The Struggle Over the Definition of Jewishness Is Now Existential

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The centrality granted to the Jewish component over the democratic one in the constitutional identity of the state and the increasing influence of religion on the lives of Israelis make defining Judaism all the more important

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Two processes are making Judaism in Israel even more central than before: The centrality granted to the Jewish component over the democratic one in the constitutional identity of the state, as seen in the nation-state law; and the adoption of a religious identity by most Jews in Israel.

These processes emphasize the need to fight over the definition of Jewishness, which will be used by the courts in their interpretation of the nation-state law, and even more important, over the way most Jews in Israel understand Judaism. The present situation, in which the outspoken “authentic” spokespersons of Judaism present it as conservative, reclusive and inconsistent with Western and democratic values, threatens Israel’s ability to be an open and inclusive democracy.

Israel has been a “Jewish and democratic state” since its establishment, which became a constitutional norm when the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and the Basic Law on Freedom of Occupation passed in 1992. Those critical of the judicial system think these laws strengthened the democratic component over the Jewish one. Therefore, a goal of the nation-state law was to reinforce the Jewish component at the expense of the democratic one.

For that purpose, the nation-state law says “The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people.” The other, democratic, constitutional foundation was purposefully omitted. As long as the nation-state law isn’t revoked or updated, the Jewishness of the state will be of greater constitutional importance than its democratic nature. That’s why the debate over the meaning of Jewishness, in the national-religious sense, is acute and has a greater influence on the character of the state.

A Haaretz poll examining the ties of Israel’s Jewish citizens to Judaism, published on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, illustrates the clear decline in secularism and increase in the connection to tradition and to religious observance. A perusal of this poll and similar ones from recent years indicates that the so-called “traditional” group comprises 40 to 45 percent of Jews in Israel. If we add the various streams of Orthodoxy, we find that a significant majority of Jews in Israel have a strong tie to Judaism, and the impression is that the trend is of increasing ties to religion.

This tie to Judaism is both practical and values-based. The polls, which usually measure the attitude towards practice (Do you fast on Yom Kippur? Do you light Shabbat candles?) don’t deal with the question of values. In other words, they don’t ask what is the nature of the Judaism that most Jews have in mind and to what degree its values contradict liberal and democratic ones.

According to rabbis and thinkers who claim that they are the ones expressing the genuine Jewish voice, Judaism is a reclusive, conservative and particularistic religion, which rejects central Western values and sees them as a threat to its existence. According to them, any other description of Judaism is wrong and illegitimate. This perception affects not only the understanding of Judaism as a religion, but also the Jewish nationalist dimension, which is fueled by religious Jewish sources that contain strong nationalist values.

The campaign against religious powers, which chases an imaginary religious demon, is missing the opportunity to influence Israel’s character, and is playing into the hands of the extremists. The challenge is not to remove Judaism from the public space. Israel was and will be a Jewish state and there should be a concrete expression of that. The real challenge is to influence the nature of Judaism as it is and will be interpreted by the courts and the government, and as it is perceived by the tradition-oriented majority.

Judaism has many faces, and the possibilities for interpretation are almost unlimited. The effort to bring Judaism in line with liberal and democratic values is not new, but in light of these challenges, the struggle over the Judaism’s definition is now existential. If we leave Judaism to the extremists who try to instill a Judaism whose values are anti-liberal and anti-democratic, that will be the image of the Israel as well.

We must work to to bring a different Judaism to all these arenas, and to the minds of the Jewish majority that is seeking a connection to Judaism and is willing to adopt its values. We must bring forth a Judaism that doesn’t proclaim war on liberal values; that considers values such as equality or liberty an asset rather than a burden; a Judaism that seeks a broad common denominator for Israel’s constitutional values and foundations, rather than a narrow nationalist interpretation.

The article was first published in Haaretz