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Jewish and democratic: It’s no dream

Mediation at the grassroots level can bridge the rifts that threaten to tear Israeli society apart
David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (Israel Government Press Office)
David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (Israel Government Press Office)

These days, you could be excused for assuming Israel was falling apart at the seams. Non-religious Jews want the freedom to operate stores on Shabbat while religious Jews, fearing competition will force them to open or lose profits, argue that all must stay closed. Religious Jews are distressed over the prospect of army service in situations that violate their spiritual values, while non-religious Jews grow increasingly resentful that some must serve while others are exempt.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. According to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, proudly proclaimed in 1948 by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, the State of Israel was formed with a dual nature: Jewish and democratic. The Declaration insisted Israel had to be “open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles” while at the same time guaranteeing “equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” The new state would “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Some of my fellow Israelis have become cynical about the possibility of fulfilling this vision. They’re stuck. They no longer believe in this dual vision of Ben Gurion and his colleagues. As we say in Hebrew – chaval, it’s a shame. When you give up hope, you give up listening and when you stop listening to the other side, you lose something essential, something Jewish. You lose the ability to see the other side as human and you see them only as an obstacle to be eliminated in any way possible. We see all too clearly here in Israel what happens when both sides stop listening. Society starts coming apart at the seams. Both sides dig in their heels, putting up even more barriers to dialogue and true understanding.

What Israelis needs now is a mediator. It’s the only way through those barriers. We need third parties who can promise both sides that they will be heard if only they will come to the table, expert mediators who can guarantee a safe space where all voices are respected. We need to stop trying to convince each other that I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s not working. Instead, we must be silent and listen, and that’s where mediators come in. In a safe, neutral forum, we can stop bickering and digging in our heels. I can say, “Even though you don’t agree with me, hear my voice and understand how important this issue is to me. And I promise to do the same.”

Such a process can only happen at a grassroots level, independent of the the cutthroat political arena. A decade ago, Israel came very close to a secular marriage law, thanks to efforts I spearheaded, along with the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute and, at a later stage, with the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, to enact a partnership covenant (brit zugiyut, in Hebrew) that would offer legal rights to secular couples wishing to marry according to their beliefs, while leaving control over halachic (Jewish legal) marriage with religious authorities. In other words, both sides had to compromise.

Although that bill ultimately failed for political reasons, I had the privilege of actually listening to all the stakeholders. I heard from secular Jews who wanted to build families and affirm their relationships, and religious Jews who cared about the halachic status of future offspring. Hearing these voices convinced me that our only hope for agreement is going to the grassroots: listening to one another and understanding each other’s values.

To provide a forum for this, I founded the Center for Jewish & Democratic Law at Bar-Ilan University in 2015, and now I’m joining with many others to create the first Israeli Congress on Judaism and Democracy, which is happening next month in Tel Aviv. Inspired by the pre-State Zionist Congresses in 20th century Europe, this Congress is centered on a non-partisan agenda, because I’ve seen enough of how politics operate to know that change here must come from the bottom up.

Make no mistake – our Congress, too, has some powerful supporters, including US Senator Joseph Lieberman, Israeli President Ruvi Rivlin, and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. We’re expecting about 700 people, including experts from all sectors of Israeli society, who will sit down at last, face to face, with mediators helping build a framework of ongoing debate and reconciliation. Specifically, we have recruited eight mediators from the community – their area of expertise is mediation for communities in crisis, and we believe they have the skills to bring together the various sectors of Israeli society.

Can Judaism and democracy coexist? I believe it can and must. And I’m heartened by how many Israelis and others agree with me. I fervently hope that the Congress will be the first of many such dialogues and roundtables. We have plans to carry on the conversation with various events throughout the coming year through Bar-Ilan’s Center for Jewish and Democratic Law.

Over 100 years ago, Theodor Herzl wrote, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Is Herzl’s vision falling apart at the seams? Not if we have anything to say about it. Just as it took courage to attend those early Zionist Congresses in Europe, it takes courage to face these issues today. Whatever your walk of life, I invite you to join us at next month’s Congress in Tel Aviv to be part of what may well prove to be the most crucial dialogue of Israel’s coming century.

About the Author
Professor Shahar Lifshitz is chair of the Jewish and democratic law center and cofounder of the first Israeli congress of Judaism and democracy
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