Synagogue And State
How Can Israel Be Both Jewish And Democratic?
Once you accept the notion of Jewish nationhood, you can understand how a Jewish state can be a democracy and not a theocracy, writes Gil Troy.
During the recent Passover holiday in Israel, much of the country’s conversation seemed to be synched. On television and in the streets, talk of the clogging arteries from so much Passover food and the clogged roadways during Hol Hamoed, the intermediate Passover days, predominated. The holiday was preceded by a national cleaning binge, triggered a mass matzah chowdown, and ended with another frantic bout of housecleaning to return kitchens to normal as soon as the holiday ended.
Of course, not every Israeli participated. At least a fifth of Israelis are not Jewish and many of the Jewish Israelis, like Jews worldwide, pick and choose which customs they observe. But there was a holiday spirit in the air, which was charming, not oppressive.
The need to add those last two words shows how defensive and perverse the discourse around Israel has become. There are few other countries in the world where any holiday—be it national or religious—celebrated en masse would trigger accusations of oppression. I do not hear many anguished voices of concern when European democracies with crosses wave their flags proudly, celebrate Christmas en masse, or blur lines of church and state with monarchical ceremonies brimming with religiosity such as the recent royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Moreover—here’s the crucial point—any criticisms that are made are offered in the spirit of constructive reform rather than questioning the right to exist of England or of Denmark, whose cross supposedly appeared in a vision to King Valdemar II in 1219. And note, here, I am talking about European democracies; never mind the Muslim autocracies, which, despite heavy-handed displays of religion, do not have their legitimacy questioned.These are necessary prefatory remarks in answering an increasingly common question: “How can Israel be both a democratic and Jewish state?” While I relish a sustained, passionate, critical dialogue about the difficulties in balancing “Jewish” and “democratic” as ideals that are sometimes in tension, I resent the fact that, all too frequently, the question is asked in a context questioning Israel’s right to exist or essential identity as a democracy. But given that I live in the real world, in this column, I will address the basic question—and in a future post will address some of the dilemmas that necessarily arise.
My understanding of the Jewish state as a democracy starts with the Zionist understanding—which reaches back to Genesis but is confirmed by history—that the Jews are a people; Judaism is not just a religion. Once we accept the notion of Jewish nationhood, with a story, a sense of shared fate, a common language, a unifying culture, a millennial-old homeland—with religious elements, of course—we can understand how a Jewish state can be a democracy and not a theocracy.
A Jewish state is the state of the Jewish nation, in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson’s post-World War I vision whereby different ethnic groups and peoples would express their cultures and shared ideals through political control of their homelands. And yes, this is saying that Jewish identity can get expressed through power, not just through gefilte fish or prayer. As uncomfortable an idea as that might initially be for American Jews, most American Jews are post-God—doubters, not believers—and have a Jewish connection today that is more national or ethnic than theological or philosophical.
Once we accept the notion of a Jewish State expressing the Jewish nation’s ideas and values, American Democracy 101 kicks in, with the idea of “majority rule and minority rights.” Israel has a majority of Jews. Those Jews have the democratic right to build a rich public culture expressing their common values, consecrating their common beliefs, celebrating their common rituals. It is legitimate for a democracy like Israel to celebrate Passover and Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Hanukkah as national holidays.
Many find it downright delightful to have a state that slows down on Friday afternoon as the Sabbath approaches, even in supposedly “secular” enclaves, as well as a state that injects some Jewish values into its policy debate. Israeli national family values are reinforced by Jewish values and certain policies that make the Israeli medical system, for example, more generous than most when helping infertile couples. And just as America’s civil rights debate benefitted when preachers like Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked Jesus, the Bible, and Christian doctrine, the Israeli debate about diminishing the gap between rich and poor benefits when social protestors, rabbis and politicians invoke Jewish law and Zionist values, not just modern Western notions.
Of course, “minority rights” must accompany “majority rule”—in an expansive, welcoming way. I am proud of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the Israeli Supreme Court, and the recent progress to reconcile Israeli realities with Israel’s founding ideals. Just as many countries struggle with the difficult democratic dilemmas diversity brings, Israel struggles, too. And, let’s be honest, the difficulties are compounded by Israel’s unique situation as the only country in the world surrounded by enemies who seek to wipe it out completely, and having some—emphasis on some—minority citizens who reject the state’s very existence. Given all that, Israel has done a remarkable job.
For those who disagree, feel free to disagree. Join the debate. All democracies pivot around certain perennial debates and constant tensions. And all democracies have benefited from that marvelous self-corrective mechanism democracies have of self-criticism spawning real reform.
Those who exploit Israel’s flaws to question its right to exist should take responsibility for the harm they cause. Their extremism shuts down conversation, polarizes, and inflames. It inhibits progress, shutting off the important, dynamic, creative process that Israel—like all democracies—needs in order to learn how to face its flaws and improve them.