Crossing the Barrier: How to be a Jewish Democracy?

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Balancing the seeming Paradox of Jewish Democracy.

Juggling the perfect balance between democracy and Judaism in Israel is a challenge worthy of cirque du Soleil. Many would argue the term Jewish State is in and of itself un-democratic as it excludes all of its non Jewish citizens. Yet, the right to Jewish self determination has been wrangled from the bitter jaws of bloody war and the millennia old jewish dream of sovereignty in our historical homeland is alive and well from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Zionism, a lofty thought to my suffering Jewish ancestors, has crossed the barrier of dreams into reality. Hebrew has been revived, the Jerusalem we cried for is now Israel’s capital and Israel is arguably the regional superpower in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the journey from dream to reality is a path fraught with obstacles. A dream is revered and perfect, yet, a reality, is corporeal and flawed. When the United States crossed this threshold from the dream of democracy to the birth of its nation, it too faced difficulties. America’s founding fathers, though united in the dream of a independent country, argued bitterly as to what that country would look like. The constitution itself, what is today the bedrock of America, was too a topic of heated debate. The questions of centralized versus local and state government, whether the new country could organize an army of its own and state representation were all contested. Still, the dream came to fruition, a reality pulled from the infinite possibilities of the human mind to the finite limitations of the human condition. Israel too, having not even reached its 100th birthday, faces similar struggles, but none are as pertinent than its balancing act of its Judaism and its democratic nature.

In response to an article I wrote on the Jerusalem gay pride parade and its importance, though some engaged in substantive debate, many cited Jewish scripture in their clear opposition in the comments section. They cried that a Pride Parade could not dare walk the streets of Jerusalem as it was against Halacha (Jewish religious law) and that the LGBTQ+ community was an abomination with no place in the land of Israel. This response highlights the problem. Many still cling to the notion that a Jewish state must follow the tenants of the Jewish religion, and many would argue, only its Orthodox branch. It is for this reason that public transportation is generally not available on Shabbat in Israel, that there is only religious, not civil, marriage and that a science textbook in an Israeli school recently included a passage about how prayer is essential for plant growth.

This line of thought is absolutely ludicrous. If Israel is a democracy, it must function as a democracy made up of Jewish people, not a religiously Jewish state. Anything less than this would make Israel no better than its neighbors that force their citizens to adhere to a strict, antiquated and unequal code of Sharia Law. In my experience living in this state, it would seem Israel is caught in a limbo between being a religious state and democracy made up of Jews, for example making it difficult to travel on Shabbat but not banning its violation altogether. It is time for Israel to cease living in this paradox and finally cross the barrier and enter the light of unbridled democracy.

This is not to say that Israel should, under most circumstances, hinder religious practice, cease having public Jewish religious schools, force people to work on Shabbat or anything of the sort. Choosing democracy while holding on to Israel’s Jewish character is the key to its growth as a nation state. For example, in contrast to most western democracies, Israel’s day of rest should continue to be Saturday but the government should not in any way force its citizens to participate or hamper their freedom of movement on this day.

Yet, even as an Orthodox Jew, I contend there is no place for Jewish scripture as the basis of any Israeli law. The right of return for example should be viewed as an invitation for Jews to become citizens in the sovereign nation of their people, a nation built on war, sacrifice and innovation, not as a religious right. So too, the institution of marriage should not be controlled solely by the religious Rabbanite and civil marriage should be made available to secular Jews, non Jews and gay couples. The only time it is justifiable to quote the Torah in the government is when it supports, not serves as the basis of, the law at hand. For example, a law concerning welfare or low income safety nets has the right to quote verses in the Torah concerning caring for the disadvantaged in our society. However, under no circumstances can it serve as the sole reason for a law. Democracy may have inherent bases in Judeo-Christian values and thereby from the Torah, however, let there be no mistaking, there is no place for religion in the halls of democratic government, even in the holy land.

About the Author
The writer is an author of the Eshel Pledge, has written in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, the Jerusalem Post and has a blog for the Times of Israel. He recently emigrated to Israel and lives in Modi'in as he prepares to enlist as a lone soldier in the IDF.
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