The State of Israel was conceived and established by its founding fathers as a Jewish and democratic state. This definition encompasses both the state’s Jewish character – as reflected in nationality, religion, and culture – and the fact that it upholds the principle of civil equality for all its citizens regardless of race, gender, or creed. In the 1990s, Israel, which lacks a formal constitution, enshrined fundamental civil rights in two Basic Laws: Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (1992); and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation (1994). Last year, legislation was passed that addresses Israel’s collective identity: Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish People.
From the earliest years of Israeli statehood, there has been an inherent tension between the two sides of the Jewish-democratic equation. The internal tension is between the Jewish majority and the non-Jewish minority as well as between the different streams of Judaism. It also characterizes, with greater intensity in recent years, Israel-Diaspora relations (regarding major issues, such as conversion and the state’s attitude toward the non-Orthodox streams as illustrated by the ongoing saga of the “Kotel compromise”). The question of how Israel should balance its “Jewish” and “democratic” characteristics is, therefore, one that extends across several axes – internal/external, Jewish/non-Jewish, intra-Jewish. It is one of the most vexing issues on the Israeli public agenda, from the national, ideological, religious, public, and political points of view; and it has been a perennial subject of debate in Israel and the Diaspora.
For years, efforts have been made in governmental and civil-society frameworks to address this tension and find ways of mitigating it. But in several spheres the tension has grown over time, for political, demographic, and other reasons.