This week, my 11-year-old son, Ishay, was supposed to take part in a school activity, in which kids his age, who are part of the Democratic School educational network, learn about and promote democratic values. Divided into groups of ten, they were to have taken public transportation to visit appropriate points of interest throughout Tel Aviv and then reconvene to discuss their impressions. Democracy education is the raison d’etre for this particular stream within the Israeli school system.
Last Friday, my wife and I along with some other parents refused to allow our children to participate in this planned activity. It was not because of the democratic elements, which was the whole reason for sending them to such a school in the first place. It was because of the recent spate of terrorist attacks in bus stations and a Jerusalem synagogue.
I begin with this short story to illustrate that the political atmosphere in which proposed legislation to strengthen Israel’s Jewish character has taken on a new dimension. Similar laws to enshrine Israel’s Jewishness have been in the pipeline for some time, but the bloody events of the last weeks have sharpened the rhetoric rightward, creating considerable concern in the Diaspora.
Last year, Prof. Ruth Gavison was tasked by the Ministry of Justice to investigate these initiatives. She, in turn, approached the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) to explore world Jewry’s perspectives on Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Forty different communities, from Sydney, to Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, and Johannesburg held seminars to discuss this important subject.
The vast majority of Jews around the world expect Israel to maintain its Jewish character and state symbols. They also want to safeguard its character as a democratic and pluralist country, with equal rights for every citizen regardless of religion, religious stream, race or sex. A country where each of them could feel at home. And the vast majority of Israelis agree.
Disturbing this balance in the Israeli vision of creating a society based on Jewish values, democracy, and civil rights will ripple far beyond Israel’s borders. It may taint Israel in the eyes of the free world and distance Diaspora Jews who are counted as supporters of the Zionist enterprise.
But the Jewish Diaspora does not share the dilemmas Israelis face when they send their kids off to school each day, not to mention the army. They live in a different neighborhood, under different pressures. This creates different sets of dynamics. There is no doubt that the final legislation will take on, if adopted, a softer approach. The compromise formulated by the prime minister includes an amplification and strengthening of Israel’s bond with the Diaspora, which will result in a greater consideration of the attitudes and concerns of Jews worldwide.
To achieve this goal Israel must better understand that Diaspora Jews are first and foremost invested in their own societies. That Judaism is a central component of their identity, and Israel is a sister community with deep shared roots. They should limit their expectations accordingly. At the same time, Jewish communities around the globe should better appreciate the price Israelis pay to safeguard the core state of the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization. They must understand that Israelis feel isolated and vulnerable in a hostile neighborhood.
The cabinet approval of the proposed legislation, in the language set by the rightwing of Israel’s political spectrum, reflects a tipping point in internal Israeli political dynamics caused by this recent round of violence. The populist sentiments expressed by Israel’s right are an attempt to capitalize on the fear that makes parents reluctant to send their children on school field trips. But as my son is learning, democracy is a process with checks and balances.
The dispute within the cabinet paves the way for negotiating necessary changes as the bill proceeds to the Knesset.