Encountering Peace: A Jewish and democratic state

One of the most difficult aspects of our collective identity to explain to non-Jews is that being Jewish is more than being a member of a particular faith community.

An Israeli Arab stands behind a voting booth before casting her ballot at a polling station in the northern town of Umm el-Fahm March 17, 2015 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
An Israeli Arab stands behind a voting booth before casting her ballot at a polling station in the northern town of Umm el-Fahm March 17, 2015
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Negotiations on the formation of a government in Israel have focused on including only those political parties that accept the principles that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. This is the accepted popular definition of the most basic characteristics of the State of Israel. But what does this actually mean? What is it that makes Israel a Jewish state? What is it that makes Israel a democratic state? Is there a contradiction between these two pillars of Israel? Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?
For me, I have tried to avoid labeling Israel a Jewish state. Naming Israel a Jewish state, I think, would relate mainly to the religious aspect of Judaism. Israel is not a theocracy (yet), it is a civil state. That was, at least, the intention of the founders. Instead, I usually speak about Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
One of the most difficult aspects of our collective identity to explain to non-Jews is that being Jewish is more than being a member of a particular faith community. Being Jewish is being part of a people, a civilization, a history – and a collective sense of thousands of years of a shared history and a vision for a joint future. These are the core elements of nationhood. In this sense, Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people asserting its right to self-determination in its ancestral homeland. As former foreign minister Abba Eban stated before the United Nations, “Zionism is nothing more – but also nothing less – than the Jewish people’s sense of origin and destination in the land linked eternally with its name.”
Defining Israel as a Jewish state opens the debate on what is Judaism, who is a Jew and what is Jewish or what should be Jewish about the state. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that the most important determining element ensuring the Jewishness of the state would be a significant majority of Jews as citizens. He did not see the “Jewish state” being determined by its religious identity. Ben-Gurion wrote: “Now that we are establishing our state, we must remember that this will not be a Jewish state, it will be a state of all of its citizens – it will be a Jewish state for aliyah and for settlement. Within the state, all of its citizens are equal. We cannot have a constitution that would prevent an Arab from being president.”
This sentiment seems to suggest that from its inception, there should have been a separation of religion and state. There should be no official Chief Rabbinate, chief rabbis or state religious laws that regulate issues of personal status. Israel is the only democratic country in the world where Reform and Conservative rabbis have no legal ability to fully function as rabbis. Where is the democracy in the discrimination between Jews and other Jews?
Israel must also be the state of all of its citizens. How can it be that Mohammed, Ahmed, Samira or Huriya – who were born in Sakhnin in the Galilee from families that have lived there for hundreds of years – are less Israeli than Dima, Boris, Nadia or Tatiana – who came from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s?
WE DON’T HAVE a law that defines Israel as the state of all of its citizens; we do have a law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. We also have Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, which states that “this law determines that the basic rights of the human being in Israel is rooted on the recognition of the value of humanity, the sanctity of life and being free. The purpose of the law is to anchor in the basic law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
If there was no discrimination in Israel’s laws between Jews and non-Jews, it might be possible to accept the accumulation of Israel’s laws that enable it to define itself as Jewish and democratic without contradiction. But that is not the case. There are tens of laws and regulations, and even more policies, that discriminate between Jews and Arabs. And there is almost no aspect of public life in Israel in which its Arab citizens are not second- or third-class citizens.
In defense of Israel’s position against the UN resolution that passed the General Assembly in 1975 equating Zionism and racism, Israel’s ambassador to the UN Chaim Herzog stated:
“We in Israel have endeavored to create a society which strives to implement the highest ideals of society – political, social and cultural – for all the inhabitants of Israel, irrespective of religious belief, race or sex. Show me another pluralistic society in this world in which, despite all the difficult problems, Jew and Arab live together with such a degree of harmony; in which the dignity and rights of man are observed before the law; in which no death sentence is applied; in which freedom of speech, of movement, of thought, of expression are guaranteed; in which even movements which are opposed to our national aims are represented in our parliament.”
Maybe that was true in 1975 (it really wasn’t even then), but unfortunately, while this may still echo within our national ethos or sense of self, the Arab citizens of Israel have been delegitimized, marginalized and discriminated against systemically since the birth of the state, especially during the last years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administrations. The leadership of Israel’s Arab citizens are now standing up and demanding to be counted. The increase in Arab voter participation is a good sign of positive change.
Now it is incumbent upon us to redefine Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens. If Israel is to be a democratic state, it is imperative to pass a Basic Law promising real equality for all of Israel’s citizens in the spirit of our Declaration of Independence, and to cancel the Nation-State Law. And it is essential to guarantee full freedom of religion and freedom from religion in the State of Israel. When we do that, we will have a lot fewer contradictions addressing our identity. Of course, as long as we continue to occupy the Palestinian people in the occupied territories and deny them the right to self-determination, we will not truly be able to relate to our state as democratic.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press and is now available in Israel and Palestine.