But Is It Good for Democracy? Israel's Dilemma

It is commonly assumed that the description of Israel as a “Jewish and Democratic state” appears in its 1948 declaration of independence. In fact, the term did not surface prominently in public discourse until well into the 1980s, and since then, rather than clarifying the issues of cultural and political identity, the “Jewish and Democratic” formula has served as an invitation for debate.

Is Israel Jewish and democratic? Can it be both? What does a Jewish state actually mean: a religious polity, an ethnic one, or perhaps a cultural one? Is a Jewish state a nation-state like Spain or Thailand? Does being Jewish, under any definition, support or undermine being democratic? Was Israel ever a real democracy? And, when push comes to shove, would Jewish trump democratic, or vice versa?

Even without the harsh ideological background against which it is played out, this would be a muddy discussion, often casually simplistic about what democracy means and conceptually labyrinthine about what Jewish means. Even if no Palestinians existed in Israel or in its occupied territories, some questions would still defy an easy answer. Is Judaism a religion, a nationality, or both? Should the Jewish state live by ancient Hebraic law (halacha)? If not, in what sense is it Jewish? Who is entitled to citizenship? And who, for heaven’s sake, is a Jew?

The latter query, which might sound like the exasperated cry of a confused outsider, has actually been argued before Israel’s Supreme Court on a number of occasions. Jewish orthodoxy, conservative and reform Judaism, and numerous secular Jews have very differing views on the topic. Israel’s orthodox establishment will not budge from the halachic definition of a Jew (a person either born to a Jewish mother or converted according to orthodox standards). But many secular Israeli Jews define a Jew as anyone brave or crazy enough to declare himself one.

The state of Israel has followed orthodoxy in its definition of a Jew for the purposes of the Law of Return. Only a Jew by halachic definition—and his or her family members, whether Jewish or not—can acquire Israeli citizenship through the Law of Return. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, this was probably the most necessary and emotionally construed piece of legislation enacted by the young Jewish state.

Yet an increasing public debate has focused on the paradox of national membership being legally defined by means of a religious (indeed, orthodox) directive. Is the Law of Return undemocratic? And why should non-Jews be barred from joining the nation of Israel?

Fania Oz-Salzberger is a professor at the University of Haifa and the Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University. A historian of ideas, her books include Translating the Enlightenment and Israelis in Berlin.

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