Jewish identity and democratic values

In Israel, as in many other countries in the world, religious identity and democracy are not mutually exclusive.

Israeli flags 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israeli flags 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Since its inception, democracy, or more specifically an elected government, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, as well as equal rights have been the cornerstone of the identity of the State of Israel.
To quote the Declaration of Independence: “it [Israel] 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.”
The value of those democratic principles to Israel have been manifold. Internally, they have provided voice and freedoms to its citizens, in a region of the world where such values often remain aspirations and are often times trumped by barbaric brutality. Externally, Israel’s democratic values have helped it forge some of its most significant strategic alliances, with like-minded regimes. As former American president John F. Kennedy stated: “It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.”
Yet this past week, the frailty (or faultline) of Israel’s democracy was exposed when Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, an Israeli-Arab, respectfully stood but refused to sing the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikva,” which is about the Jewish people’s yearning to return to its national homeland.
The problem does not lie with Joubran’s refusal to sing the anthem. It is his right as an Israeli not to do so. As Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon stated, “why force an Arab to sing the words ‘the soul of a Jew yearns?’ Even in the IDF, we never demand that Arab, Druse, Beduin or Circassian soldiers and officers sing the national anthem.”
Rather, the core of the problem is two opposing political perspectives. Outraged by his refusal , some called for punitive measures to be taken. One example is Law and Justice Committee chairman MK David Rotem, who planned to ask Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to remove Joubran from the Supreme Court due to Joubran’s “inappropriate act.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, there were those who proposed changing the national anthem, specifically changing “the soul of the Jews yearn” to “the soul of the Israelis yearn.”
Both of these positions are asinine as they both infringe upon Israel’s identity. Israel is a Jewish state. As such, revising the anthem to “Israeli” in place of “Jewish” infringes upon Israel’s Jewish identity. Moreover, Israel is also a democracy, so punishing a citizen for exercising their right to freedom of expression infringes upon Israel’s democratic values.
In Israel, as in many other countries in the world, religious identity and democracy are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they go hand in hand. More clearly stated, there is no reason why Israel’s democracy cannot continue to grow as a Jewish state.
ISRAEL MAY be the only Jewish state in the world, but it is not the only state in the world with a religious identity. In fact, a majority of states in the world were founded upon and maintain a religious identity. Moreover, this religious identity is pervasive in the states’ symbols and institutions – flags, anthems and nomenclature to name a few.
For instance, Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country. Its flag is predominately green. Green is an important color in Islam, commonly used in the decoration of mosques, the Koran and the graves of Sufi saints. “Green-ness” is also mentioned in several Koranic verses.
Furthermore, inscribed in traditional Islamic calligraphy in the center of the Saudi flag is the verse, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” This verse is known as the shahada in Islam. Converts to Islam are required to repeat this phrase three times. Beneath the shahada is a picture of the Sword of Islam, which also has myriad of Islamic meaning and is also mentioned in the Koran.
Yet Saudi Arabia is not the only Muslim country to have religious symbols institutionalized in its identity. The phrase “Allah oo’akbar” [Allah is the greatest] appears at the center of the Iraqi flag. The Islamic crescent is featured on the flags of Malaysia, Mauritania, Tunisia, Northern Cyprus, Algeria and Turkey, to name a few.
It is true that many of the Muslim countries, especially Saudi Arabia, rank very low in civil liberties. In fact, the Freedom Around the World Report, published annually by the influential US think-tank Freedom House, ranks the Middle East as one of the most “unfree regions of the world.” But some countries in the region, such as Turkey, are often noted for their democracy and civil liberties.
Still, it is not only the Muslim countries who have religious symbols incorporated in their state insignia. The flags of the United Kingdom and Australia feature St. George’s Cross, St. Andrew’s Cross and St. Peter’s Cross. The Greek flag features the cross of the Greek Orthodox Church. On the flag of the Marshall Islands flies the Star of Bethlehem, and the Flag of the Dominican Republic features a bible and St. George’s Cross. In terms of civil liberties, some of these countries rank among the highest. For instance, for good governance in the OECD Better Life Index, Australia receives the highest score.
Many other countries, which are democratic and whose citizens have among the highest degrees of civil liberties, also have religious symbols affiliated with their identity.
The point is that religious symbols embedded in a country’s institutions are an inadequate benchmark for determining a citizens’ rights in a country, as each country varies. Even more importantly, on top of having religious insignia, many countries that are democratic and afford their citizens a high degree of civil liberties feature religious content in their national anthems.
Japan’s national anthem, “Kimigayo,” incorporates Shinto beliefs. The second line states, “Rule on, my lord, till what pebbles are now.” The national anthem of Iceland, called “Lofsongur” (hymn), states, “O, God of our land.” The first two stanzas state, “Oh, God of our country! Oh, our country’s God! We worship Thy name in its wonder sublime.” The Italian national anthem also mentions God: “Where is Victory? Let her bow down, For God created her, slave of Rome.”
Japan, Iceland and Italy are among the leading democratic countries in the world, yet they promote religious values in their national anthems.
Clearly, the core of the issue is not whether a state is religious, but rather whether its citizens are granted equal rights and seen equally in the eyes of the law. Changing the national anthem from “the Jewish soul yearns” to “the Israeli soul yearns” will not change civil liberties in Israel. Not to mention the fact that Salim Joubran’s seat on the Supreme Court and his right to remain silent during the singing of the national anthem are testaments to the liberties afforded to minorities in Israel.
On a more important note, international law grants each state the right to self defense. Of course these laws apply to military threats, or acts of aggression, as they are legally defined in Chapter Seven of the United Nations Charter. However, in addition to military threats, Israel faces another threat to its existence: the deligitimization of the Jewish state. One example is the “One State Solution Conference” being hosted at Harvard University this week. The fact is that Israel is a Jewish state. As such, it is fitting that its symbols and anthem are Jewish. This does not constitute discrimination against non-Jewish minorities.
The legal definition of racism is: “shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights, and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” The Israeli national anthem may not be of relevance to Israel’s minority groups, but it does not discriminate against them. It is the actions of those who try to take away the rights of a law-abiding citizen such as Joubran that is discriminatory.
In 1987, Abba Eban stated that “the central themes of Zionism originally were liberalism, tolerance and an ethnic emphasis, coupled with an understanding that we had to make some sort of an agreement with the Arabs.” Israel was founded as a Jewish democratic state. Its democratic values in important to safeguarding the rights of all citizens.
The writer conducted his graduate studies at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. He served in the office of the Critic of International Cooperation in the Canadian House of Commons, where he conducted foreign policy analyses. He is currently the president of the strategic consulting firm Samuel Sussman Strategic Consulting Group. His forthcoming book is entitled, Multiple Modernities in the Contemporary Scene.