Democracy and Judaism in Israel

By Peter Berger | 22 July 2010

israel_flagIsrael was established as both a democratic and a Jewish state. Both qualities continue to be real enough. But there have been increasing tensions between these two definitions of the state, and some (in Israel and outside it) have questioned whether there is not an inherent contradiction that cannot be resolved—Israel can be one or the other, but not both.

The question is usually posed in connection with the sizable Arab minority. To be sure, these people are Israeli citizens. They enjoy many of the aspects of the state’s democracy. They vote, they have formed their own political parties, and Arabic is an official language and the vehicle of instruction in a separate school system. Although they suffer from many discriminations, many have come to see the advantages of Israeli citizenship and they show little enthusiasm for exchanging it for citizenship in a putative Palestinian state. Yet the Jewish character of the state is obviously difficult for them to swallow. It inevitably excludes them. They cannot identify with any of its symbols—the army (from which they are exempted), the flag, the anthem, the holidays. The present government has shown little sympathy for their problem. Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, has proposed that Arab citizens should be required to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel. And Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, has insisted that a condition of peace with a Palestinian state should be its formal acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.

However, there are also severe disagreements within the Jewish population as to the limits of its democracy, specifically between secular and religious Jews.

The secular elite which established the state not only understood its Jewish character as ethnic rather than religious, but wanted to dissociate it from many Jewish traits of the Diaspora. They wanted a robust redefinition of what it means to be a Jew—a new people in a new land. As so often, a joke neatly summarizes this reality: A woman speaks in Yiddish to her little boy on a bus in Tel Aviv. An ardently Zionist fellow-passenger is offended: “You should not speak in Yiddish to your son. Why don’t you speak in Hebrew ?” “Because I don’t want him to forget that he is a Jew”.



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