Roughly 60 years after the establishment of the modern State of Israel, by far the most ubiquitous term employed today to describe the political and social nature of the country is that Israel is a Jewish democratic state. Be it in the media or on the lips of politicians, the use of the term has become so widespread that most people in Israel simply accept it as a given truth without so much as a passing thought. Nonetheless, despite the extensive usage of the phrase, it should be clear to anyone with a discerning eye that the term resonates with cognitive dissonance.
The term, or more properly the confusion that led to the term, started in the early days of the state. In May 1948, the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel proclaimed the Jewish nature of the country by declaring "the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael." However, the same declaration also promised to “ensure complete equality of…. political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion….”
Thus, on the one hand Israel was to be a Jewish state while on the other hand it was declared to be a state of all its citizens regardless of religion. As a result of this ambiguity, right from the start there was a built-in contradiction of terms. Namely, was Israel to be a Jewish state that would incorporate some democratic aspects or was it to be a democratic state with a “Jewish feel?" Since these terms describe situations that are mutually exclusive, Israel could not possibly be both.
The Jewish component in the above equation was given precedence by the 1950 Law or Return, which stipulated that every Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel. However, the subsequent 1952 Nationality Law reestablished the confusion by stating, inter alia, “A person who, immediately before the establishment of the State, was a Palestinian citizen…. shall become an Israel national….” Thus citizenship, and with it the right to vote, was further anchored for the non-Jewish population.
This lack of clarity continued for decades and then in 1992 under the activist court of Justice Aharon Barak, the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom was passed in order to “establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Moreover, according to Justice Barak’s subsequent writings on the meaning of the vague phrase “Jewish democratic state,” it became apparent that his intention in the law was to define Israel as primarily a democratic state, albeit one that also encompasses a variety of Jewish aspects. Of course, Barak’s litmus test for these Jewish aspects was that they must be consistent with the values of a democracy.
Despite Barak’s true intention as to what actually took precedence, namely the democratic aspect, the neutral phrase “Jewish democratic state” has been promulgated ever since. This is a shame since the term is problematic for several reasons.
Most importantly, the term perpetuates confusion and avoids dealing with a very serious issue. Israel has a large Arab minority, the majority of which will never connect to the collective dreams and aspirations of the Jewish people and likewise will never really feel part of a Jewish state. To think otherwise is foolish. In addition, it is demeaning to the Arabs to expect differently since they naturally have pride in their own culture and a bond to the larger Arab nation.
Downplaying Jewish component
Thus, in order not to antagonize or alienate the Arabs, as well as to avoid being condemned for making statements that are not politically correct, Israel downplays the Jewish component and promotes the democratic one. To its own Jewish residents, however, the majority of which has some connection to the land and the tradition, it sells the Jewish component under the amorphous “Jewish democratic state.” Thus, the term is very useful for placating the Jewish population, even if doing so is somewhat misleading. More importantly, by hiding behind the term “Jewish democratic state” Israel continues to shirk its responsibility in dealing with a very complex and difficult issue.
If Israel is a true democracy of “one man-one vote” then the Arab minority could hypothetically take over the country via the election process and change the nature of the state. However, since this is a scenario that most of the Jews in the country would never agree to and even fear, the phrase “Jewish democratic state” should stop being rammed down the collective mindset of the nation since it is only seeding more confusion. Moreover, should the Arabs ever get close to taking over the country, it’s a sure bet that most of the advocates of the phrase “Jewish democratic state” would be out of here in a flash, leaving the rest of us to deal with the mess.
On the diplomatic front, a Jewish state connected to its inner meaning, its heritage and its land, would never consider relinquishing part of its ancestral homeland. However, a democratic state for which the Jewish component is weak or sentimental at best has no qualms under difficult times of relinquishing land since ultimately the land has no deeper significance.
This fact is clearly understood by the Arabs as well as by all those who are pressuring us to surrender land. For this reason, the supremacy afforded the democratic component at the expense of the Jewish component has severely weakened Israel’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the Arabs. Moreover, since everyone knows that the term “Jewish democratic state” does not mean Jewish in any profound way, then constantly using the term to describe the State of Israel is only helping to facilitate its downfall.
At the end of the day, Israel must choose. Either it is a Jewish state with some democratic aspects or it is democratic state with a Jewish flavor. It cannot be both. The continued use of the term “Jewish democratic state” is simply a way to avoid making this choice. Moreover, it represents a state of denial that underlies all the confusion and weakness that abound here. For the survival of the country, the term “Jewish democratic state” must be discarded and in its place the real “Jewish state” must rise.
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