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There’s no such thing as a Jewish democracy February 4, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Equality, Politics, Religion.

Arye Carmon, Mordechai Kremnitzer and Yedidia Stern, of the Israel Democracy Institute, are rightfully worried about the state of Israeli democracy: there seems to have been a recent increase in discriminatory laws, incitement to violence, racist rhetoric, etc.

The above phenomena are related to the ongoing struggle over Israel’s dual identity as a Jewish and democratic state, which has been under attack for years … The main source of energy that is feeding this attack is a distorted interpretation of the Jewish character of the state, which pits Israel’s Jewish character against its democratic principles…

Another aspect of the attack on democracy has its origins in religious beliefs… A number of Rabbis have challenged the validity of Knesset decisions, while others are pressing impressionable youth to disobey military commanders. The infamous “Rabbis’ Letter,” which prohibits the rental of property in Israel to non-Jews, has tried to make use of religious values to prevent equal rights for Arab citizens. At the most extreme fringe, we have witnessed systematic distortions of the Torah that permit violence and bloodshed aimed at non-Jews.

The Zionist Israeli center—religious and secular alike—must take responsibility for the Jewish character of the state and not leave this task in the hands of radicals who are not committed to democracy.  It must fight for the humanistic interpretations of Jewish sources in order to develop a nation state that respects the “Other” and treats those who are different in the classical Jewish spirit, following the precepts “and you shall love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) and “the stranger will be like a citizen” (Leviticus 24:22).

I agree that Israeli democracy is in trouble, and I support some of the political reforms proposed by Carmon et al.; but I think they are confused about the root of the problem — and hence about the solution we should be aiming for. This confusion is illustrated by their appeal to “the classical Jewish spirit,” supported by Biblical quotations — while it is a plain fact that for every Bible verse which seems to promote tolerance and coexistence, there are ten verses (at least) that promote xenophobia, intolerance, discrimination and racism. Anyone who thinks that legitimizing “violence and bloodshed aimed at non-Jews” requires “systematic distortions of the Torah” has not read it. So if we want a liberal democracy, sending people to Jewish sources for inspiration is not a good idea.

The deeper issue is that quoting scripture in this way legitimizes appeals to tradition and authority, when we should be stressing the opposite: just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s right. We need to talk clearly about why we don’t want to live in the type of society recommended by Jewish scripture. All positions on public matters ought to be rationally defended, and we can then keep the good ideas (even if they are foreign to Judaism) and get rid of the bad ones (even if they are ancient Jewish traditions). What we need is not “humanistic interpretations of Jewish sources;” we need to argue the merits of humanism — and equality, and liberty, and rule of law, etc. — without anchoring ourselves to traditions that reject these values.

What Israel most desperately needs is complete separation between religion and the state. The government must not be allowed to pass any law privileging one religion over another, or privileging religion over non-religion. Tax money should not be used to support religious institutions. The government must not be in the business of determining a person’s religion or adjudicating religious questions. Such actions are inherently discriminatory, and they are the source of many of our never-ending political problems. For example, it is simply intolerable that two Israeli citizens who wish to marry cannot do so if they are of different religions (as determined by the state), or if they do not wish to go through certain religious rituals.

The only sense in which Israel can legitimately be a “Jewish state” is in an unofficial sense: Israel is a state with a Jewish majority, and this fact has obvious (and legitimate) implications on its culture. But a state with an officially privileged religion cannot be fully democratic. Jews immigrated to Israel to avoid discrimination in their homelands; but by officially designating Israel a Jewish state, we become guilty of discrimination ourselves.



1. AbeBird - February 7, 2011

Those three profesors are mistaken… Judaisn is nationaliy and religion at the same peoplehood. Jews are those who were born to Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. That means that if someone wants to join the Jewish PEOPLE one must first accept and live by the Jewish religion’s laws.
Israel is a Jewish state in the sense that the she is the state of the Jewish PEOPLE and not that Jewish religious laws take over the civil laws.

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