'Israel’s democracy struggle affects Diaspora identity,' study finds

Jews in the Diaspora tend to be critical of Israel’s religious status quo, but support the national use of Jewish symbols, according to JPPI paper.

Israeli flags 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Israeli flags 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The tension between Judaism and democracy in Israel affects young Diaspora Jews’ devotion to their own identity, according to a study released Wednesday in Jerusalem by the Jewish People Policy Institute.
The survey of Diaspora attitudes toward issues of religion and state was conducted by the JPPI on behalf of Hebrew University law professor Dr. Ruth Gavison, who is herself examining constitutional arrangements dealing with the State of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character at the behest of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence defines Israel as a Jewish and democratic state but the phrase is ambiguous and has been the subject of contentious debate among Israelis for decades.
According to the paper, an abstract of which was publicized by JPPI earlier this year, Jews in the Diaspora tend to be critical of Israel’s religious status quo, but support the national use of Jewish symbols.
JPPI researchers conducted a series of seminars with Jewish leaders in multiple countries in order to canvas the views of the Diaspora.
Report author and JPPI senior fellow Shmuel Rosner has previously admitted that, as such, the final research can be characterized by selection bias, with more highly engaged Jews taking part and a distinct lack of youth participation.
Most participants in the survey expressed support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, although the inherent ambiguity of this formulation allowed for a broad range of views as to its exact meaning in practice.
Despite some who expressed a marked preference for one of the two sides of Israel’s character at the expense of the other, the JPPI found that “the dominant view was [a] desire to see an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic, and the assumption that such a combination is certainly possible, despite the tensions involved.”
“Assertions that Israel should be ‘only Jewish’ or ‘only democratic’ are outside the consensus view of Diaspora Jews,” JPPI found.
Speaking to the press about the report, JPPI President Avinoam Bar-Yosef said that “North American Jews are basically, and for clear reasons, more liberal than Israelis. But even as they urge a completely democratic and liberal approach to Israel’s Arab minority – and believe that their civil rights and opportunities should be enhanced – they feel, at the same time, a deep commitment to Israel as a Jewish state and endorse its continued use of Jewish iconography, such as the flag and national anthem – ‘Hatikva.’” The Diaspora encourages Israel to adopt a pluralistic approach with respect to all the Jewish religious streams. They wish to feel as ‘at home’ in Israel as they do in their own communities.
This is an important element in their support,” he said.
Diaspora Jews tend to conflate Jewish values with democratic ones, causing them to see any actions that would “erode” liberal democratic norms as seen through a western lens as “detrimental to Judaism and to the definition of Israel as a Jewish state,” he said.
“If Israel is not a liberal democracy, its attractiveness to many Diaspora Jews will erode,” the report asserted, citing a majority of leaders polled as stating that Israel must become more pluralistic and accepting of non-Orthodox denominations.
Jewish leaders indicated they believe that Israel’s approach to Judaism is “likely to affect the degree of the young generation’s devotion to its Jewish identity, and at the same time is likely to affect attitudes of non- Jews toward the Diaspora Jews who live among them,” the report said.
“Jews in communities all around the world seem to agree that Israel’s Orthodox monopoly is not compatible with it being Jewish and democratic,” the report expanded, explaining that to many world Jews the “rejection of certain Jewish ways of practice makes Israel less Jewish... [as well as] less democratic.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, a senior leader of the Conservative movement, recently declared that Jewish unity was being directly threatened by Israeli policies regarding non-Orthodox denominations.
Rosner, despite the issues raised by his report, indicated that there is a considerable engagement with Israel by Jews abroad and described his findings as “positive and optimistic, contrary to dismal reports we hear about distancing of Diaspora Jews from Israel.”
The JPPI report found that aside from objecting to the Orthodox monopoly over religious life and the imposition of religious norms on civil society, Jewish leaders abroad support bolstering Jewish identity by strengthening Israelis’ knowledge of Jewish traditions, history and values.
The research points to a Diaspora that has grown more aggressive in expressing its discontent with Israeli policies, which are seen as having an impact on the security and well-being of Jewish communities around the world.
While Israel should not “allow any external influence [to] determine [or] dictate its decisions,” Gavison told The Jerusalem Post that it is important to “ask people about their opinions. You want to have more information so the decisions you make are more informed.”
Jews who are highly engaged with Israel “are part of the conversation” and it is important to take their views into consideration before recommending how, if at all, to “entrench” a specific interpretation of Jewish and democratic as a Basic Law, she said.
“One of the issues about the entrenchment in law is that an entrenchment tends to fossilize and this is something that should be taken very seriously,” Gavison cautioned.
“Whatever you do in terms of law should not stop conversation but allow conversations, both among Jews and between Jews and Arabs. This is the key concern.”
Gavison, who was careful to note that she was committed to examining the issue of how to balance Israel’s two identities critically, not allowing her own personal views to affect her analysis, asserted that Judaism and democracy can in fact strengthen each other.
“The terms are sufficiently ambiguous and rich to suggest that the relationship between Jewishness and democracy in the identity of Israel is not only not contradictory but in fact self reinforcing,” she said.
According to Gavison there is a “major agreement between Jews in Israel and abroad that Jewish and democratic captures the identity of Israel in the most adequate way.”
Her job, she explained, is to examine “whether this should be entrenched in a Basic Law and in what form.”
“I want to emphasize that the two questions are very different.
You can affirm the identity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and say a lot of things about the importance of maintaining and affirming this identity without taking a particular stand about the question of constitutional entrenchment. Constitutional entrenchment has features that are institutionalized and are more complex than the substantive question of the identity of Israel,” she said.
Responding to the JPPI report, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said that in the coming days the government will approve new arrangements for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall as well as allocating a budget for Israel’s World Jewry Joint Initiative.
The WJJI will more than double Israeli spending on projects intended to strengthen the identity of Jews abroad.