‘Jewish and Democratic’ Even in Tough Times

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Dr. Shuki Friedman reminds us that the values that are so deeply rooted in our Jewish worldview, are part and parcel with the democratic values of our state and its outlook on the obligation to preserve life and human dignity using the rule of law.

The State of Israel is different from other states, in that it is both Jewish and democratic. The nation state has been steeped in Jewish values since its founding and, as such, there has been an ongoing struggle to define the Jewish character of the state. How will we maintain the Sabbath? Keep kosher? Deal with conversions? But the state's Jewish character does not stop with religious commandments, as important as these may be. Jewish moral principles must also be expressed in the policies of the state and in the actions of its leadership, even in difficult times.

Unfortunately, over the past several weeks, in the face of a wave of murderous terror, we have seen cruel and ruthless responses on the street and through social media. The Arab/Muslim side has callously called for further attacks. The Israeli/Jewish side has witnessed a societal outburst of racism and calls for "killing every terrorist" after each attack. Rabbis have partnered in these unforgiving calls in a way that is difficult to comprehend, as it does not align with Jewish values.

From a Jewish perspective, every human life has supreme value. The Jewish ethical, halachic (legal) norms are clear when it comes to the value of human beings. These are principles that must guide every Jew.

The Mishnah states that a person who "was created in the image of God is dear." This passage does not speak only to Jewish people, but all people. While Judaism does talk to the notion that if someone is going to kill you, you should kill him first and the idea that an individual is permitted to harm and pursuer before or during an attack, this does not take away from the value it places on human life. Therefore, once a terrorist is neutralized, harming him would be forbidden.

These values, which are so deeply rooted in our Jewish worldview, are part and parcel with the democratic values of our state and its outlook on the obligation to preserve life and human dignity using the rule of law.

It is easier to adhere to these values during times of peace, as they are rarely tested. It is in times like these, when terror is wreaking havoc on the streets and the blood of our citizens is flowing in them, that the influence of Judaism on the state is most tested. In difficult times, we are required to set legal and ethical red lines – from a secular and Jewish perspective.

In Israel, the debate about how much religion should influence the state has haunted us since our founding. But the discourse is not always focused on basic Jewish values, but details such as conversion, marriage, divorce, etc. When we examine the Jewishness of the state, we should not solely look at whether or not chametz can be sold on Passover, but at the Jewish ethics and character of the state – even (and especially) in tense times.

In days like these, those who most actively push for Jewish influence on the state must serve as a light of ethnicity and Jewish values for our people. The rabbis and other public leaders who care about the Jewish character of Israel must lead the march for restraint, for this will help maintain Jewish ethical principles and values in the face of violence.

Harming terrorists after they have been neutralized, randomly injuring minorities or any other expression of racism must serve as a wakeup call for those who care about the Jewish ethical status of the state of Israel and should catalyze these individuals to action. Hearing a Jewish moral and ethical voice in such difficult times will serve as a basis for strengthening the Jewish character of the state. Passing this test would be a win for the Jewish character of the state – and it will have impact on the Jewish nature in calmer times, which we hope will come speedily in our time.