Strengthening Jewish Unity by Strengthening Israeli Democracy

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Israel Democracy Institute

As Israel enters its eighth decade, the delicate balance between the state’s two dominant characteristics – Jewish and democratic – has arguably never been more contested. Recent steps perceived to have upset this balance have had implications not only inside Israel, but also vis-à-vis Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry. The Israeli governments backtrack on the Western Wall/Kotel compromise has alienated many Reform and Conservative Jews the world over. The recently-passed Nation-State Basic Law raised concerns about a growing illiberal Israel putting particular Jewish values over more universal values like equality and democracy. The memory of 1967, to say nothing of 1948, increasingly becomes more abstract. Both Israeli society and Diaspora Jewry have undergone significant changes in the intervening decades. 

Researching these deep-rooted changes, while also putting forward concrete policy solutions, is the work of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), the only non-partisan Israeli think-tank devoted to strengthening the foundations of Israeli democracy. Based in Jerusalem, IDI partners with Israeli government institutions, non-governmental organizations, and interested parties around the world to uphold that most sacred idea: that the national home of the Jewish people can – and must – be a liberal democracy. 

“Israeli society is shifting, making it a challenge to hold on to our values,” asserts Yohanan Plesner, a former Israeli special forces officer, Knesset member, and now IDI’s charismatic president. Israel is at a pivotal crossroads, which means that the Jewish people are at a pivotal crossroads. “The post-World War Two world focused on liberal values and human rights, yet people feel a strong need for national identity,” Plesner says. “How do we strike the right balance while remaining true to the vision of our founding fathers?”

Indeed, Israel’s founding fathers laid the baseline that is, despite recent difficulties, still with us: the Declaration of Independence. This is IDI’s guiding light, a document that enshrined both the Jewish people’s right for national self-determination in their ancestral homeland while clearly guaranteeing the civil, human and political rights of the minorities living in that homeland (see below regarding the new “Democracy Pavilion” in Tel Aviv).

Given the history of Jewish oppression as minorities in foreign lands, this was the moral and correct thing to do. Yet democracy in Israel was also essential for building bridges with the rest of the Jewish people who themselves, overwhelmingly, still live as religious minorities within Western democracies.

Today, both Israel and world Jewry are undergoing major social, cultural, and demographic changes. Israeli society has evolved from what had been a solid mainstream Zionist majority into various “tribes,” as President Reuven Rivlin famously termed it, encompassing secular Jews, the ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, and Arab-Israeli segments of the population. In the Diaspora, decades of success integrating into these countries has raised challenges (as well as opportunities) in maintaining unique Jewish identities and values. But much can be learned from American Jewry about how liberalism and Judaism can complement – as opposed to compete – with each other. 

"Compounding these changes", according to Plesner, "the national Zionist institutions, designed originally to bring about the foundation of the Jewish state, have also not kept up with the pace of change. Thus, organizations such as the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund ought to be re-imagined to be able to address the challenges of 21st century world Jewry and its role vis-à-vis the Zionist cause". 

Above all, Israel’s political system requires reform in order to ensure the unity of the Jewish people. "The current system of government provides a very strong incentive for leading politicians to drive wedges between different parts of society and between Israeli and diaspora Jews", adds Plesner. Recent legislation like the Nation-State Basic Law needlessly widens divisions, alienating many from the Jewish State. This is where IDI comes in. 

Since its founding in 1991, IDI has played a crucial role within Israel’s policy-making community, supplying objective data and advice to all members of the Israeli government, Knesset, and civil society. Stemming from the Institute’s expert staff of academics and former policy practitioners, IDI’s four core centers focus on everything from the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli economic and society (Center for Religion, Nation and State) and fighting back against populist anti-constituional legislation (Center for Democratic Values and Institutions), to striking the right balance between national security and democracy (Center for Security and Democracy) and reforming the political and electoral systems (Center for Governance and the Economy). IDI is also the home to the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research – that holds the largest and most comprehensive database of Israeli public opinion surveys.

Working together across multi-disciplinary platforms, IDI researchers publish reports and articles based on their work, speak publicly, and educate officials privately – all in an effort to uphold Israel’s democratic essence. “We are the most prominent domestic policy think-and-do tank in Israel, and our mission is to affect policy and legislation on the basis of excellent applied research,” says Plesner. “We carry out proactive, long-term policy work. In this age of suspicion and doubts about objectivity, a sound argument can have a strong impact.” 

Innumerable laws proposed in the Knesset in recent years deemed harmful to Israel's democratic character, like the NGO Bill, could be viewed as a failure in this regard; the bill passed despite IDI’s opposition. Yet prior drafts of the bill were far worse than the final product, owing much to the Institute’s diligent, behind-the-scenes work. “There have been waves of such initiatives over the past few years,” notes Plesner, “and we have been successful in suspending or watering down the vast majority of them.” 

Plesner points out that IDI played a key role in rolling back the Override Clause, a recent bill aimed at curtailing the power of the Supreme Court. IDI provided data that refuted the premise that the Supreme Court was overly interventionist against government policies and legislation. Based on IDI’s findings, it turned out that the opposite was true: over the past 25 years, Israel’s Supreme Court had overturned on average less than one law per year, among the lowest rates in the world. “People tend to believe propaganda,” Plesner adds – but the facts provided by IDI told a different story. 

When it comes to issues of religion and state, like the Kotel Compromise, IDI is unsparing in its support for pluralism. It’s an issue, Plesner says, of “what's right and common sense,” especially in terms of Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora. "Israel is the National Homeland for ALL Jews", Plesner stresses. "Israel should feel like home to Jews of all walks of life, to every stream of Judaism. A place that respects what we each are and the importance of our peoplehood". 

In this, like most of the challenging issues facing Israel mentioned above, the root cause is the structure of Israel’s political system – in particular the disproportionate influence that small sectoral parties have on national politics. “We are strong proponents of electoral reform and we have a blueprint for change,” Plesner states emphatically. “We shouldn’t be fatalistic and think we’re stuck with this system. The system has been changed in the past and it can be changed again. It’s important not only for matters of Jewish pluralism but also in order to improve our ability for long-term planning and dealing with the fundamental issues of the State.” 

Above all, electoral reform efforts should strive to shift power back to the Israeli mainstream. Only in this way, IDI maintains, can the political system provide the necessary solutions to the many challenges facing Israel – and by extension, Israel-Diaspora relations. 

For an Institute that prides itself on strengthening Israel by safeguarding its democratic values, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that recent initiatives have also focused on outreach to the Israeli public directly.. The Democracy Pavilion in Tel Aviv has highlighted the importance of Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, which is held in great esteem by the majority of the public and bringing it back into the public consciousness. Going forward, IDI plans on launching an educational campaign aimed at strengthening the identification with the declaration and core constitutional values such as freedom and equality and with the institutions that are designed to guarantee them, like the Supreme Court. An awareness of the importance of equality, including for all streams of Judaism, could help strengthen the tie and expand the unity between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. 

Even after the miracles of the last seventy years, Israel, like the Jewish people, is a constant work in progress. The Israel Democracy Institute stands at the forefront of arguably the most important of these efforts: safeguarding Israel’s future as both a Jewish and democratic state and, in the process, ensuring the unity of the Jewish people. 

The article was published in Haaretz.