Let's
Talk
About
It
Dec 2009 a project of The Prometheus Foundation Inc. www.theprometheusfoundation.org
  .        
Israel. So much controversy.  So many frozen opinions.  Every opinion so predictable and formulaic. 
Let's put a few issues on the table and let's talk about them.  Really talk about them. 
Let's  forget what our opinions should be to remain in good standing on one side of the political spectrum or the other. 
If the other "side" makes sense on a particular issue, even though it may seem to conflict with our views on other issues, let's not be afraid to say so.
Let's talk about it.
We need to start a real discussion:

Can Israel be both a Jewish State
and a Democratic one?

Israelís status as a Jewish state has again been thrust into the foreground in connection with discussions of peace in the Middle East.  Inevitably this will also again call into question whether it is possible for Israel to be both a Jewish state and a democratic one.  The fact is the answer is not self-evident.  At the same time, few seem to be in a position to make an informed decision about the question, much less to defend the position that there is no significant inconsistency between being both a Jewish state and a democratic one.

Accordingly there is a need for Jews to become informed about this question in order to reach their own conclusions and to be prepared to meet opposing views with cogent, effective responses.

So Letís Talk About It.  In our homes.  In our synagogues.  With our friends and relatives.  

The following are a few thoughts to start, and perhaps give shape to, those discussions.  These thoughts do not take sides on any issue but are offered as points around which discussions can begin, discussions that aim to clarify thinking about what it means to be a Jewish state and about whether Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democratic one. 

One caution: discussions of whether Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democratic one can easily be thrown off track by assertions that Israel, in certain instances, conducted itself in an undemocratic matter. Such circumstances could include putting more state resources into Jewish communities in Israel than into non-Jewish communities, or granting more rights to Jews than to non-Jews, or favoring Jews over non-Jews in areas such as, e.g., the granting of permits, licenses or scholarships.

Such assertions, even if/where true, do not decide the question of whether Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democratic one, but they can be used (intentionally or otherwise) to derail the conversation. That is not to minimize the importance of discussing those assertions.  But it is to say that such a discussion is a different one than the ones suggested here and for that reason should be reserved for another occasion (unless, of course, the particular act alleged is inseparable from what it means to be a Jewish state).

We suggest approaching discussions of whether Israel can be both a Jewish and a democratic state on a practical level rather than a philosophical one. It is the practical world in which people live and it is the practical world that presents the truest test of whether being a Jewish state is inconsistent with being a democratic one.  

In structuring such discussions, we suggest they be thought of as having three parts, the second and third of which build on what went before.

The first part would be a consideration of what are the practical manifestations of Israel as a

Jewish State, that is, a discussion exploring/listing exactly what are the aspects of Israel which, if absent, would make it difficult or impossible to view it as a Jewish state. 

The second part of the discussion will tie those aspects on the list that is developed to what it means to be a democratic state.  Clearly any list that is created will show Judaism, Jews and/or Jewish citizens privileged to some extent in a Jewish state over other religions, persons of other religions and/or other citizens.  However the question will remain whether the items on the list, singly or collectively, are sufficiently antithetical to the notion of what it means to be a democratic state such as to render it improper to call a Jewish state (at least as manifested by Israel) democratic.

On the other hand, even if it is concluded that being a Jewish state in the manner of Israel is not antithetical being a democratic state, the question will remain, for some, whether it is important enough for Israel to be a Jewish state such that certain groups should be privileged over others to any extent. For that reason the third part of the discussion will focus on that issue, even though the issue of whether a Jewish state is important is not strictly relevant to the question of whether it is or is not consistent with being a democratic state.


Part 1: What is minimally required for a state to be regarded as a Jewish state?

The following is a list intended to begin a discussion of what is minimally required of a state, using Israel as the model, in order for it be regarded as a Jewish state. This list should not be regarded as definitive in any manner.  Simply because an item is included in the list does not mean it should be there, and simply because it is not included does not  it should not be there.  What should or should not appear on the list is the question that will constitute the heart of this part of the discussion.

1.    The use of state resources in furtherance of Jewish interests.

 

An example of such uses includes the Law of the Right of Return, meaning the automatic, or virtually automatic, right of Jews, and only Jews (and their spouses), to emigrate to Israel and become citizens.

 

Another example would be the use of state resources in the interests of Jews worldwide, such as in cases where Jews of other nations are endangered by the state or otherwise.  Examples include the cases of Jews in the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Yemen.

Additional examples include using the power of the state to close businesses on the Sabbath, to require some restaurants to serve only Kosher foods in a Kosher setting, and  to shut down public transportation on the Sabbath.

 

2.    The celebration of Jewish holidays and Jewish events in the public sphere, including in schools and other state institutions, and the promoting by the state of

Jewish culture (including, for example, Jewish, Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino literature).

 

3.    The use of Jewish symbols as state symbols and the celebration of Jewish holidays and events in the public sphere.

Such symbols include the use of the Mogen David (Star of David) on the state flag and the use of the Menorah on other state objects such as coins.
 

 

Such celebrations include Jewish holidays being celebrated as state holidays, and the ubiquitous private use of Jewish symbols in commercial settings

 

4.    The use of Jewish history as part of the stateís history.

In addition to history as taught in public schools, such uses would include the lyrics to the national anthem, HaTikvah, and the use of Jewish sources by courts in judicial decisions and the decision making process.

Part 2: Are these aspects of a Jewish state, singly or collectively, so incompatible with that of a democratic state such that a Jewish state cannot fairly be regarded as a democratic state?

1.    Does being a Jewish state mean, in the case of Israel, being a religious state?  Or does it refer to a state of and/or for the Jewish People.  And if so, does that make any difference in considering whether a state can be a Jewish State as well as a democratic one?

Are the considerations the same when asking whether, for example, a Kurdish, Palestinian, Islamic or Irish state can be democratic?

To receive a list of the dozens of countries (including European, Asian, South American African and Middle Eastern) that have recognized a state or official religion,
contact us or send us an email to info@theprometheusfoundation.org
 

2.    To what extent, if any, is it relevant that the laws of Israel, including the laws privileging Jews and Judaism as noted in the items above, are the result of agreements reached, and laws enacted, by a democratically elected parliament and

 that they therefore express the desires and will of the majority? Does a majority in a democratic state ever have the right to characterize itself in a certain way and to provide for certain national practices or rules in furtherance of that characterization? Consider not only a Jewish state, but also a Palestinian state, a Kurdish state, an Irish state, etc.

 

3.    Does the lack of separation of religion and state on the US model in Israel in and of itself, make the Israeli reality inconsistent with the definition of democracy?


To receive a list of the dozens of countries (including European, Asian, South American African and Middle Eastern) that have recognized a state or official religion,
contact us or send us an email to info@theprometheusfoundation.org

 

4.    In discussing the use of Jewish symbols as state symbols, consider how and in what circumstances those symbols are used and the effect of such use on non-Jewish citizens.  How do, for example, schools, courts, law-enforcement, cultural institutions, state service providers use them and what are the effects of each use on non-Jewish citizens?

5.    In discussing the impact of the celebration of Jewish holidays and events in the public sphere, and promotion of Jewish culture, on a Jewish stateís status as a democratic state we think it is more realistic to assume that in a Jewish state they would be not necessarily be celebrated or promoted to the exclusion of the holidays and events of non-Jews, but rather that they are given a more prominent place.  In this context consider, for example, how Christmas and Easter are celebrated in the public sphere around the world, and not necessarily just in the United States and Europe.

Similarly in considering the impact of merging, in whole or part, the teaching of Jewish history with the history of the state in public schools, it seems more realistic to assume the use of Jewish history in this manner is not to the exclusion of the history of non-Jewish groups in Israel, but rather that it is given a more significant place as compared to the history of other groups.  Also to be considered is the effect of teaching of Jewish history in this manner on non-Jewish citizens.

 

6.    In discussing whether and to the extent privileging one group over another via the Right of Return is consistent with being a democratic state, it may be relevant to note that people who are not born in Ireland but who have an Irish grandmother or grandfather can claim Irish citizenship and that in Bulgaria citizenship is granted to anyone who descends from a Bulgarian citizen as established by a court ruling.

 

7.    To what extent do any of the items on the list of what is minimally required if a state is to be considered a Jewish state impinge upon what may be considered basic rights?

To receive a copy of Israelís Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, click here or send us an email to info@thepormetheusfoundation.org

To receive a copy of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, click here or send us an email to info@theprometheusfoundation.org

To receive a copy of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Council of Europe, click here or send us an email to info@theprometheusfoundation.org


8.
   
After separately discussing each of the items on the list that resulted from part 1 of the discussion, some focus should be placed on whether those items collectively are sufficiently inconsistent with the notion of a democratic state such as to render it improper to consider a Jewish state, as manifested by Israel, also to be a democratic state.

9.
   
It has been said that one day demographics may make the Jews a minority in Israel.  How does/should this effect consideration as to whether today Israel should remain a Jewish state, however that term is defined?  Should the future be allowed to take care of itself?  Or does it depend on what you mean by a Jewish state?  In this context consider the situation in Lebanon where a static solution to balancing politically different groups within Lebanon eventually failed when no practical, democratic way of adjusting the balancing was provided for.

 

Part 3: Why is having a Jewish state important?

 

1.    Is the question of the importance of the Jewish state one that should be/need be asked in connection with discussing whether being a Jewish state is compatible with being a democratic state?  Can the importance of having a Jewish state ever be a justification for a Jewish state being an undemocratic state?  Or is it relevant only to justify being less than a perfect democracy but democratic nevertheless?

2.
   
Is such a question of importance one to be decided by any people other than those directly affected?  For example, should the question be put to someone other than the Kurds as to why it is important to have a Kurdish state?  Or to someone other than the Palestinians regarding a Palestinian state?

Or does asking such a question about importance miss the point?  Is the only relevant point that ďif they define themselves as a nation, then they are a nationĒ and thus entitled to some form of self-determination that reflects their self-perception as a nation of e.g., Jews, Palestinians, Irish or Kurds? (Consider here again whether a Jewish state is a religious one or rather a state of the Jewish people).

Letís Talk About It.  If you have any suggestions on improving, correcting, or adding to anything here, please send us an email at info@theprometheusfoundation.org . 

Or you can post comments on our blog at theprometheusfoundation.blogspot.com  .

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