not broken, don't fix it. Especially not when the amendment itself will create a huge break in Israeli society. 

Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University.

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on November 10, 2011.