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A Jewish Israel, equal for all

Must Israel give up its Jewishness in order to be democratic?

Patricia Marks Greenfield’s Op-Ed for the Washington Post last week (An Israel equal for all, Jewish or not) missed the point entirely. She took experiences in Israel and molded them into a worldview. Essentially the piece argues for single, secular state, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Putting aside the impractical, illogical and incomprehensible argument for a one-state solution, it is her call for Israel to become a secular state that requires a response.

When I was born, Israel was sixteen years old — a vibrant and beautiful country imbued with a youthful spirit that resonated with two-thousand years of exilic longing. I felt privileged to grow up and raise children in a generation in which Jews had a state, a uniquely fascinating country that gathered in immigrants from diverse cultures. The country’s sons and daughters had returned, either out of a long-cultivated sense of yearning, or simply because they had nowhere else to go.

My own family embodied this story of diversity. My grandmother, Hannah Mashiach, a Zionist and a religious woman, immigrated with from Afghanistan before the founding of the state. My maternal grandmother, Rosa Josefhzun, came to the new state from Bucharest because she could find no other refuge. In a certain sense, their stories are the story of the country: a narrative of longing, disappointment, and distress, but above all of hope.

A large part of that hope derives from Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish and democratic state. It is precisely this fruitful tension between Jewish and democratic values — and the challenge of balancing and integrating them — that first brought me into political life. I was driven by the conviction that the relation between the two sets of values is not “either-or,” as in Patricia Marks Greenfield’s view but “both.” There need be no contradiction between the state’s Jewish character (which first of all means the recognition that Israel is the state in which the Jewish people exercises its right to self-determination) and its commitment to afford equal rights to all its citizens. In part this is because Jewish values are in themselves profoundly democratic.

To put the matter more personally: My religious roots bind me to the exceptionally rich Jewish tradition — a tradition with its own share of political wisdom — and at the same time enrich and anchor my democratic sensibilities. On the other hand, I remain convinced that a Jewish spirit that closes itself from democratic and inclusive values is destined to stagnate and decay.

For this reason I supported the appointment of legal scholar Professor Ruth Gavison to draft a constitutional provision that would preserve the essential balance of Jewish and democratic values in a way agreeable to all parliamentary parties. It’s also why I’m proud to be a member of Yesh Atid, a party with people from all backgrounds, including colleagues from Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Ethiopian families, some who are religious and some secular but all of whom fight for equality within Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Promoting that balance, and recognizing it a source of strength, is the single most significant political task we confront.

About the Author
Dr. Aliza Lavie served as a member of the Knesset for Yesh Atid between 2013 and 2019, serving as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She is a senior lecturer at the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University.