How Israel Can Be “Jewish”

This is a big and controversial issue and I will not satisfy most people. Moreover, it is steeped in serious issues related to political theory, culture, philosophy, and the law. Better minds than mine have grappled with this issue. Still, I’m going to make a case. I’m going to make a case for two reasons: one, I believe a defensible case can be made. And, secondly, I believe it is important to make the case because Israel is clearly deserving but vulnerable and its political status is important for its long-term prospects. Israel is besieged on all sides by those who see it as illegitimate and conceived in sin (a Christian image). For these reasons – along with historical and cultural connections to the land as well as the ethnopolitical character of the people –it is important to establish Israel as a Jewish state. The single best reading here is by Ruth Gavison titled “The Jews Right to Statehood: A Defense.”

For starters, a Torah state run by Orthodox rabbis is not only undesirable but not defensible. A legitimately recognized Jewish state must be as democratic as possible and founded on human rights. It’s important to recognize that Israel cannot be a liberal democracy in the same vein as the United States. I’ve made this argument before but it is simple enough: if Israel is going to be even slightly favorable towards Jewish particularity than it is going to privilege one group sometimes at the expense of others. We have to remember that democracy is a continuum.

If some secular professor representing the universal values of the contemporary left believes that any state organized around ethnicity or religion is a remnant of ancient tribalism and thus undeveloped, then I say “so what?” The type of state I have in mind is not a theocracy. It is a state that privatizes much of religion but simply works to fulfill, support, and express the religious culture of Judaism. For example, Israel has no religious test for its highest offices of president or prime minister. The president or Prime Minister does not have to be Jewish in the religious sense he or she just has to have the fulfillment of the Jewish state in mind. They have to accept the founding principles of doing nothing to interfere with the Jewish character of the state.

We can dispense with the criticism of Israel as a political entity from Muslim states quite easily. Many of them (Oman, Qatar, Kuwait) have Islam as the religion of the state and laws requiring public officials to be Muslims. This is fine, it is a principled point but certainly lends hypocrisy to the claim that Israel should be multicultural or one secular state. Their refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state is not a political or philosophical argument, it is a charged political ideal based in their refusal to make peace with Israel.

And there are examples of secular states with religious ties that operate quite well. I would compare something proposed for Israel to that of Denmark. In Denmark the Constitution recognizes “the Evangelical Lutheran Church” as the established Church of Denmark. The only requisite is that the political leadership in Denmark do nothing to interfere with the established church.

Israel must continue to establish justification on moral universal grounds as much as possible because this appeals to most of its own people who feel the power of the Zionist project but are not particularly religious. Gavison makes the interesting point that the more Israel argues on the basis of universal values the more the Palestinians will follow suit rather than claiming ownership based on the sanctity of Muslim lands. The state of Israel will be a contestatory political system constantly engaging in interaction designed to balance human rights with its Jewish nature. This is consistent with all democracies who rely more on argument and deliberation than ideology.

I reiterate that it will be impossible for Israel to be absolutely neutral with regard to cultural, ethnic, and religious issues. There will be differences in civic equality. But these differences do not have to be fatal. It is still possible to have a democratic Jewish state that respects the rights of citizens – and certainly allows them to engage in their own religion in the same way as the United States does not interfere with religious practice as long as it is in the private sphere – and still represents a national identity.

So for now, the state I am imagining is not completely neutral, has an official language that is Hebrew, a calendar that marks Jewish time (including Shabbat ofcourse), and puts forth a public culture that is Jewish. The public sphere will be important in the Jewish state because that is the context for contestation with respect to issues that affect the public in general. People will be able to practice Judaism or any religion but the management and compromise will come in the public sphere when one person’s rights have to be balanced against another’s.

The state will be as democratic as possible and proudly Jewish.

I will say more next week.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on October 28, 2013, in Democracy, Israel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on How Israel Can Be “Jewish”.

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