Jewish and Democratic – Common Ground for a Common Camp: The Start of a Conversation

What we want, rather, is to stabilize the foundations on which our Jewish and Israeli discourse will continually renew itself – based on our commitment to each other and on our pledge to stick together, to take our fate into our own hands and move forward toward our shared future.

Since the beginning of the modern era – some might say since the dawn of our existence as a people – the pendulum of Jewish history has swung between the demand for normality and the aspiration to distinctive selfhood The claim to “normality” means existing within the family of nations, in accordance with its norms, whereas the quest for “distinctive selfhood” seeks the unique Jewish identity, the historical continuum, continuity. Along the axis between normality and distinctiveness one finds a significant number of key points, questions of identity, and decisive junctures that the Jewish people has faced, and continues to face.

The tension between the demand for normality and the aspiration to distinctiveness peaked 125 years ago at the Zionist Congress in Basel, when Theodor Herzl placed a new and completely different option along the normality-distinctiveness axis – Zionism. Even compared with the forerunners of Zionism, Herzl’s vision was extraordinary, unique, and striking; a radical vision that disrupted all the systems of the Jewish people in unexpected ways and forced a rethink of its path.

What made the proposal, so unsettling was its departure from the established and accepted framework. The proposal blatantly disregarded the need to choose sides in the dichotomous struggle between normality and subjectivity. Instead, it urged the creation of a new space for the Jewish people – a political, territorial, and cultural space; a space where the Jewish people could continue to argue, debate, and resolve its great quandary over normality and distinctiveness, but without the concerns that had attended the dilemma up to that point – the fear of antisemitism and persecution on the one hand, and the fear of assimilation bordering on cultural-spiritual erasure on the other. Herzl, that is, rose above the distinctive-selfhood (atzmiyut) debate and laid the foundation for something more existential – independence (atzma’ut)!

What Herzl proposed to the Jewish people was a real paradigm shift: not evolution but revolution – revolution in the full sense of the term. Zionism did draw from deep Jewish currents spanning many generations, including the eternal concepts of the Jewish bookshelf, yet was so completely different and groundbreaking, so “modern” in its aim of establishing a political and democratic entity that would be entirely Jewish. A true revolution! Herzl was the great architect of Zionism. He translated Jewish identity into an effective political doctrine and presented the Jews with the possibility of experiencing their identity as an independent political community.


From its beginnings, Zionism was a pluralistic ideological movement that succeeded in encompassing, on the basis of potential consensus, contradictory streams of thought and opposing political camps: believers and non-believers, socialists and bourgeois, people active on the political and the practical levels, liberals and those with more totalitarian tendencies. In the core paragraph of his opening address at the Zionist Congress in Basel 125 years ago, Herzl described the tremendous spectrum of ideologies and identities that characterized the participants, and the multifaceted mosaic that was Zionism’s founding cadre:

We have returned home, as it were. Zionism is a return to Jewishness even before there is a return to the Jewish land […] Zionism has already brought about something remarkable and heretofore regarded as impossible: a close alliance between the ultra-modern and the ultra-conservative elements of Jewry. This union could only be possible against the backdrop of a nation.

The basis of the compromise reached by most of the movement was a consensus on the return to the people’s historical homeland of Eretz Israel, on the rebirth of the Hebrew language and of Jewish culture, and on the creation of a society that would be the foundation of an independent state. The movement also established a robust democratic tradition, elected institutions, and rules for debate and decision-making that would serve it later on.

In their wisdom, Herzl and the other Congress participants did not impose their worldview on the rest of the movement. They sought the broadest and deepest common denominator, and entrusted the responsibility, the duty of deliberation and dialogue and, in particular, the duty to realize the Zionist vision in everyday life – this awesome privilege – to the Jewish people in all its diversity and across generations. That is, they entrusted these responsibilities and duties to us, the sons and daughters of the Jewish people from the four corners of the earth, “in every generation.”


The ceremony declaring Israeli independence on 5 Iyar 5708 – 14 May 1948 lasted only thirty-three minutes. It took seventeen minutes to read the Declaration aloud; another sixteen were devoted to the signing of the document, at which point the state became an established fact.

It is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.

Accordingly we, members of the people’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.

The Jewish state – the State of Israel – did not arise ex nihilo. Contrary to the claims of certain historians, who distinguish between Herzl’s broad designation “state of the Jews” (a state with a Jewish majority) and the more specific and substantive “Jewish state” – Israel’s founders did not regard Herzl as the father of the “state of the Jews.” In the Declaration of Independence, they pronounce him “the spiritual father of the Jewish State.” For them, the ideal of the Jewish state was not merely a state with a Jewish demographic majority. The Jewish state was, for them, Jewish in its general character, its goals, its values, its institutions, its relations with the Jewish people, its culture and its language – all in addition to its being, of course, a home for all its citizens – both Jews and non-Jews.

Like Herzl in his day, those who worked to realize, in practice, the vision of the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel faced an immediate test. Many of us know about the confrontation that took place behind the scenes over the expression “placing our trust in the ‘Rock of Israel’” that appears in the Declaration of Independence. What many of us fail to notice is that the state’s establishment was proclaimed a few hours before the official expiration of the British Mandate at midnight. Because of the approaching Shabbat and the desire to avoid its desecration, the founding of the state was announced on Friday afternoon.

Moreover, the Declaration itself, whose composition had yet to be completed at the time of its public reading, was written on parchment, in the calligraphic font of an ancient Sephardi Torah scroll, and Moshe Sharett is said to have grasped the scroll “as the baal korei grasps the Torah scroll in the synagogue.”

The phrase “democratic state” is absent from the Declaration, but the Declaration’s clear and explicit principles – its foundational precepts – are unambiguous. The “Jewish state” commits to ensuring:

complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Thus did the newly-founded state – in its substance, in the time of its proclamation, in its visual markers and in its guiding principles as manifested in the moments of its birth – establish a profile for itself that has rightly been described as “Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish, b’dibbur echad – in a single utterance.”


The task of imbuing Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state with substance and meaning was not fully accomplished as soon as statehood was proclaimed. The declaration of Israeli statehood merely created the framework in which we Israeli citizens – Jews and non-Jews, believers and nonbelievers, people of the right and of the left, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim – along with the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, debate the question of the state’s character and identity.

The right, the duty, and the ability to engage in discussion and debate are deeply entrenched in Jewish discursive culture, as well as in democratic culture. Jewish political culture is rooted in venerable traditions of deliberation and discussion, in a pre-sovereignty Jewish cultural framework that honored the book and the text, that treated words and laws with reverence, and that cultivated alongside and around them a culture of debate, of commentary, of dissent and disagreement; a culture founded on true acknowledgement that “a knife will only become sharpened at the side of another. So, too, a Torah scholar can only become sharpened by a friend.” This is a culture that does not, Heaven forbid, seek to eradicate its ideological adversaries, but rather respects them and sees them as an integral and important part of the deliberative process by which decisions are reached.

That is the principle embodied in the regular mention of minority opinions ultimately rejected in Jewish law and religious rulings. There is a profound recognition of the weighty responsibility borne by those engaged in deliberation, by the decision-making cadres who do not shy away from firm rulings but whose determinations are issued in a spirit of profound commitment to hearing all sides of every dispute and to allowing all voices to be heard. This commitment is based on a real and deep-rooted belief in pluralism, in the importance of enabling the full range of opinions and beliefs to exist side by side, and in the fact that we are also, and sometimes especially, obligated to respect those whose views differ from our own.

This idea of containing contrasts and disagreements and of seeing them as blessings rather than as obstacles is encoded in the DNA of the Jewish and democratic state. And while the supposed contradiction between the state’s “Jewish” and “democratic” foundations is currently under debate and will presumably continue to be debated – laws and symbols emphasizing the state’s Jewishness alongside such democratic principles as civil equality, human dignity and human rights will continue to be reflected in the Israeli and Jewish agendas –I continue to believe with all my heart that the two facets of the State of Israel are not founded on a total contradiction requiring that one be privileged over the other, but rather that the two facets are meant to live side by side and to respond to each other in disagreements that are challenging yet fruitful, disagreements for the sake of Heaven – without ever giving up on each other.

And in the words of Justice Haim Cohn:

The “and” [Vav haChibur] that connects ‘Judaism and democracy’ should be interpreted as their fusion into a single supreme value – a Judaism that is democratic and a democracy that is Jewish, as though they are one.

And here Justice Cohn cites Justice Menachem Elon:

And one comes to teach about the other, and one comes to complement the other, and they became one in our hands.


As Herzl anticipated, the tension between “normality” and “distinctive selfhood” continues to preoccupy the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. Since the State of Israel was founded, the Jewish people has continued to debate its past and its mission, but now it does so with a sense of security and national independence.

In October 1958, Israel’s then-prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, sent a letter to fifty Jewish scholars and intellectuals in Israel and the Diaspora, asking for their informed opinions on an issue of concern to the fledgling state – that of “who is a Jew.” Ben-Gurion felt that Judaism does not confine itself to the borders of the Jewish state, but rather draws on varied chains of transmission that arose from multiple cultural contexts and developed into unique Jewish traditions, each in its own way. He therefore appealed not only to “Zion-dwelling” Jewish thinkers but also to their colleagues abroad for perspectives on the “who is a Jew” question.

As Israel marks 75 years of statehood, this volume, this collection of views, is a continuation of Ben-Gurion’s letter. It poses a similar yet different question to its diverse array of contributors hailing from the worlds of public leadership, intellectual endeavor, rabbinic scholarship, research, and activism; from Israel and the Diaspora; Jews and non-Jews – the question of what it means for Israel to be defined as a Jewish and democratic state.

Is “a Jewish and democratic state” an impossible formulation? Does the Jewish component enrich the state and add values beyond those associated with democracy? Or does the “Jewish” commitment detract from the “democratic” commitment?

Our Judaism of today has an infinite number of variations and interpretations – a diversity that is its lifeblood, the organizing principle on which it is established. What, then, are the aspects of democracy that we wish to actualize, and what are the aspects of Judaism – the very Judaism to which we all feel connected but about which we do not agree? What is the common denominator that puts us all in a single camp – from east to west, from Zion to the four corners of the earth, from right to left?

More than I wish to communicate my own position, I am eager to read the other written responses here in this book. There is, however, one thing that is clear to me and that I want to emphasize: I believe that when we think, today, about the meaning of “a Jewish and democratic state” and about Judaism’s role in private and public Israeli life, our answer cannot be based solely on the painful past, on the “covenant of fate,” that is, on the exiles, the expulsions, the riots, the pogroms, and the Holocaust.

For centuries, non-Jews determined our borders and our fate through laws, decrees, and regulations that were imposed on us. But now, since founding a national home in our own land, a home where we have sovereignty; now that we have established our status as equal members of the family of nations, and now that the Jews of the Diaspora have solidified their standing as citizens endowed with equal rights in the nation-states where they reside – it is our duty, as a people and as a state, to define the “covenant of destiny” common to us all; to ask what it means to “do good” and not only what it means to “avoid evil.”

The time has come to ask what Israeli yachad or “togetherness” is; what Jewish yachad is; how they differ from each other and how they cooperate. How is Jewishness being redefined by Israeliness, and how is Israeliness defined by Judaism? Where are our wellsprings, and what is the direction of the flow; how do our sources manifest in our everyday life as a people and as a state belonging to the family of nations? How can Israel’s non-Jewish citizens proceed from merely having equal rights to seeing themselves as equal in status and real partners in the building of a model society and in shaping the country’s future?

At a time when we are engaged with the question of Israel’s character and standing as a Jewish and democratic state, it is our duty not only to decipher the roadmap of the past, but also to propose pathways for the Jewish people’s progression forward, for the renewal of its mission, for celebration of the values that characterize us as a people and that light the way for us; values of mutual responsibility, of preserving the ethical and intellectual heritage of the Jewish bookshelf, of democracy (as noted by Professor Eric Nelson in his 2011 book The Hebrew Republic), of humanity, of innovation, and of tikkun olam – repairing the world.

At this critical juncture – a time of global crises that leaves traces in the security, health, economic, social, community, political, and personal spheres – a reckoning is in order. We cannot get through these difficult days as individuals; the present period requires yachad. We do not want to put an end to the disagreements between us. What we want, rather, is to stabilize the foundations on which our Jewish and Israeli discourse will continually renew itself – based on our commitment to each other and on our pledge to stick together, to take our fate into our own hands and move forward toward our shared future. Together we will tread the path of the “spiritual father” of the state and of Israel’s founding generation, with faith and pride in our country; together we will choose, every day, to shoulder responsibility and to safeguard the state and our people; together we will continue to discuss, argue over, and debate “normality” and “distinctive selfhood,” old matters and new; and together we will generate a respectful, enriching, and responsible dialogue between all segments of the people.

Not just because “Herzl said so.” Not just because that is how our past was shaped, but because this is the sole, the most responsible and the safest way to build a prosperous and promising future – for the sake of our people and our state, for the sake of our citizens, for the sake of generations to come, for the sake of the family of nations, and for the sake of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.

Isaac Herzog is the 11th President of the State of Israel.