Israel, democracy, and Judaism

 Israel's Declaration of Independence proclaimed

"the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Israel . . . will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it 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; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions;. . ."

The language unites two contentious concepts, Jewish and democratic.
Now in its seventh decade, and stronger politically, economically, and militarily than the founders might have dreamed, the country's residents are still arguing about those terms.
Recent events are
  • Responses to obstreperous behavior by several Arab Members of Knesset include a proposal to facilitate the suspension of a Member by an extraordinary majority of the Knesset, which has pit several Likud MKs against their former Likud Knesset colleague, President Reuven Rivlin
  • A decision by the Ministry of Education, headed by Naftali Bennett of Jewish Home, that the international adult Bible competition be open to Jews only
  • Legislation to tighten the closing of businesses on the Sabbath
  • A proposal to extend the Western Wall in a way to provide for non-Orthodox rituals with the mixing and equal participation of women and men 
  • Entry to prison, on unrelated charges of accepting or giving bribes, and tampering with evidence, of a former Prime Minister and a charismatic ultra-Orthodox Rabbi.
Especially provocative was the visit by three Arab MKs to the homes of Palestinians killed while attacking Jews, and joining in mourning and honoring them as a martyrs. This produced a hearing by the Knesset ethnics committee and the Members' suspension for up to four months. It also produced a bill, now being considered, that would give an extraordinary majority of 90 MKs the capacity to suspend a Member for an indefinite term.

It is this measure, promoted by Likud MKs and the Prime Minister, that the Likud President Rivlin opposes for its threat to the capacity of a minority to express its posture, even if unpopular. Rivlin's posture is consistent with his emphasis that Israel should be a country for all its people, and that the Knesset must be able to represent its different factions.

Naftali Bennett's support for closing the international adult Bible competition to Jews only comes along with his actions as Minister of Education to increase teaching about the Hebrew Bible in Israeli curricula, and his Ministry's removal from high school reading lists of a novel about Jewish-Arab romance.. These actions have created a howl among Israelis who are not all that sure about the role of religion in the state, or who stand for the principles of pluralism and openness. Closing the Bible competition to non-Jews may reinforce BDS in isolating Israel internationally. A suit in the Supreme Court may yet scuttle that feature of Bennett's program.

An agreement between the government and religious women to extend the Western Wall got lots of headlines, but it will have to pass the tests of implementation amidst continued opposition. In the same mood, was a declared increase in the government's support for non-Orthodox congregations.
A Knesset measure would impose Sabbath closings throughout the country, by replacing a number of local ordinances that provide wiggle room via exemptions, limitations of closings to religious neighborhoods, or small fines that merchants accept as the cost of doing business.
Ehud Olmert's entry to prison affirms the equality before the law that is part of democracy, and the entry of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto shows that the law also works against a charismatic religious figure. Both convicts proclaimed their innocence prior to entering the gates. Those claims, along with former President Katsav's claims that he was not a rapist, may yet test the policy of prison officials to reduce by a third the sentences of convicts who behave well, admit their crimes, and and express regret for them.
Still unresolved is the issue of Israel as a Jewish State. Somewhere in the puzzle is the definition of Judaism, who is a Jew, and how Jewish must Israel be.
These are not only matters of tantalizing complexity that can entertain intellectuals. They also cause problems for individuals. Among them are non-Jews who wish to spend their lives here. It also may not be easy for a non-Jew, married to a Jew, to obtain permanent residence. Individual cases depend on clerks in the Ministry of Interior, and whatever influence can be brought to bear. In the background is an effort to close the opportunity for sizable numbers of Palestinians to gain entry by marrying Israeli Arabs.
Still unresolved are issues between Orthodox and other Judaisms concerned with Jewish identity and conversion. A Jewish mother or an Orthodox conversion is essential for the Orthodox. A Jewish father is sufficient for Reform Congregations, and has been proposed but not accepted within the Conservative Movement.
Israel is home to several hundred thousand individuals who are not Jews according to Orthodox religious law, but who fit culturally within the near majority of Israeli Jews who are secular. Most are products of intermarriage in the former Soviet Union, and they or their parents qualified for immigration and citizenship under the Law of Return by virtue of having a Jewish parent or grandparent.
Would a Reform Jew, a convert, or a secular Jew not considered a Jew by the Orthodox Rabbinate be denied participation in Naftali Bennett's Bible Contest? 
One of my Internet friends reacted strongly to my comment in a previous note that the New York Times was the most Jewish of the world's major newspapers in terms of ownership, staff, and readership. He conceded staff and readership, but suggested that many were not really Jewish on account of their postures on Israel. He was firm in asserting that the ownership was no longer Jewish, since the Sulzberger family had abandoned the tribe for membership among the WASPs.
The issue of who is a Jew is unanswerable because there are so many answers. The issue of ceasing to be a Jew is also puzzling. 
  • Benjamin Disraeli said that he was both a Jew and an Anglican. 
  • Karl Marx was the grandson of rabbis on both sides of his family, and endorsed anti-Semitism in The Jewish Question. That did not deter numerous Jews in Russia and elsewhere from signing on to the Communism he helped to create. 
  • Members of the family that holds a large stake in the ownership the New York Times may pray with upscale Protestant congregations. Their newspaper's evenhandedness tilts against Israel, and in decades past buried news of the Holocaust in small items on inner pages. Nonetheless, Sulzbergers would have qualified for a nasty end under the Nazis.
Lots of questions about democracy and Judaism, and how they come together or don't. My own view is that both work here as well as anywhere, even while each has some of the hiccups long identified.
Comments welcome, by Jews and others, democrats or not, as each defines him or herself.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem