Not On One Leg

A combination of leadership and education would have the power to ease anxieties and engender the desired historic consensus and peace at home: the State of Israel – the nation-state of the Jewish people and the state of all its citizens.

The Zionist movement gave the Jewish people two assets: a national home, and a democratic tradition. The literal expression of these assets can be found in Israel’s statutes and Basic Laws      in the words “a Jewish and democratic state.” Seventy-five years after the founding of the state, these two assets are under threat from within and from without: Some deny that the state is the national home of the Jewish people, while others do not see democracy as an equally important pillar of the state’s character.

Why is it essential that we retain both pillars, and what meaning should we attach to them with respect to the present and with a view toward the future?

The Jewish state

For generations, the term “Jew” has had two principal meanings, with varying degrees of overlap: people (nation), and religion. According to our origin story, since the time of Abraham the Hebrew we have been considered a unique ethnic unit with a culture and homeland of our own, and since the time of Moses and the giving of the Torah we have been regarded as a collective with a unique religion. Even during periods of national sovereignty the religious element did not disappear, and even while in the Diaspora the Jews lived as a community trying to maintain ethnic and cultural character.

The national dimension

Modern Zionism gave weight primarily, if not exclusively, to the national dimension. The legitimacy of Israel’s national essence has been challenged of late. From within the state, there are those who believe that a national state does not allow full equality for all citizens, Jews and Arabs, and thus undermines the state’s democratic dimension and the possibility for coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Externally, the state’s Jewish national character is challenged both from up close, by Palestinian nationalism, and from a distance, by elements that deny the legitimacy of nation-states altogether.

In my view, however, the nation-state is Israel’s raison d’être. When Ze’ev Jabotinsky was asked why he insisted on the Hebrew language, he answered “Just because!!!” 125 years ago, and perhaps 75 years ago, this “just because” rationale was insufficient. When Chaim Weizmann persuaded the President of the United States, Harry Truman, to recognize the State of Israel, immediately upon its founding, he explained that without a state, the Jews would be annihilated. But today, Zionism’s success gives us the option of the most authentic and basic rationale – Why a nation-state? Just because!! – even if there were no enemies or haters threatening our existence.

But we do have enemies and haters. The Jewish people’s physical existence is still endangered, and the danger is unlikely to disappear. One need only remember how the history of the Jews unfolded without a state of their own, listen to the statements being made today in Iran and Lebanon, or monitor Israel-hatred worldwide, on the right and on the left, to understand that making Israel merely a state of all its citizens, with no specific commitment to ensuring Jewish survival, could leave the Jewish people even more exposed to existential danger.

Secondly, our ability to preserve the achievements of Zionism depends on ensuring a continued large Jewish majority in Israel. A Jewish nation-state makes it possible to have an aliyah and immigration policy and these help maintain a Jewish majority.

Thirdly, the Hebrew-Jewish heritage can exist and develop under “normal” conditions of a      majority and sovereignty within the environment of the nation’s natural homeland. Under these conditions, the language of the state is Hebrew, Shabbat and the Hebrew holidays are part of the state calendar, Jewish symbols are the symbols of the state, and the state budget supports Hebrew-Jewish cultural institutions.

Fourthly, Israel was founded for the sake of the Jewish people, not vice versa, and most of the Jewish people still live outside of Israel. Diaspora Jewry’s wellbeing and development, and the depth of its relationship with Israel, are core interests of the Jewish nation-state. The manifestations of this relationship and Israel’s responsibility toward the Diaspora are varied and bilateral. All members of the Jewish people have the option of immigrating to Israel and living a full national life there. They have the option of deciding that Israel will be a significant part of their identity and remain close to their hearts even if they live far from it. Israel, for them, is both a safety net that will catch them if they fall, and a source of vitality for their identity. From Israel’s perspective, Diaspora Jews are part of the extended family. They are both an object of responsibility and a well of strength, a demographic reserve for Israel, a political “Iron Dome” and an economic bridge.

Preserving Israel’s Jewish national character may come at a price: From within – maintaining the Jewish-national element may slow the forging of an Israeli identity common to all of Israel’s citizens, Jews and Arabs (I will have more to say on this below). From without – the national character may cause international support for Israel to weaken, as nationalism, for some, is the twin of racism. However, this potential cost does not outweigh the desire and the need to keep Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. To the question of why we should preserve the State of Israel’s national dimension there are four answers, plus one more: the duty to ensure security, maintaining the state’s Jewish majority, the right and the desire for natural national-cultural development, responsibility toward the Jewish people as a whole, and just “because,” because that’s what we want.

The religious dimension

However, we must not turn Israel into a state that is Jewish in religious terms. I respect the tremendously positive role that religion has played in our national life over the years of exile. But as I see it, turning Israel into a state defined religiously as Jewish would be bad for the Jews.

Firstly, most Israeli Jews define themselves as secular or as non-religious traditional (Masortim). Defining the state’s Jewishness on a religious basis would alienate them from the state in terms of their identity.

Secondly, although in the past, under minority conditions, the Jewish religion preserved our uniqueness and kept us from assimilating, it is now often a polarizing rather than a unifying force. Kashruth, for example, kept us from assimilating over the generations. Now it splits us into tribes and sub-tribes, to the point that we can no longer eat at each other’s homes. Nor is the rabbinical establishment helpful in terms of keeping Jews in the fold; in many cases it repels those who already are in the fold. Secular Jews who fear hadata or “religionization” of their lives are starting to hate not just the rabbinate, but also Judaism, and in their hatred of Judaism they may not distinguish between religion and nation; thus, they will both oppose the religion and alienate themselves from the nation. International support for Israel may also decline if the Jewish state comes to be regarded as religious in character, as most of the countries that are important to us, in North America and in Europe, view religious states as illegitimate.

What unites us today is our shared ethnicity, our common heritage, the state that is our common home, the Hebrew we fluently speak, the fear of Israel-hatred that makes no distinctions between us, the need to defend ourselves against our enemies, the IDF, solidarity, and even shared hopes. Religion is not one of the things that connect us.

Even so, due to Judaism’s dual meaning – nationality and religion – many Jews do not differentiate in their hearts between the national and the religious dimensions of their Jewishness. This has consequences in many different spheres. For example, expectations regarding the public realm on Shabbat. In the eyes of many religious Jews, Sabbath violation in the public realm is inappropriate for a Jewish state. By contrast, for many non-religious Jews the familial Shabbat experience is dependent on family occasions and other events that cannot be held without Shabbat being violated in the religious sense. This disagreement will persist among us, and for the sake of our wellbeing as a people it would be better to forgo the ambition for one-sided victory.

Another example is that of conversion. Since the days of Ruth the Moabite, the gate of entry to the Jewish people has been a double gate, national and religious – “thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” In the State of Israel, the keys to the Jewish national gateway were given to the rabbis. Their disregard for the nation’s interests could potentially weaken the people and its nation-state. A solution of creating a non-religious, national path to entry, a “thy people shall be my people” path, alongside the religious-conversion path could cause a rift within the people. The better solution is for the rabbis in charge of conversion to act in accordance with the interests of the people and to allow immigrants who desire to convert to Judaism to do so if they accept the way of life of most of Israel’s Jews.

In summary: we have a real interest and need to ensure that Israel continues to be the nation-state of the Jewish people but attempts to make the state Jewish in religious terms could impair the resilience of the people and of the state. In places where there is no separation between nationality and religion, compromise and consensus are preferable to war and one-sided victory.

The democratic state

While attempting to demonstrate how essential it is that Israel be a democratic state, I won’t rely on the three following arguments, although I believe in them with all my heart.

The first argument is the basic view that democracy, and the values of freedom and individual and minority rights embodied in it, is naturally better for people in general, including for the Jews. The second argument is that the basis for the State of Israel’s international legitimacy – from the Basel Program through the Balfour Declaration and the Declaration of Independence – is the essence of Israel as a democratic state. Nor will I go on to make the third, important, argument that democracy is not alien to Judaism and to some degree actually stems from Judaism. Democracy and Judaism are not identical, but the claim that they are opposites is erroneous and misleading.

I will base my contention that Israel’s democratic supporting pillar, alongside its national supporting pillar, is crucial for our national future, on a practical consideration with respect to the good of the Jews: without democracy, Israel would also be weakened as the national home of the Jewish people.

Firstly, demography. Nothing ensures the state’s Jewish national character better than a large Jewish majority. Nearly all the world’s Jews live in democratic countries, and there are concerns that if Israel’s democratic pillar should weaken, more Israelis would leave Israel and fewer Jews would come here, and we could potentially decrease the state’s Jewish majority.

Secondly, security. Our existence doesn’t depend solely on weapons and technology; it also depends on the younger generation’s motivation. A spirit of democracy that causes the individual to feel that the state is also his and that he has a chance of influencing its future, is crucial to the spirit of volunteerism and the willingness to serve the state.

Thirdly, the Jewish people. Most Diaspora Jews would not find a less-democratic Israel to be a viable source of inspiration in terms of their identity. Nor would Israel be able to count on their support at the same level. Moreover, a blow to minority rights in Israel could negatively affect the status of Jews as a minority in countries where they live.

Fourthly, the economy. The ability to protect life and to ensure quality of life for the state’s citizens also depends on the state’s economic prosperity. When we look at the GDP per capita of countries around the world we find a high correlation between democracy and economic strength. Thus, over time, a weakened democracy could also lead to a weaker economy.

Fifthly, international support. Israel needs an international protective umbrella. That was the case when Herzl decided in Basel that the national home would be internationally legally assured, and it is the case today, when we need the support of the UN Security Council in our struggle against attempts to harm us. An Israel retreating from democracy would enjoy less support and protection in the global arena.

The Jewish and democratic state

The two legs on which Israel stands – the national and the democratic – are crucial to its existence. An attempt to shorten or lengthen one leg could cause the body to lose its equilibrium and fall. However, the existence of the state on these two equal legs poses significant challenges that future generations will have to address and resolve.

What are these challenges?

To remain one people

A century after the house of Saul was established, the United Monarchy split into two kingdoms, Judah and Israel. A century after the Maccabean victory over the Greeks, Judea was conquered by Rome, once more against a background of internal discord. Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed. The greatest fear is that the same thing will happen to us a third time. It sometimes seems as though we have a self-destruct mechanism. During the great revolt against the Romans, Jews murdered Jews in Jerusalem. Even deep in the abyss of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jews didn’t succeed to join forces in resistance. Internal solidarity, the sense that “all Jews are responsible for each other,” is an existential asset for Israel. Seventy-five years after the founding of the state, our cohesion is in danger. Israeli society is divided into tribes, and tension between them is growing. Populist leaders are fueling people’s fear of each other. At the same time, Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora is challenged by the enormous difference between the Jewish experience in Israel and the Jewish experience in the Diaspora. Our national resilience depends on the sense of fraternity between us, no less than it depends on security. If we allow ourselves to give way to hatred, we could fall for a third time. Safeguarding our unity needs to be a central national objective. Mutual respect needs to be a way of life for us. Leaders who incite should be punished at the ballot box. Every tribe needs to accept that defeating a fellow tribe would be disastrous for everyone, including the victorious tribe itself. Internal compromise is not a dirty word. It’s a clear and present need.

Treatment of minorities

Our starting assumption is that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. Clearly, therefore, the state’s Arab minority cannot feel entirely comfortable in it. This problem is impossible to do away with, but it is possible to mitigate it. Full equality of individual rights, along with the provision of special minority rights, such as a separate education system, separate religious services, recognition of Arabic as an official language, and the like, are crucial in order for the minority to tolerate the inferiority that arises from the fact of being a minority. Full civil equality, fair treatment by the state and the majority, and special status for minorities, without derogating from the state’s role as the national home of the Jewish people, do not weaken the state. Rather, they reduce the danger of it being threatened from within. The good of the Arabs should be in the interest of the Jews.

The Haredim are also regarded as a minority that does not accept all of the state’s norms. Haredi women do not enjoy equality, Haredi youth do not enjoy a broad education that enables one to earn a decent living, and freedom of choice in Haredi society is limited. In my opinion, it is wrong for the majority to impose its values on the minority, except on matters of supreme importance. For example: imposing life-saving medical care for children – yes; imposing core studies – not necessarily. I am not certain where the line should be drawn, and we risk the slippery slope. However, the danger posed by culture war is greater, in my view, than the danger of the slippery slope.

Majority rights

It is the right of the majority to preserve the state’s basic national character. The nation-state is founded on recognition of the differences between population groups. At the heart of the principle of self-definition lies an acknowledgement of the right of separate groups to form political frameworks that allow them to preserve and to develop their unique character. It thus seems reasonable to me for the state to be allowed to institute immigration rules specific to it that maintain the state’s majority population. Israel’s Law of Return is worthy and desirable. The right of immigration for Jews does not result from their familial relationship with Israel’s Jewish citizens, but rather from the basic purpose of the state as a national home for the entire Jewish people. Such is also the case with the right to protect the state’s cultural character. I therefore do not regard it as inappropriate for Israel’s national anthem to be based on the majority nationality’s foundational story, for the country’s symbols to be those of the majority, for the majority’s holidays to be official state holidays, for Hebrew to be the official language, and more. Here as well there is a slippery slope. Giving too much weight to the majority’s right to preserve the state’s character could potentially undermine the basic rights of the minority and create an atmosphere of exclusion from the public realm. The majority should be restrained from using its power to excess. Basic laws that protect human and minority rights, as well as independent courts are essential for that purpose.

Creating an Israeliness for all citizens of the state

Although Israel’s birth was accompanied by an existential confrontation between Jews and Arabs, coexistence between the two populations has given rise to indications of a common Israeliness. Workplaces and places of commerce are largely shared; hospitals are major points of encounter between doctors, healthcare staff, patients and families from both peoples; many shopping centers are full of both Jews and Arabs; the language of the Arabs living in Israel is no longer entirely identical to the Arabic of neighboring countries, and includes many Hebrew expressions; the Hebrew spoken by Israel’s Jews includes Arabic terms; and Jews and Arabs share many interests – both groups want a strong economy, a decent welfare policy, and an active democracy.

We would all benefit if, alongside our separate national identities, we could expand our common ground, the Israeliness that belongs to all of us. Israel’s stability and prosperity would be greatly enhanced by the development of a common Israeliness alongside Jewish and Arab identities.

The Jewish nation-state and the state of all its citizens

For years disagreement has prevailed in Israel about whether the state’s definition as “Jewish” should be maintained, or whether Israel should be regarded as the state of all its citizens. Does one of these definitions contradict the other? The opposition expressed by many Jews to the “state of all its citizens” definition stems from concerns that it would negate the state’s character as the national home of the Jewish people. By contrast, many Arabs fear that the “Jewish” definition and the opposition of Jews to the “all its citizens” definition reflect an assumption that the Arabs do not share ownership of the state, that they are like apartment tenants over whom the threat of transfer looms. When the tension between the two definitions is perceived as a zero-sum game, there is indeed no room for compromise.

But this is a mistake. Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, and it has a unique status and role toward that people. A democratic state is, by its very nature, the state of all its citizens. Israel has a dual identity: like all democracies, it belongs to all of its citizens, and as a national state it has meaning to, and responsibility toward, the Jewish people. The contradiction between these two identities is not inevitable. By virtue of their citizenship, the Arabs too      can be considered owners, shareholders with equal rights and a defined minority status, while at the same time the state continues to preserve its national essence for the Jewish people.

Responsible and courageous leadership on both sides, a leadership that has the country’s future in mind and not just the next round of elections, is required to set the desired change in motion. Jewish leaders must make it clear, to both Jews and Arabs, that there is no intention of expelling the Arabs, that their civil equality will not be compromised, and that their standing as a minority is legitimate. Arab leaders must clearly convey, to both Arabs and Jews, that they accept the fact of Israel being both a state of all its citizens and the national home of the Jewish people.

A combination of leadership and education would have the power to ease anxieties and engender the desired historic consensus and peace at home: the State of Israel – the nation-state of the Jewish people and the state of all its citizens.

Sallai Meridor is a former Chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, and served as the Israeli Ambassador to the United States.