A Coalition of Hope

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In an op-ed originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth, IDI Vice President Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern hails the incoming Knesset as a unique opportunity to change the nature of the State of Israel so that it is both more Jewish and more democratic at the same time. 

Now that the elections are over, before the coalition negotiations begin, it is important to recognize the main result of the battle: We have before us a unique opportunity to change the face of the State of Israel so that it is at the same time both more Jewish and more democratic. The source of this optimism is the human make up of the next Knesset, which includes a large group of high caliber women and men—most of whom are new to politics—for whom the language of integration of Judaism and democracy comes naturally, for whom this concept is essential, and whose public activity is motivated by this goal. These new members of Knesset are not representatives of any one party; rather, they will be distributed throughout the Knesset, where they will be able to foster cooperation that transcends party lines—cooperation that has the potential to cure a number of Israel's major afflictions if a concrete political action plan is developed.

This is the political coming of age of a cultural and social movement that is not willing to content itself with the obsessive debate about Israel's borders conducted under the code name of "right" and "left", but chooses instead to focus on the desired nature of the state that will exist within those borders, wherever they end up.

In addition to dealing with important questions about the economy and social welfare, the next Knesset will put on its agenda basic questions of Israeli identity. While the options at the two extremes—a "halakhic state" or a "state of all its citizens"—have been rejected long ago, we have yet to explore the meaning of the integration of "Jewish" and "democratic" and to analyze the discomfort of the encounter between religion and state. The Israeli marketplace of ideas already has good solutions for the points of friction between the two, which include solutions for equal sharing of the burden of military service, issues of marriage and divorce, conversion, the nature of the Sabbath, and more. These are inclusive solutions that will enable us to maintain a democracy par excellence without having to give up significant expressions of our unique Jewish character in the public domain. The incoming Knesset should be able to implement these solutions with a broad consensus if four of the five major parties support them.

A foresighted formula already exists that would enable most Haredi yeshiva students to be drafted without tearing apart the fabric of relations with the Haredi community—a formula that maintains respect for Torah study, which is an important expression of the Jewish nature of the State. It is possible to recognize marriage as a religious ceremony, while still leaving an opening for people who wish to create a family unit in an alternative way, by allowing secular civil marriage. The Zionist rabbinate has solutions for the challenge of converting a third of a million immigrants who are not recognized as Jews. In this area, a courageous act is necessary lest the Jewish people are divided into distinct tribes based on family trees and bloodlines. It is possible to create a unique Israeli Shabbat that is not based on Jewish law but on national historical memory and on social sensitivity. To meet these challenges, the Chief Rabbinate should be rehabilitated by means of staffing its institutions with spiritual leaders who understand that the State of Israel is the most important Jewish development of our time.

The solutions are ready and waiting—some are even drafted as legislation—but although a large majority is interested in them, the political opportunity to implement them had never arrived. Now the time is ripe. These changes must be implemented not by force, but in a manner that is uncompromising nonetheless. The members of the Haredi community must not be pushed into a corner. They are an important part of Israel's present and future, and solidarity with them is an important component of Israel's national resilience. At the same time, however, the Haredi community must not be given veto power regarding the major issues of identity. The incoming members of the Knesset include individuals who understand the nuances and depth of the challenge at hand. They must begin to promote this goal already in the coalition agreement.

The Zionist thinkers thought that the puzzle of Jewish identity, which weighed heavily upon them, stemmed from the abnormality of Jewish existence in the Diaspora. They hoped that the establishment of the State of Israel would decide the question of national identity. In actual fact, however, they were proven wrong: The State of Israel became the arena for the struggle for identity, and the issue of control of the public space became the primary focus of the controversy. In contrast, the group portrait of the incoming Knesset—which is brimming with new and balanced forces—contains great hope for the beginning of a healing process with regard to these questions. If this will indeed begin, we will be able to address the greatest challenge of all: adopting a consensual constitution for the nation state of the Jewish people. 

Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute, where he heads the Religion and State project and the Human Rights and Judaism project, and a member of the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University.

A version of this article was published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on January 28, 2013.