The old joke has a rabbi telling one congregant “you’re right”; the congregant’s rival, “you’re right”; and his wife, who complains they both can’t be right, “you’re right, too.” With Right and Left squabbling about a Jewish Nation law, the Right is wrong; the Left isn’t right; and those who think they both can’t be wrong, are wrong, too.

The Right is wrong because the timing is bad, the optics are worse, and in some legislative drafts the balance is off. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is again playing partisan arsonist rather than statesmanlike firefighter. Politicians should follow the Hippocratic Oath – first do no harm. Israel operates in an hostile world environment, in a flammable region, during an incendiary time. When many Israelis are worrying about personal safety, seeking governmental leadership to calm tensions, unnecessary legislation stirring primal fears and triggering anti-Israel sentiment is reckless.  

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Israel’s leaders, including Likud backbenchers, have a responsibility to reassure more than two million non-Jewish Israelis during this sensitive time that they are cherished citizens, and will be protected by THIS government. They deserve reassurances that the “medina” the state, will remain democratic as well as Jewish, which is different than saying it is a Jewish state with a democratic mishtar – regime or government. (Unlike most, I read the versions in Hebrew and English before writing).


Israel’s Jewish character should not be a left-right issue. It’s a Zionist issue. Democratic nations have the right to express their majority culture in the public square. Israel’s Declaration of Independence already “declare[s] the establishment of a Jewish State,” mandating the State’s Jewish character, although certain specifics the proposed laws mention, such as Hatikvah as the national anthem, are not spelled out.

While some post-Zionist ideologues and the Supreme Court’s mushrooming power have triggered fears of eroding Israel’s Jewish character, no pressing danger exists. Netanyahu could have affirmed Israel’s Jewish character by quoting the Declaration of Independence, reinforced by a stack of bills and court cases protecting the precedent. Instead, advancing an extreme draft before his more balanced version, is like a husband blatantly housing a mistress in lesser quarters than the wife; while pretending to placate, it only enrages.  Approving a bill’s initial reading while vowing to replace it, evokes John Kerry’s infamous 2003 legislative flip-flop, regarding funding Americans troops, when he said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Nevertheless, the Left is not right, emitting shrill arguments, straw men, and premature eulogies over Israeli democracy, while hysterically, irresponsibly fueling Israel’s delegitimization. Netanyahu has promised to guarantee “equal rights for all” Israel’s citizens. He has an established track record of protecting Israel’s liberal democratic character as envisioned by his Zionist mentors Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin.
The insane accusations, ranging from familiar libels about Israel becoming an “Apartheid state” to fear-mongering about Israeli Arabs being forced to wear Green crescents – thank you Ha’aretz -- tell more about the perverse, paranoid accusers than the accused. Their outrage meter is broken. They rail against potential Israeli breaches while enabling actual Palestinian totalitarianism, terrorism, and Islamism. If a future Palestinian state – or any Arab state -- followed the protocols of the most extreme Jewish state Knesset bill (adapted to their national-religious identity) – we would have the first functional Arab democracy.

Israel’s democratic character should not be a left-right issue. It’s a Zionist issue. Israel was founded as a democratic state that “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”  Ironically, liberals opened this legislative can of worms, hoping to enact a law guaranteeing “democracy,” a word missing from Israel’s Declaration of independence.

The need to caricature this government, and Israel, as repudiating democracy and demonizing Arabs proves what Matti Friedman writes in the Atlantic: “The uglier aspects of Palestinian society are untouchable [and I add, nuanced analyses of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state are unfashionable] because they would disrupt the ‘Israel story,’ which is a story of Jewish moral failure.” That popular, stereotypical, castigatory narrative, which many American Jewish elites are embracing, fails to understand that complex, pluralistic, free democracies balance competing ideals. Even America, which in these debates suddenly is held up as perfect, “hold[s] contradictory ideals in suspension,” the historian Michael Kammen wrote in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning People of Paradox.  

Totalitarian regimes are simpler, often imposing one overriding idea. Israel, a Jewish democratic state with 25 percent non-Jewish citizens, will always juggle: struggling with maintaining its Jewish character while guaranteeing equal rights for all; wondering whether Arabs – and Haredim, for that matter – prefer individual rights or group rights; navigating between the religious components in Israel’s Jewish identity and its national dimensions.

These important dilemmas demand consideration. Yet the Left treats this democratic debate as threatening democracy, the Right treats this Jewish disputation as unJewish. Both sides should mature. The Right should avoid its “dog whistles” inciting hatred against Arabs; the Left should avoid its equally reprehensible dog whistles inciting hatred against Israel.

The philosopher John Dewey taught that “Democracy begins in conversation.” Let’s have the conversation, calmly, rationally, respectfully, with nuance and without demonization, sensitive to the many dimensions but understanding that to govern is to choose.

Just as Israel needs expansive centrists who can support the widows of Har Nof and the children of the burned classroom in the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School, we need voices saying “you’re right” to the pro-Jewish and pro-democratic sides. Democracy stems from Jewish ideas of equality. A Jewish-Democratic state is as possible as a state with majority rule and minority rights, committed to liberty and equality, fostering individualism amid nationalism.  Embracing such valid if occasionally contradictory Zionist and democratic ideals fosters the kind of “you’re right, too” constructive, creative tension that makes democracies great. 

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visting Professor at the IDC in Herzliya. His latest book, Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism, just won the 2014 J.I. Segal Non-fiction award for a Jewish Theme.


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