Right of Reply: The Jewish Case for the Israel Democracy Institute

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Last week, the Israel Democracy Institute won the Israel Prize for Life Achievement. In this article originally published in The Jerusalem Post, Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern reiterates and emphasizes that, despite people who accuse the IDI of actions to the contrary, the IDI has focused on two areas: first, the study of Israel as a democratic state; and second, the study of Israel as a Jewish state. As Prof. Stern writes, "The assaults on IDI come from two directions—from the extreme Right and from the extreme Left. But we stick to our guns: both Jewish and democratic."

Last week, the Israel Democracy Institute won the Israel Prize for Life Achievement. According to the prize committee, IDI is a unique forum for open dialogue among all segments of Israeli society. It is no coincidence that the four individuals who nominated IDI for the prize served in the past as Mayor of Bnei Brak (Mordechai Karelitz), YESHA Council Chairman (Benzi Lieberman), Head of the Supreme Arab Monitoring Committee (Shauki Hatib) and Labor Minister (Uzi Bar-Am).

The institute's achievement has disturbed a number of people. Particularly unhinged was the reaction of Dr. Yitzhak Klein ("The strange case of the Israel Democracy Institute," April 26), who attacked the institute in this newspaper, alleging that "IDI's ideal model is a secular, non-national, economically and socially liberal society with its Jewish character and ethic pressed as much out of view as possible."

This is nonsense. In recent years, IDI has focused on two areas: first, the study of Israel as a democratic state; and second, the study of Israel as a Jewish state. The institute appointed a vice president at the head of each of these two research divisions, allotted significant resources to each area and drew up long-term goals and a plan of action.

Only with these facts in mind can one understand why one of the most important rabbis on the West Bank would write a letter congratulating IDI on its achievement: "Personally, as the rabbi of a leading settlement in Yesha... I find in the institute a loyal partner for advancing the revival of the Jewish people in recent generations. The differences of opinion between us, even the deeper ones, are perceived as legitimate differences of opinion within a broad Zionist family."

THE QUESTION of the Jewish character of the state is an existential one. For 2,000 years, the practice of Judaism was limited to the private, familial and communal spheres. Only in the last 60 years have we been given the opportunity to realize Jewish life in the public sphere. But how is this to be done? We have no historical model to follow because we have not enjoyed political sovereignty in more than two millennia. Nor are we prepared simply to mimic the liberal democracies of the age, because we aspire to the realization of a dream that is unique: a Jewish nation state, which has no precedent or parallel. This is an enormous challenge. It is the mission of our generation.

Such considerations explain why IDI has been investing so much effort in the Jewish character of the State. Here is a sample of IDI publications on the subject: "Religion and State in Jewish Thought of the Twentieth Century," "Religion and State in Jewish Philosophy: Models," "On the Jewishness of a Democratic State," "Jewish Israelis—A Portrait," "Unhalachic Jews: On the Non-Jewish Immigrants," "A Jewish and Democratic State: A Multicultural Perspective," "State, Law and Halacha," "The State of Israel - Between Judaism and Democracy," "Jewish Statehood," "Halachic Rulings on Questions of Foreign Policy" and "Secular-Religious Relations." The authors of these publications include religious and secular, right-wing and left-wing Jews—indeed, the entire spectrum of Israeli Jewish opinion, including numerous representatives of religious Zionism.

It was bizarre and amusing to read Klein's complaint about the extensive involvement of researchers from Bar-Ilan University in IDI's activity. Since when does Bar-Ilan represent the "secular left-wing elite"? Nor are those who selected IDI for the Israel Prize particularly known for their desire to minimize the Jewish stature of the State. Prize committee members included a renowned scholar of Jewish identity and a former Brigadier-General in the IDF. Both are religious.

RECENT IDI CONFERENCES have focused on whether or not there is Zionist halacha and on the relationship between rabbis and sovereignty—the latter event held in partnership with the largest association of rabbis in Israel, Tzohar. What is the role of a rabbi in Israel? The institute will publish two volumes on this question. What is the source of authority in a Jewish and democratic state? What is the halachic attitude toward non-Jewish minorities? What is the welfare policy of a Jewish state? How should conversion take place in a Jewish state? What are the Jewish sources for a democratic lifestyle? These are just a few of the subjects occupying IDI at present in the field of religion and state.

And there are other fields as well. Recently, the institute launched a new project, "The Nation State," headed by Prof. Anita Shapira, the celebrated historian of Zionism and winner of the Israel Prize. Her project will examine issues such as justifications of the Law of Return, international pressure on the Nation State and the relationship between domestic and international law. IDI also intends to start a large-scale research project on Jewish culture in Israel.

A careful look at IDI programming would reveal that the institute has decided to take on all aspects of a sovereign Jewish existence: religion, nationhood and culture. To the annoyance of some, IDI is working to strengthen the Jewish character of the State based on the belief that its Jewish and democratic qualities complement each other. This is the real difference of opinion between IDI and its attackers, both on the Left and on the Right.

MUCH OF THE IRE directed at IDI stems from the institute's ambitious effort to propose a draft constitution for the State of Israel. "Constitution by Consensus" begins with the Declaration of Independence, declares Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state and goes on to delineate a set of arrangements that guarantee and strengthen the Jewish character of the State. For instance, IDI proposed that the Knesset (and not the courts) have the last word on personal law, conversion and the Sabbath. The institute is also promoting a legislative proposal to close shopping centers and businesses on Saturdays and holidays in order to strengthen the special character of the public sphere. At the head of IDI's constitutional effort stands the former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar. Does anyone seriously believe that Shamgar, a veteran of Betar, desires the diminution of Israel's Jewish character?

The assaults on IDI come from two directions—from the extreme Right and from the extreme Left. But we stick to our guns: both Jewish and democratic. 

Prof. Yedidia Stern is Vice President for Research on Israel as a Jewish State at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University and co-editor of the journal Democratic Culture in Israel and the World and of the book series Israeli Judaism.

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.