What Would We Choose at the Moment of Truth – Judaism or Democracy?

So long as we regard the state’s religious character as a matter of the identity of the state itself, no subpopulation can sit down at the discussion table with true willingness for compromise. Yet if we agree with the contention that the state is an apparatus meant to ensure the Jewish people’s survival and continuity, then the discussion ceases to be one of values and becomes, instead, one of means, i.e. – what are the means that will serve this end without undercutting the state’s other functions as a democratic state?

Both of us have encountered this question, albeit under very different circumstances. Rachel came across it in civics class, in newspapers, and in discussions at the Shabbat table. Natan was faced with it while still a Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Gulags long before he was called upon to wrangle with issues of religion and state in the Knesset or in television studios. His cellmates, jailed for their activities as Ukrainian nationalists or as human rights activists in Moscow, regarded with envy and suspicion his easy assertion of simultaneous belonging to two worlds – the world of Zionist struggle, and the world of human rights. “In theory, you can fight for two values,” they challenged, “but what if you had to choose? What’ll happen when you get to Israel and you have to make hard decisions? What if the only options are ‘Jewish’ or ‘democratic’ – a Jewish dictatorship or a democratic state of all its citizens?”

Then as now, the idea that we should favor one value over another strikes us as fundamentally mistaken. As Natan tried to explain to his fellow prisoners, the State of Israel was founded in order to ingather exiles. That project could not be realized without the state being both Jewish and democratic. If Israel is not to be a Jewish state, the Jews of the world won’t have the opportunity to gather there, or any reason to do so. We’ve already tried living in non-Jewish countries, and if that’s the case, why attempt to reside in yet another one, only this time in the Middle East? If Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state, then the Jews of the world will have an excellent reason not to go there since millennia of exile have taught us first-hand how dangerous it is to live under non-democratic regimes. Furthermore, unless the system is democratic, there will be no way of ensuring equality between groups arriving from different places of exile, and many Jews will be deterred from living in a country where they would again be second-class citizens. Thus, both values – Jewishness and democracy – are critical to the success of the project for which Israel was founded: It is impossible to favor one over the other.

This is a suitable explanation for someone fighting for his right to make aliyah. Not only that, it also accorded with the outlook of  the generation of founders and pioneers – the Dor HaMeyasdim –  who fought to establish a state in which we could gather and where we would be free of oppression, as Jews specifically and as human beings generally. But this explanation is inadequate for subsequent generations, those growing up in the State of Israel, which is no longer a dream, but a fact; no longer a destination, but a starting point.

The question we are faced with today is not how to choose between two hypothetical options – a Jewish dictatorship or a non-Jewish democracy – but rather how to decide on innumerable pragmatic issues that arise from the attempt to integrate Judaism and democracy in our everyday lives, here and now. The “Abrahams” of the Zionist project have to choose to come to the Promised Land. But the “Isaacs” are born into the project and need to decide how to cope with the tensions they’ve inherited. Should public transportation be permitted on Shabbat; does the state have the authority to impose core studies; is it right to allow non-kosher food in the IDF; and what kind of conversion should entitle a person to be registered as “Jewish” by the Ministry of Interior?

Although Natan’s answer to his fellow prisoners is insufficient to address these and many other issues, we nevertheless believe, now as then, that there is no real contradiction between the words “Jewish” and “democratic” in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, at least so long as we keep the two following principles in mind:

One is that the state itself is not a person, and thus is not Jewish in the way that a person is Jewish or non-Jewish. A state is an artificial entity that has been charged with an important and difficult task: to ensure the physical and spiritual existence of its citizens and, in Israel’s case, to ensure the physical and spiritual existence of the Jewish people, both within its borders and throughout the world. This is an important distinction, as it allows us to stop looking at issues of religion and state through an essentialist lens, which is naturally unconducive to compromise or consensus. We need to reframe the discussion in a pragmatic way that looks at how the state is fulfilling its functions and carrying out its appointed tasks. Instead of asking “Who are we as a Jewish state?” and “Who are we supposed to be?” – questions for which we will never be able to agree on one single answer – let’s ask: How should Israel safeguard the lives of its citizens; to what degree is Israel capable of helping Jewish communities in the Diaspora defend themselves against antisemitic attacks; what measures should it take to promote the continuity of Jewish tradition and heritage in Israel and abroad? And how can it do all this without its actions coming at the expense of the duty that all democratic states have to their citizens – all of their citizens – namely, to ensure equality before the law and the basic rights of each and every citizen?

These are not easy questions; they are not questions that invite consensus. Unlike essentialist questions, however, they are questions that promote broad discussion, facilitate compromise, and open doors rather than closing them. And it is precisely here that the importance of the second principle becomes clear: Democracy is by nature a communal project, and a communal project entails compromise, negotiation, and willingness to sit together around a single discussion table. This is all the more true of a democracy such as ours, one composed of a Jewish majority that is itself a patchwork, and a non-Jewish minority. A state that gathers exiles into itself cannot afford to make decisions about its fundamental character and identity on the basis of narrow partisan victories and entrenchment within polarized positions. Although argumentativeness is a traditional Jewish trait, if we are to remain a Jewish and democratic country, we must embrace Maimonides’ Golden Mean and seek the middle path. So long as we enshrine in law the state’s obligation to ensure equality and basic rights for all its citizens, as well as its obligation to safeguard the Jewish people’s physical and spiritual existence – the means of navigating between these duties are open to negotiation.   

Of the myriad challenges we have to maneuver between, two issues merit separate attention. One is that of how the state should cultivate Jewish heritage without compromising the freedom of citizens who are not Jewish or not traditionally observant (a religion-and-state question). The other, perhaps more fraught, issue is that of how to determine who is entitled to immigrate to Israel per the Law of Return, and to be registered here as Jewish (the conversion question). These are two complex and emotionally-charged issues that are also particularly important examples of the way in which the two principles we noted above change the nature of the discussion.

So long as we regard the state’s religious character as a matter of the identity of the state itself, no subpopulation can sit down at the discussion table with true willingness for compromise. Yet if we agree with the contention that the state is an apparatus meant to ensure the Jewish people’s survival and continuity, then the discussion ceases to be one of values and becomes, instead, one of means, i.e. – what are the means that will serve this end without undercutting the state’s other functions as a democratic state?

In our view, the answer can be divided into two spheres.

The first sphere is that of what the state should provide to its citizens at the level of individual life. Israel was meant to be a home for all Jews, wherever they are. It should, therefore provide all Jews with optimal conditions for living full Jewish lives as they understand it. For Orthodox, Halacha-observing Jews, the state should ensure that all who wish and are willing to observe Halacha in the stringent sense of the term can do so, and it should provide the best possible conditions for a halachic way of life. Sometimes this is an obligation that entails compromise – as with the unique issue of kosher food in the IDF, without which kashruth-observing soldiers would find it very hard to uphold their values. Regarding Jews from the non-Orthodox streams, the state must ensure that they can all live full Jewish lives along with the prayer services, the rabbis, and the communities aligned with their worldviews. However, the state’s duty to provide appropriate conditions for both halachic observance and religious pluralism does not require the state itself to observe Halacha or to define itself as affiliated with a given stream of Judaism. Again, the state is not a person.

The second sphere relates to the character of the common public realm. In the broader sense of Jewish heritage, this refers to the fact that the state safeguards Jewish heritage by according central importance to the Hebrew calendar and the Hebrew language, while providing Jewish education, in all its various forms, to whoever so desires.

Conversion, or the “who is a Jew” question, is one of the most fraught issues in the Jewish-state debate, as it has immediate and unequivocal consequences. Within the state, by funding educational frameworks, we can relatively easily meet the needs of all streams of Judaism without having to decide which stream is “right.” By contrast, when deciding who may be registered as a Jew in Israel, there appears to be no choice but to decide in favor of a given approach to Judaism.

Nevertheless, and in accordance with the principles we set forth above, this question can also be reframed as pragmatic, rather than essentialist. Instead of asking which form of conversion is legitimate, we can continue along the path proposed by the Neeman Committee on Conversion in Israel (1998), and ask which mode of conversion will lead to the broadest consensus. If we are to safeguard Israeli public life, it is important that the community accept new members on the basis of a broad consensus, the kind that only Orthodox conversion enjoys. But if we are to enable all Jewish streams and subgroups to live Jewish lives in accordance with their views, it is important that we refrain from unilaterally imposing this form of conversion. It would be more appropriate to discuss the matter with representatives of all of the streams and outlooks, and to give them all a place in the conversion-preparation process itself. The Neeman Committee conclusions, which proposed allowing all of the streams to prepare candidates for conversion while conversion itself would be Orthodox in lenient form, remain the best example of pragmatic compromise on this issue. As noted in the Committee recommendations submitted to the Knesset, “On matters of faith and worldview, there have been and there still are disagreements. The Committee does not profess to settle these disputes, but merely to propose an arrangement that will provide a mutually-acceptable, practical framework for conversion in Israel.”

The Neeman Committee also emphasized that we “are obligated [to find] a way to live together with mutual respect, despite differences in outlook.” Indeed, the role of the Jewish state was never to formulate a uniform Jewish outlook, but rather to enable Jews of differing outlooks to tread a single path together. Over the generations, the sons and daughters of the Jewish people carried many stories with them, and these stories joined to create a powerful, if not always harmonious, song that transmitted Jewish identity in its myriad forms from one generation to the next. Israel was not meant to choose the “right” story out of the entire array and to make it the emblem of the Jewish state. Rather, it was meant to ensure the ability of every Jew to pass his or her stories on to future generations. So long as we remember this, so long as we do not cease to value the mutual respect between us, the Jewish state will continue to be enriched and strengthened by its human and ideological diversity, and the pragmatic challenges of coexistence within it will not oblige us to choose between polarized options.

Natan Sharansky is a former Israeli government minister, Member of Knesset, and Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel. A human rights activist, he was a Prisoner of Zion and a Soviet refusenik.

Rachel Sharansky Danziger writes and lectures on the Bible and the art of storytelling.