Israel: How Democratic? How Jewish?


I think the
question of how Israel balances the democratic nature of the state with the
Jewish nature of the state is fascinating. I recently returned from a
conference devoted to this issue and found the discussions and debate about
democracy versus Jewish particularity to be maddeningly complex but engagingly
interesting. Very simply, if the state of Israel is a fully articulated
democracy that guarantees group rights (group rights not only individual
rights) then in time it might cease to be a Jewish state; the Zionist dream of
a home for the Jews and a place for them to go would be over. On the other hand,
the more the state is legally or constitutionally a state that privileges Jews
the less democratic it is with respect to its Arab citizens.

So what is
Israel to do? If it is going to be a Jewish state does it pass laws saying an
Arab cannot be the Prime Minister or hold high elective office? If you are an Arab
minority citizen of the state and you celebrate the Nakba in 1948 rather than the war of independence do you get fined?
Do you say to the Arab citizens, “you can work and live your life but you cannot
be full citizens and enjoy the benefits of citizenship including financial
benefits associated with military service?” Maybe you do limit minority
citizenship and simply declare the state an ethnocracy; maybe just say
“tough luck” this is a Jewish state.

is one answer but that is coming under increasing criticism. Even the most
liberal countries such as the Netherlands are questioning multiculturalism as
minority groups (essentially Muslims) fail to assimilate. The British, too,
have expressed fears about the Muslim population in Great Britain. And Germany
continues to struggle with the Turkish population who do not have a path to
citizenship and have thus become even more cohesive as an identifiable ethnic minority
group. Multiculturalism has come to mean two things: one, it is a respect and
tolerance for diversity, and two it is a set of policies used to manage

The British
tried to manage these differences by identifying particular minority groups. These
groups had leaders who were given access to the political elites as well as the
power to distribute resources. The result was simply to empower minority group
leaders and the policy failed to advance the status of individuals. The leaders
of these groups became official spokespersons who over time where more and more
isolated from their constituents. The case of France is sort of an ironic twist
because everyone is a citizen and no one is a member of an ethnic or religious
category. It is a fully expressed citizen democracy designed to privatize
ethnicity and minority standing. But France ends up going after its citizens
for expressing group identification. The ban on burqas is an example. The
United States and Great Britain manage minority groups by working to allow them
to express their minority status; France attempts the same group management by
suppressing group symbols. Neither is working very well.

The Israeli
Knesset is currently run by cultural conservatives and a right-wing coalition.
They know they will not be in power forever so they are trying to impact the
Israeli democracy while they can. The right-wing coalition has produced more
conservative – some say racist – legislation than any other. It is now a crime
to celebrate the Nakba. This is the
day Israeli Arabs mark as a catastrophe rather than a victorious day in
Israel’s War of Independence. It would be like the American Indian celebrating
the Fourth of July as a disaster and holding them legally responsible. All
sorts of legislation has been introduced to protect the Jewish nature of the
state by preventing the Arab minorities, along with left-wing intellectuals
with universalistic values, from challenging the Jewish nature of the state.
Legislation has been introduced that permits criminal charges to be brought
against anyone who slanders our libels the state. Several bills trample the
rights of foreign workers, foreign caregivers, illegal immigrants, and
sometimes even the ultra-Orthodox.

conservatives behind severe domestic legislation such as David Rotem simply
don’t understand the problem. Rotem does not believe there is anything
problematic or racist about the legislation because as he replies, “This is
a Jewish state.” The Jewish nature of the state does require some special
conditions. It will not develop and mature on its own accord. But the
relationship between Jewish nature of the state and the democratic nature of
the state is pendulous. As of now, the pendulum is swinging away from the
democratic side.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on July 10, 2011, in Democracy, Israel. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Israel: How Democratic? How Jewish?.

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