As we celebrate Independence Day... how is Israel Jewish?

What is the Jewish essence of the state in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence?

Celebrations at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for independence day. Indep (photo credit: EITAN COHEN/TPS)
Celebrations at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for independence day. Indep
(photo credit: EITAN COHEN/TPS)
Independence Day celebrations are almost upon us, and the divisions over the identity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state are greater than ever.
The deep debate in Israel encompasses both the question of democracy and of Judaism. My focus here is on the critically important question of what it means for the State of Israel to be a “Jewish state”? Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who is responsible for the official celebrations, invited the public to sign on to Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
However, are she and her colleagues in the Knesset truly committed to its principles, or is this just another PR stunt? The current asylum-seekers crisis is a good starting point, and a yardstick.
Regev’s opinion is clear: “The Sudanese are a cancer in the body of the country.”
It is hard not to see the similarity between her rhetoric, meant to incite a xenophobic response among Israelis, and statements directed against Jews in some of the places they sought to settle in or find refuge.
We are all too familiar with the demonization of the weakest segments of society – the persecuted, the stranger. Using the label “infiltrators,” without distinguishing between genuine asylum seekers and migrant workers, aims at delegitimizing and further victimizing them all. Invoking their views of what the “Jewish state” is about, Some of Regev’s colleagues have claimed that Israel cannot absorb asylum seekers because this would “undermine the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”
I, on the other hand, believe that the Jewish character of the State of Israel should rather be anchored in the Jewish people’s formative experience as a persecuted and enslaved minority that gained freedom.
This formative experience was translated into a religious and social imperative to be followed by our people as we exercise our sovereignty: “The stranger that resides amongst you shall be unto you as one of your own citizens, and you shalt love him as yourself, for you have been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
So what is the Jewish essence of the state in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence? The Declaration proclaims the establishment of a “Jewish state in the Land of Israel to be known as the State of Israel.” Its Jewish identity is realized by the combination of being “open to Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the exiles” and a selective choice of Jewish core values that will guide it: “The principles of liberty, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”
Not a Torah state, not a state that grants Jews preferential rights beyond the right of return, but rather the opposite: “Full equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants, regardless of religion, race or sex... Freedom of religion and conscience... Development of the resources of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”
These are not the values Regev and her colleagues espouse, nor do they labor to realize these values as the essence of the Jewish and democratic character of the state. Ironically, for them, freedom of religion and conscience is an anathema, trampling on the rights of secular and non-Orthodox religious Jews. Their vision of the Jewish identity of the state requires, for instance, denial of the right to family for hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens whom the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate deems ineligible to marry.
This is much like Sharia law. There is no other Western democracy in the world that denies its citizens the freedom of marriage. Moreover, this runs contrary to what the overwhelming majority of Israelis want, including Netanyahu’s own Likud Party voters.
In addition, by way of example, they purport to make Israel Jewish by granting mass exemption from military service to yeshiva students. This mass draft exemption stands not only in absolute contradiction to the democratic principle of equality in shouldering the civic burden, but also flies in the face of Jewish values, such as what we are commanded in the Mishna (Sotah 8:7): “even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her wedding canopy” go to war.
It is a mitzva to celebrate the independence of Israel, but as we celebrate, we must be aware of the existential struggle for the soul of the state and lend support to the strengthening of the true and highly necessary vision of the democratic and Jewish Israel, as it was anchored in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, whose full realization is long overdue.
The author, a rabbi, heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel.