Israel is a Jewish and democratic state - opinion

Many people understand there to be an inherent contradiction between a Jewish state and a democratic state.

 HAVING ALL citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, vote in its elections is consistent with Israel’s Zionist principles, says the writer.  (photo credit: FLASH90)
HAVING ALL citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, vote in its elections is consistent with Israel’s Zionist principles, says the writer.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Israel’s five recent elections in just three years have caused many to highlight Israel’s lack of a constitution. Along with the debate over the role Israel’s High Court should play and how much power it should have in Israel’s legislative system, the absence of a constitution has caused many to question if it’s time for Israel to write a constitution. Without a constitution, Israel has no overarching law that requires it to be a democracy. When studying Zionism, it is clear that the early Zionists imagined an Israel that would be a democracy.

For a want of a constitution, the Israeli Declaration of Independence is Israel’s document of principles. Unlike America, Israel doesn’t have a constitution, a bill of rights or even an Israeli version of the Federalist Papers. Israel’s founding fathers, Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and Begin all wrote and believed in a democracy, but nothing concretized Israel’s government as a democracy for decades after its founding. The Israeli Declaration of Independence does not mention the word “democracy,” but it does state that Israel will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” and to provide “full and equal citizenship and due representation” to Arab citizens.

In 1992, Israel legislated the Basic Laws. Included in article one of the “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” is its purpose: “To protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law, the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Israel’s “Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation” explicitly mentions Israel’s Declaration of Independence and includes, “The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law, the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Many people understand there to be an inherent contradiction between a Jewish state and a democratic state. Judaism is a system with its own set of rules, some of which are inconsistent with democracy. A Jewish state can leave non-Jewish citizens of Israel excluded from laws, national holidays and culture. Judaism aims to include Jews who adhere to its laws, values and axioms, democracy aims to include all citizens irrespective of faith or creed. Many people question whether a state committed to having a Jewish character can also be as committed to democracy.

Knowing that the majority of Israel’s citizens are Jewish placates some of the worries of Israel’s critics. Democracy is first and foremost a system that follows the will of the majority. With the majority of Israel’s citizens being Jewish, at least the Jewish nature of Israel is consistent with the wishes of the majority.

 CENTRAL ELECTION Committee workers count the remaining ballots at the Knesset last week. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) CENTRAL ELECTION Committee workers count the remaining ballots at the Knesset last week. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

These same critics fear the possibility of the Arabs who live in Gaza and Judea and Samaria (West Bank) becoming Israeli citizens and combining with Israel’s current non-Jewish citizens to make up a majority within Israel. How could Israel explain it being a democratic and Jewish state with only a minority of its citizens considering themselves Jewish?

The fear of Israel consisting of a non-Jewish majority is a political hot potato and a practical nightmare. It doesn’t necessarily contradict the Zionist ideal of an Israeli state being both Jewish and democratic. A fallacy surrounding the fears of Israel’s democratic nature being put at risk is that a democratic country must be perfectly democratic. This mistaken idea of democracy is that to be considered a democratic country, every person living under the nation’s administration is entitled to a say in the nation’s decisions either by a direct vote or through an elected representative. This mistaken notion of democracy isn’t historically accurate and it’s not even true of today’s democracies.

Democracies abroad

ANCIENT ATHENS is known as the first democracy, although there were city-states that practiced democracy before Athens. Athenian Democracy allowed and forced any male citizen over the age of twenty to vote in its elections. This left out more than half the population of Athens from having a voice (just think about all the silenced women). Even the contemporary example of democracy, the United States, doesn’t allow all people under its control to have a voice and determine their own future.

American citizens in Washington, DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico are allowed to vote for a representative in Congress, but those representatives aren’t given a vote. A worse example of America’s democracy not giving all people under its control a voice is the American Samoans. While the American Samoans are allowed their own governor, they are considered an unincorporated territory of the United States, their people are American nationals, not citizens, and the American Secretary of the Interior oversees the government, retaining the power to approve constitutional amendments, override the governor’s vetoes, and nomination of justices. It is erroneous to pretend that today’s democracies ensure all people under the government’s control have a say in their future.

Israel is proud that in recent elections over a million non-Jewish Israeli citizens voted in its democratic elections. Israel’s values guarantee that all of its citizens will always have the right to vote in its elections. Ensuring all its citizens have a say in their future isn’t just Israel aligning itself with democratic principles, it is adhering to Zionist principles.

Having all citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, vote in its elections is consistent with Israel’s Zionist principles. Zionism was a revolutionary movement meant to ensure self-determination – a right Jews didn’t enjoy in their exile. This doesn’t mean Israel’s democracy will always be perfect, but it does mean that it will always be striving to improve itself.

The test of a healthy democracy isn’t whether every person under the government’s control has a say in their future, but whether the nation is working to improve the freedom and quality of life of all those under its control. The democracy that early Zionists advocated for and the one practiced by Israel today aren’t designed to give every person under its control a say in their future, but it does strive to improve the liberty and quality of life of everyone it governs.

Today’s Zionists must work to improve the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel. Neither of the two aspects of Israel’s nature is perfect and it most probably never will be perfect. Critics of Israel, especially Zionists who love Israel, must balance their criticism with a realistic understanding of the challenges the state faces, how practical democracy has always been practiced and the need to push Israel’s leadership to form a more democratic Israel.

As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” so too Israel’s improved democracy won’t be formed in a day either. The Jewish people and state hold themselves to a higher standard, but that need for a higher standard must also be balanced with empathy for how democracy has always functioned in the global community.

The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israeli studies around the world.