Israel’s 21st parliamentary election on April 9 stands on one fundamental question: What is the identity of the State of Israel? The political right, which last year won passage of the Nation-State Law, seeks to define Israel with one definition only – Israel is the national state of the Jewish people.
The law does not mention the civil rights of people who are not Jewish, and thus emphasizes the gap between Israel’s being a Jewish state and its being a democratic state. This challenge was thrown into a higher relief when Prime Minister Netanyahu encouraged and then succeeded in seeing the racist, Jewish supremacist party, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength), incorporated into a merger of three small ultra-right-wing parties. The merger may bring representatives of Otzma Yehudit, a onetime fringe party built on the teachings of the late Meir Kahane, into Israel’s next government.
Against this camp stand parties who seek to amend the Nation-State Law in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Most of the centrist and leftist parties have pledged to review, diminish, or eliminate the law if a new coalition takes power after the April 9 vote.
As we go to the polls, we must remember that we are voting on the moral image of the State. In order to clarify this, we must return to fundamental principles. The State of Israel is a Jewish, democratic state. It is simultaneously the nation-state of the Jewish people and a democratic state for all its citizen – Jews and non-Jews. The integration of these two ideas is explicit in the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
The goal of the Declaration is the “establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, the State of Israel,” but the document explicitly determines that the State of Israel, “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
What creates the tension between “Jewish” and “democratic”? There are two possible explanations. There are those who believe that to be a Jew means to be separate from other nations and their cultures, and that therefore the Jewish state must emphasize its Jewishness and give preferential treatment to its Jewish citizens. On the other hand, there are those who see Judaism as a religion of law and ritual and are worried that the definition of Israel as Jewish will harm the freedom granted them by democracy.
To see the values of “Jewish” and “democratic” as complementary, or at least as values that do not contradict one another, a different understanding of the concepts is necessary. In the case of democracy, matters are clearer. The Declaration of Independence did not explicitly use the word democracy but established the main contents of democracy at its center – equal civil rights and religious freedom. The State of Israel even anchored the defense of human honor and freedom in law.
But what is a Jewish state? Even though the Declaration uses the words Jews and Judaism many times, it avoids defining Judaism. A Jewish state is first and foremost the nation-state of the Jewish people. The clearest expression of this is the Law of Return, which grants the right of immediate citizenship to every Jew and their family members.
Thus, the Jewish majority is preserved in Israel, the majority that enables the existence of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in a democratic way. Israel is a democracy for all its citizens, irrespective of their religion and national outlook, but it is the nation-state only of the Jewish people.
Israel is a Jewish state in other important aspects, which complement its being a democracy. The Hebrew language, the ancient language of the Jewish people, is an official language of the State of Israel. The calendar that determines the work days and holidays marks the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Hours of Work and Rest Law allows all Jews to keep the Sabbath according to their way.
These are important expressions that enable the existence of a public space in which traditional Jewish values appear together with new Jewish approaches and influence the culture and society. These values complement democratic values and do not harm the fundamental values of individual freedom and legal equality.
In a democratic state, there can be no religious coercion nor can there be coercion against religion; in a democratic state, rights cannot be granted by the state only to Jewish citizens, because they are Jews; in a democratic state there can be no source of authority that is not subject to the assembly of elected representatives.
Israel’s identity as a Jewish, democratic state is the key to our existence here as one society, as humans, as Jews, and as Israelis. We must educate, explain, and persuade Israelis that this matter is practically possible and morally appropriate.
At the Shalom Hartman Institute, we deal with these questions through research, writing, and teaching. As we do every year, we will devote our annual conference in Jerusalem on March 6 to questions of Judaism and democracy. This year we seek to focus on the recently passed Nation-State Law, on its significance, and the many challenges before us as a Jewish, democratic state.