“Jewish and Democratic” – What’s It Like in Real Life?

Is the state of the Jews about to turn into a theocracy, as its opponents predicted? We are still far from such a situation, but the processes underway before our eyes are frightening.

The concept of a “Jewish and democratic state,” which brings together two values that aren’t necessarily compatible, is the result of a legal discourse that tried to square a circle: If Israel is a state that is guided by Jewish precepts, then – in principle – it discriminates between Jews and non-Jews, and between men and women, and thus cannot be considered democratic. But if it conducts itself according to the rules of democracy, then it has to ensure equality for all its citizens before the law, and Israeli law is not Halacha (Jewish religious law). Rather, it is, in essence, secular law. Hence the dilemma: How do we maintain a state that defines itself in law as Jewish and democratic? The problem has been there since the beginning of the Jewish national rebirth, and has not been overlooked by thinkers, Jewish and non-Jewish, who felt that a “Jewish state” means theocracy and would therefore best be avoided.

Theodor Herzl called his famous booklet that set the Zionist movement’s wheels in motion “The State of the Jews” – not “The Jewish State.” The difference between these terms is significant: One refers to a state whose character is determined by the fact that the nation establishing it and living in it is Jewish, while the other blurs the national element and emphasizes the religious character of the Jewish community down through the generations. Herzl based the logic of the “state of the Jews” on the idea that the Jews are a nation. Jews who adopted European culture and established themselves among their host nations vehemently denied this: We are Frenchmen of the Mosaic faith, Germans of the Mosaic faith, and so on. From the time of the French Revolution, identification with the local nationality was the condition for Jews being granted equal rights, and in exchange the Jews were willing to give up the national element of their identity. But this relinquishment of the Jewish nationalism hidden within Jewish religious tradition and character did not save them, and with the appearance of racist antisemitism it turned out that loyalty to the host nation did not outweigh Jew hatred, even when the Jews embraced the host nation’s culture, language, and sometimes even its religion.

Herzl’s affirmation “We are a people – one people” challenged a century-long effort to ignore the unique duality embedded in the definition of Judaism: a religion that is also a nationality. Of the two components, Zionism gave precedence to the national. This was the component that emphasized a core national identity and cross-border solidarity between communities that speak different languages and even have differing cultural traditions, out of recognition of the shared destiny of a people exiled from its land and seeking to return to it and to establish the state of the Jews there.

The essential character of such a state was open to question. Herzl was secular and his plan for the rabbis was to keep them in the synagogues. “His” state was planned as a liberal state inclusive of the “other.” Yet the opponents of Zionism argued that the state would be a backward theocracy, as Jewishness is essentially a religious category, and the Jews do not have national attributes like all the other peoples. When, during discussions over the Balfour Declaration, Chaim Weizmann was asked about the character of the Jewish state, a question in which the fear of theocracy was implied, he answered that the state would be Jewish just as England is English. That is: it would be home to a people who would constitute a majority and shape the state’s culture, historical memory, and political system, but other peoples would be present in it as citizens with equal rights before the law. This does not mean that in England itself there was equality; the Great Britain of the early 20th century was not a democratic state in the 21st century sense of the term. To this day the UK has an official religion, though it is hardly felt in everyday life. Since World War I, the UK has been characterized by openness to minorities, adherents of other faiths, and races other than those of the typical Englishman; by progress toward equality for women; and by a nonchalant attitude toward the state religion. The UK has not separated religion and state, unlike France, or the US per its constitution. The British respect tradition and symbols of the past, but there is a great difference between respecting tradition/maintaining customs, and theocracy.

The tension within Judaism between its national and its religious components was known but invisible until 1967 (the Six-Day War). Indeed, as early as the 1920s Gershom Scholem warned of the messianic potential embodied in the very use of the Hebrew language. From the early years of the Zionist movement, secular people made extensive use of concepts from Jewish tradition, such as redemption, ingathering of exiles, renewing our days as of old, the days of the Messiah, kingship, the end of days, and many more. Using these concepts was natural for people who grew up in traditionally observant homes. However, they loaded the concepts with secular content, such as aliyah to Eretz Israel, building the land, establishing Jewish power, Hebrew culture, and laying the foundations for a state where the Jews would be a majority and free of minority status. In their eyes, the founding of the state was the realization of the prophecies of redemption.

The ambivalence of the concept “Jewish state” as the definition of nationality or of religion became evident in the context of the Law of Return, which granted anyone whose parents were Jewish the right to Israeli citizenship. But how do we define who is a Jew? This question has been on the agenda since the early days of Israeli statehood. According to Halacha, a Jew is someone with a Jewish mother. When Brother Daniel, a Jewish-born Catholic priest, applied for Israeli citizenship on the basis of the Law of Return, his request was denied by the Supreme Court for reasons of “appearances;” it was decided that someone belonging to a different religion would not be considered a Jew even if Halacha regarded him as such. This constituted a declaration that the definition of Jewish nationality does not depend solely on the religious definition of “Jew.”

Do the Jews have a common ethnic ancestry on whose basis one may objectively determine who is a Jew and who is not? In actuality, identity is determined by affiliation, however vague, with the Jewish religion.

The historical process envisioned by Zionism’s founding fathers – that religion would become the tradition that shapes the public realm, through adherence to the Hebrew calendar, observance of holidays and festivals, the revival of the Hebrew language and the creation of a living, vibrant Hebrew culture – changed direction after 1967. A religious revival and changes in the religion itself are taking place before our eyes; Torah and Halacha have many facets from which different meanings may be chosen, from “The wolf shall also dwell with the lamb” to the mitzvah of eradicating all the nations living in the Land. The issue is what we choose from this selection. Lately we have been seeing religious radicalization and a combination of extreme radical religious streams together with ultranationalist streams. Phenomena that had been limited to the Haredi public have seeped into the public realm beyond it: discrimination against women, prohibitions against women singing in public, physical separation of men and women in the public sphere, insistence on modest dress (for women, of course) – not to mention the Jewish majority’s attitude toward the non-Jews in its midst, religious discrimination, racism basing itself on Halacha, and expulsion of non- Jews justified on religious grounds. The more the state of the Jews becomes a Jewish state, the farther it moves from the pan-human ideals that animated the founders of the state of the Jews.

The Declaration of Independence spoke of a state that would ensure equality for all its citizens, without discrimination on a religious, national, or other basis. The cited justifications for the state’s establishment were the generations-long hope of returning to the ancient homeland, Jewish distress in the wake of the Holocaust, and the efforts of the pioneers who built the state. The Declaration does not so much as hint at a divine promise or mention the borders of the state-in-the-making. Apart from the vague reference at the end of the Declaration to the “Rock of Israel” (the word “Redeemer,” which has religious connotations, having been removed), the Declaration’s drafters were careful to stay on the secular plane, basing the establishment of the state of the Jews on the Jewish people’s cultural history in its land (the Bible), the national catastrophe of the Holocaust, and the renewed Jewish settlement in Palestine.

Is the state of the Jews about to turn into a theocracy, as its opponents predicted? We are still far from such a situation, but the processes underway before our eyes are frightening. Growing ultranationalism is fueled, and even justified, by religion. The messianic genies released after 1967 have not been returned to the bottle and there are indications that religious fanaticism threatens to take over the secular state. Judaism, as a religion of benevolence and love of humanity cultivated by the Jews while they were minorities in their host countries, is changing its character in the face of a wave of extremism and hatred. Are we again on the road to baseless hatred, which is worse than incest or bloodshed?

In a conversation between the Jewish sage and the king of the Khazars in Judah Halevi’s Kuzari, the sage praises Judaism as religion that detests violence and prizes peace and love of humanity. The king of the Khazars responds that the Jews are this way only as a weak minority, but when they gain the upper hand – they will behave like all other nations. It turns out that the king of the Khazars predicted correctly.

If we are to perpetuate the duality of a nation that is also a religion, and of a religion that is also a nation, both sides of this equation must remain moderate and willing to live together while keeping the ideals that agitate them on a low flame. If not – fire will come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.

Professor Anita Shapira is professor emerita of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University and the former head of its Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel.