Joshua Weinberg

Democracy is More Jewish than a Nation-State

When I made the decision to move to Israel over a decade ago, it was in large part due to the inspiration I felt from the early Zionist visionaries.   The Herzlian approach taught me of the imperative for a Jewish political sovereign entity in the Land of Israel, and Ahad Ha’am’s resounding call for the development of a Jewish society richly steeped in Jewish culture, literature and language resonated strongly. I was awed at Gordon’s commitment to The Land and at Kook’s worldview that the State of Israel would be the first flowering of redemption.

In Israel I sought a national and ethnic Jewish identity, to live the life of Jewish public culture that one could only experience fully in Israel.  I was excited to take part in this great experiment and to do my part to create a Jewish and Democratic state.  As a liberal Jew, I worried about the Jewish content of the State.  Would every Jew be allowed to participate?  Would the Jewish State be accessible to all walks of Jewish observance, streams and approaches?  I always felt comfortable worrying about those issues because I could rely back on the democratic nature of the State.

While things were far from perfect – racism, sexism, and intolerance seemed to pepper the headlines and back stories with regularity – I could look to our Supreme Court, Knesset and Declaration of Independence, Israel’s mission statement, to uphold that sacred democratic ethos.

This week, all of that is being called into question with an egregious bill to be heard during Sunday’s Knesset plenary.  It is Elkinian and Shakedian Zionism and worldview that I worry will do more to negate their predecessors’ work and achievements than any bill before.

The proposed Basic Law: “Israel – the Nation-State of the Jewish People” set out by MK’s Elkin, Levin and Shaked will not only pose a serious threat to the civil rights of Israel’s minorities, but will also work to oppose the majority of citizens who strongly oppose the insertion of Jewish Law as state law.

While the legislative branch of Israel proposes such appalling and inexcusable measures, how will the Prime Minister and his diplomatic corps be able to continue to champion Israel as the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’?  Are we to join the ranks of our neighbors who openly deny minority rights and look to have sharia law become civil law?  Do we want Diaspora Jewry to turn farther and farther away from Israel as the ripple effect of such a bill would surely ensure?

When Israel embarked on the negotiation process of the 1990s, it was clear that the mainstream of society favored both a Jewish State and a Democratic state and was willing to part with the dream of the Greater Land of Israel in order to achieve it – however painful that may be.   Apparently some of society believes that in order to maintain a “Jewish State” (narrowly defined), democracy is expendable.  The latest version, has now, thankfully, included Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State but much of the content remains the same.

A Jewish State should be a State in which one can live a Jewish national and public life, and also upholds our age old Biblical tradition of justice and fairness for the stranger in our midst and taking care of our poor.  As Prof. Ruth Gavison clearly states, “A strengthening of the vision of this state, including the emphasis on the vitality and centrality of its uniquely Jewish character, will be much better served through other diverse and targeted activities.”

Today’s Zionism will only be relevant if it goes hand-in-hand with Democracy, freedom and tolerance.  Let us turn back to our founders and remind MKs Elkin, Levin and Shaked that even Jabotinsky genuinely fell back on the democracy as the preferred political system, emphasizing his belief in “democracy, a parliamentary regime, freedom of thought, press and association.”

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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