On the eve of independence, the founders of the State of Israel enshrined their vision for the values that would underly the new state they were creating. “The State of Israel,” insists the Israeli Declaration of Independence, “will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
The promise of this vision – and the ways in which it has been realized and the ways in which it has yet to be accomplished – was the theme that emerged for me on this second day of my AIPAC-sponsored rabbinic seminar in Israel.
We began our day with a primer on the Israeli political system from Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig of Bar-Ilan University, who argued (unbeknownst to him, I think, contrary to some of the analysis we heard the day before) that the dominance of the Israeli right over the past decade or so is something of a myth, and that the center parties have truly been the ones holding the cards for the government’s success or failure in recent years. This comports with an analysis that Israel is becoming increasingly secular, increasingly focused on economic issues, and pragmatic rather than ideological in terms of defense and foreign policy. This view, it seems to me, was corroborated by a presentation we heard later in the day from the leaders of the Israeli Democracy Institute, a think-tank dedicated to studying Israeli political trends and advocating for political reform. In their view, Israelis’ shift away from ideological camps toward more common-sense approaches suggest the need to change the political process from a multi-party to a two-party system, with the main options being center-left and center-right.
Despite this, we again heard that several issues of critical importance to many American Jews – among them income equality, equal rights for all Israeli citizens, religious freedom and/or state recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish approaches, and a just peace with the Palestinians are largely secondary or tertiary issues for most Israelis, despite the fact that these all strike me as existential questions the Jewish State must satisfactorily address if it is to live up to its founding ideals. Underscoring this reality were presentations from members of Knesset, Dr. Ahmed Tibi from the Joint Arab List and Roi Fokman from Kulanu (the current centrist party), along with a moving conversation with Israeli Arab activist/scholar Mohammad Darawshe, all who offered different aspects of an ultimately common struggle for equality and social justice.
These presentations, to me, shone a light on the possibilities, the promise, and the challenge of Israel’s founding ideals, that the country is to be simultaneously Jewish and open, accessible, and equal to all. Speaker after speaker touched on this issue, addressing whether or not they felt there was tension in the notion of a democratic Jewish State. One speaker said the chasm that seems to be growing between American and Israeli Jews is that Americans see the world primarily through the prism of equality, and Israelis see the world primarily through the lens of security, and this impacts how each community relates to the challenges Israel faces. Some said that there was no inherent tension between Israel being both Jewish and democratic (indeed, one speaker, former MK Dr. Einat Wilf, insisted that these semantics obscure the fact that the Jewish tradition is inherently democratic and thus serve to delegitimize the Jewish State in the court of public opinion). Others perhaps agreed with the premise of Jewish democracy in principle, but argued that Israel is not doing nearly enough to live up to the democratic principles that are embedded in both the Jewish tradition and in Israel’s founding documents. Finally, one other speaker, a young MK from Likud, who argued in favor of a one-state solution to the Palestinian conflict that would invariably deny Palestinians equal rights, acknowledged that he would rather Israel be a Jewish state than a democratic one.
Who is right? Is Israel as a Jewish democracy, while currently imperfect, fundamentally possible? Is the notion of Jewish democracy absurd on its face and ultimately impossible to reconcile? Is it actually two ways of saying the same thing? And how do the Palestinians, one group from whom we have not yet heard, relate to Israel’s promise of “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel [and] complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants”? I will hopefully learn more tomorrow, when we travel to the West Bank to meet with senior Palestinian officials.
Until then, I leave you with a sobering (to me) statistic I learned today at the Israeli Democracy Institute, and, since I am still wrestling with my analysis, I invite you to share your thoughts: In 2010, 48% of Israeli Jews believed that it was equally important for Israel to be both “Jewish” and “democratic.” By 2014, that number had decreased to 24%, with 39% of Israelis prioritizing “Jewish,” and just over 33% elevating “democratic.”
I appreciate the opportunity AIPAC is affording me to wrestle with these questions alongside open-hearted and open-minded colleagues, and I am eager to continue that learning and those meaningful conversations about this beautiful, intense, and complex country with you all – now, and upon my return.