“Enlarge the Place of Thy Tent”: Judaism and Democracy in Harmony

There are indeed 70 faces to the Torah. This is also true for Israel’s definition as a Jewish state. Yet although they may sharply diverge, there is no need, or reason, to shrink from making decisions in the spirit of the overall outlook that imbues real substance into Israel’s existence as a “Jewish and democratic” state.

During my tenure as Israel’s Minister of Justice, I delivered an address entitled “Elik Was Born of the Sea.” The title was taken from the opening line of Moshe Shamir’s well-known 1951 novel With His Own Hands: Elik’s Story. In that speech, I argued that Israel’s founding generation – the generation of Elik, Yitzhak Shamir’s brother who met his end in the War of Independence – was unfamiliar with the phrase “Jewish and democratic” that we so often hear today as a description of the State of Israel. Like Elik, the founding generation’s statesmen were unacquainted with this construction and did not use it at all. And that is no coincidence. The “Jewish and democratic” formula was developed over the years, mainly by jurists. Those jurists made extensive use of it in decisions that influence the character of the state to this day, while creating the impression that the formula was handed down to the Jewish people at Sinai.

The formula, as it emerged and gained currency over the years, made the state’s Jewish character subordinate to democratic values of a very specific hue, even assigning greater weight to those values than to the basic value of “a Jewish state.” At the same time, virtually all color and meaning were stripped from the “Jewish” element. In my speech, I challenged the idea of a dichotomy between the values, and called for the creation of a broader tent in which the values that came under the phrase “a Jewish and democratic state” could live together in optimal harmony. For this purpose, I proposed that we return to the starting point and fill the “Jewish and democratic state” formula with real substance – making it truly democratic and truly Jewish.

I outlined my own approach to the “Jewish and democratic state” formula not long afterward, in my 2018 article “The Path to Democracy and Governance.” There I wrote:

But alongside the view of “Jewish” and “democratic” as constituting a constant struggle and a clash of civilizations, I believe we can propose another model. I am unwilling to accept that we must choose one and oppose the other. Moreover, I am not willing to accept the idea that the two traditions are so very different. […]

We wish to have a Jewish and democratic state in which each of the elements receives its full significance, and neither is required to bow to the other. In my vision, the Jewishness of the state will not remain a hollow symbol, but will have a life of its own. Accordingly, the track laid by the Knesset in the mid-1990s, which sought to establish a dual constitutional definition for the State of Israel, today requires massive reforging. (Shaked, 14, 16).


Some have said that the formula in which I believe is fine in theory but not in practice. Its opponents have argued that ultimately, when making existential decisions, one value must be given greater weight than the other – “Jewish” or “democratic” – and that no determination can be reached that reconciles the two. To prove this point, my critics have referred me to a variety of court rulings, High Court rulings for the most part, in which it is clear that, beyond the heady rhetoric of the “Jewish and democratic state” narrative, one of the elements, usually the democratic one, took precedence at the decisive moment.

In light of my many years of experience as a lawmaker and a government minister, and as someone who applied that formula dozens or even hundreds of times on the practical level, I feel the need to say, loudly and clearly, that the formula’s critics were wrong. In my view – a perspective which, again, was implemented in real life – decisions can absolutely be made based on the fundamental premise that Israel is, simultaneously, a Jewish and a democratic state.


A few years after my “Elik Was Born of the Sea” speech and the publication of my “Path to Democracy and Governance” article, I was appointed Israel’s Minister of the Interior. It was an exceptionally challenging period of time – on the social and security levels, within Israel and outside it. Every day, complicated issues were placed before me on which I had to make decisions. Each issue embodied tension between different values, such as living with dignity versus national identity, or individual versus collective rights. There were fateful questions such as a person’s right to work versus the state’s right to national self-determination, and situations where the imposition of the majority’s values on the minority, or vice versa, was at issue; and more. I can say that whenever I was faced with decisions on such matters, I looked to the vision expressed in Isaiah 54:2 – “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes” – as the model of a single place able to accommodate the values of a Jewish and democratic state – a tent whose “curtains” were stretched wide, whose “cords” were lengthened, and whose “stakes” were firmly planted in the ground.

I believe that when the foundations are strong and a coherent worldview is available to decision-makers, there should be no difficulty in making decisions on the matter of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. When I know that Israel is not a state like other Western states, when I know that the democratic values outlined by Israel’s founding fathers were drawn from Jewish tradition and from the vision of the Prophets, when I know that the Jewish element complements the democratic element – there is no dichotomy, but rather wholeness. Experience has borne out what I argued at the time: It is precisely when we want Israel to undergo advanced democratization processes that we must also deepen its Jewish identity. These two identities are explicitly not contradictory. The opposite is true: the more Jewish the state becomes, the more democratic it will be; and the more democratic the state becomes, the more Jewish it will be.

This has been strikingly exemplified in the implementation of Israeli immigration policy, with which I was extensively engaged as Minister of the Interior.

Superficially, attitudes toward asylum-seekers and migrants appear to be marked by an inherent and dichotomous tension between democratic and Jewish values. But that is not really the case. The two value systems are inextricably intertwined. On the one hand, the state’s ability to control its sovereign and community borders is a basic condition for the existence of a democratic political system where the sovereign community, i.e., the people, determines its fate and shapes its image. On the other hand, the basic imperative to help others in distress is rooted in Jewish scripture. Moreover, a state can, perhaps, encompass within its borders large numbers of people who are not members of the [sovereign] community, but successful absorption and treatment that meets moral standards, and certainly the inclusion of these people within the democratic system, require the desire and willingness of the absorbing community. Without such desire and willingness, the effort is doomed to failure in the long term.

It fell to me to attend to this issue when it arose apropos of the Russia-Ukraine war that erupted in February 2022, not long after I assumed the Minister of Interior post. For the first time in its history, Israel found itself in a situation where a country in a state of war was a party to an entry-visa exemption agreement with Israel. In practical terms, this meant that any Ukrainian citizen could board a plane and enter Israel with a temporary tourist visa, while it was altogether unclear if or when they would leave Israel. Israel thus became a first-line destination for Ukrainians, many thousands of whom indeed took advantage of the situation.

If this weren’t enough, it was the first time that many of those seeking refuge, temporary or permanent, in Israel were not Jews or persons eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, but first-degree relatives of Israeli citizens who had immigrated here on the basis of the Law of Return. This situation created an obligation or, at the very least, greater public demand, for Israel to open its gates to refugees. However, there also was increased concern that Israel would be unable to absorb such a large number of people.

The unprecedented influx forced me to make quick decisions in real time, decisions that were constantly updated in accordance with circumstances. I will say that in this situation the harmony between democratic and Jewish values made things easier for me. I indeed strove to create a balanced system that would enable Ukrainian citizens to enter Israel while also subjecting the influx to supervision and oversight, thereby ensuring that we would not lose practical or ethical control. The Ukrainian citizens’ status was therefore determined prior to their arrival; quotas were defined in accordance with the war situation and with the rate of arrival; and special instructions were formulated enabling Israeli citizens to invite relatives here for specific periods of time, but without numerical limits. It should be emphasized that at no point was there an issue of providing a haven to refugees whose lives were in danger, as all those who arrived in Israel came from safe countries in Europe, after having been given refuge in those places as well as work options outside of Ukraine.

I realized that the rules laid down for Ukrainian arrivals would likely set a precedent of some kind for other occasions. At the same time, I was never prepared to ignore the broader picture of aid to citizens coming from a country at war, or the opportunity to absorb in Israel thousands of potential immigrants eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

In my view, this policy struck an appropriate balance between the value of assisting people in distress or in mortal danger, and the need to avoid undermining Israel’s distinctive character and identity. This balance is deeply embedded in the state’s Jewish and democratic values, values that coexist harmoniously: safeguarding Israel’s identity as the Jewish nation-state where there will always be a Jewish majority, while strictly upholding its democratic identity, whose basis is human dignity.


Having seen that my vision could be realized on the ground, it was incumbent on me to seek its widespread acceptance.

In my view, the most effective way to incorporate real substance into the state’s Jewish component is via the Knesset – the sovereign body – whose role is to provide direction, through appropriate legislation, for the activity of the executive and judicial branches.

This is what I was aiming for when, as a Knesset member, together with Knesset Member Yariv Levin, I proposed the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (2018). The intention was to include practical provisions reflecting Israel’s status as the Jewish people’s nation-state. This can be seen in the bill’s stated purpose: “to define the State of Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people, in order to anchor these values in a Basic Law in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.” Ultimately, the statement of purpose was not included in the law. Indeed, the law went a long way toward shaping the state’s Jewish and democratic values, but the omission of the statement of purpose was a lost opportunity to enshrine those values in legislation by which the executive and the judicial branches would have to be guided. Times change, however. I believe that the legislative branch will succeed in infusing real, specific, and substantive meaning into the fact of Israel being a Jewish and democratic state.

Until such guiding legislation is passed, I believe that the Knesset should add a purpose section to its laws, clearly and distinctly affirming that the laws’ aims and purposes accord with the fact that the State of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. Beyond the declarative function, this would give true and correct expression to the integration of these two values in the arrangement of a given matter by law, however complex it may be.

An excellent example of this is the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (Temporary Provision) 5782-2022, which I submitted for Knesset approval while serving as Minister of Interior. The law’s statement of purpose celebrates Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state:

The purpose of this Law is to establish restrictions on citizenship and on the residence in Israel of citizens or residents of hostile countries or of inhabitants of the region, as well as extraordinary arrangements for the provision of Israeli residence permits or stay permits, all with attention to Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state, and in a manner that will ensure the safeguarding of interests vital to Israel’s national security [emphasis mine, A.S.].

In my view, there is no issue that better embodies the tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic values than the institution of restrictions on citizenship or residence. This is an issue that raises thorny dilemmas entailing an appropriate balance between basic human rights and the need to safeguard Israel’s physical/demographic integrity. Nevertheless, after intensive effort I succeeded in achieving the objective I had set for myself: each and every clause in the law indeed constitutes a harmonious integration of the Jewish and democratic values on which Israel’s Declaration of Independence is based, in accordance with the law’s goal and purpose. This also actualized my vision of the values of a Jewish and democratic state being affirmed side-by-side in Israeli legislation – in a tent whose curtains are stretched wide, whose cords are lengthened, and whose stakes are firmly planted in the ground.


Four or five years ago, when I presented my perspective on Israel as a Jewish state in the full sense of embodying Jewish values and not merely symbolically, I warned that this represented an attitudinal change that would raise complex questions and serious concerns. Today as well, despite having extensive experience in implementing that perspective, I know that many still fear the introduction of real substance into the conception of Israel as a Jewish state.

There are indeed 70 faces to the Torah. This is also true for Israel’s definition as a Jewish state. Attesting to this are statements by elected officials, court rulings, and everyday government decisions. The Jewish worldview of one sector differs from that of another. Yet although they may sharply diverge, there is no need, or reason, to shrink from making decisions in the spirit of the overall outlook that imbues real substance into Israel’s existence as a “Jewish and democratic” state.

This is the essence of democracy; it encompasses the outlooks of different types and subtypes. Entrenchment in the old templates, those fashioned primarily by jurists, is wrong. It was not legal templates that the state’s founding fathers dreamed of. They yearned for a state that would be “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel [and that would] ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” These legal templates, devoid of substance or character, do not represent the will of the people to sustain a unique state – Jewish and democratic – that integrates Jewish and democratic values.

Work cited

Shaked, Ayelet (2018, 12 December). “The Path to Democracy and Governance.” Ministry of Justice website. [Hebrew] [English version at Hashiloach]

Ayelet Shaked headed the Yamina joint electoral list and served as Israel’s Minister of Justice from 2015 to 2019 and as Minister of Interior from 2020 to 2021.