Feeling at Home in a Jewish and Democratic Israel

If Israel leans sharply toward one “side” and greatly disfavors one of these two pillars – Jewishness or democracy – it will lose its distinct moral character. It must be agreed that these values-based pillars will continue to serve as a robust basis for any structure built upon them.

I was born to a mother who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox home, and to a father who grew up in a Religious Zionist home. I was raised as a Zionist-religious-nationalist-liberal. The State of Israel is my home. I’ve devoted many years of my life, in various ways, to its security and to reinforcing its Jewish-democratic identity. Do I feel at home in it?

The State of Israel is a national home for the Jewish people. The first thing that characterizes a home is a sense of belonging. When I come home, I want to “feel at home.” But in Israel, after 75 years of independence, no one seems to feel entirely at home. The daughters and sons of the country’s Arab minority can, at most, identify with the state’s political and economic prowess and appreciate the quality services and opportunities it provides them as well, but the state’s emphatic Jewishness will never allow them to feel completely at home here. It seems that even among Jews the sense of being at home is eroding. Secular and Masorti (traditionalist) Jews feel that Israel is becoming religious and oppressive; the ultra-Orthodox and the religious, on the other hand, feel that the state is secular and live with a sense of exclusion from its non-religious core. Can the tension that all these groups experience vis-à-vis the Israeli public space be resolved? Can Israel become a home for all?

“It is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations,” said the biblical diviner Balaam of the Jewish people. We might likewise say of the State of Israel: “a state that shall dwell alone.” Israel is special; it is different from other countries.

Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. But unlike other nation-states where religion is not a basic defining element, the fundamental defining element of the Jewish nation-state is Jewishness. Israel, as noted in its patchwork constitutional framework, is a Jewish (and democratic) state. Its Jewishness is an identity component arising from an indissoluble mixture of religiosity and nationalism in the value-system sense, and of religious affiliation with the Jewish people. Therefore, while in other nation-states an immigrant or someone belonging to a minority can usually choose to feel at home within his or her new national identity, however imperfectly, a non-Jew will never be nationally “at home” in the Jewish nation-state, as he or she lacks a central component of the state’s identity. This uniqueness is both a blessing and a challenge. Over the course of 125 years of Zionism and 75 years of Israeli statehood, the state’s founders and their successors tried, and we in our turn are still trying, to create an ethical, organizational, and social integration of opposing elements: Jewishness as a secular national identity associated with humanistic values, and Jewishness rooted in religion. Holding this combination together sometimes requires the skills of a magician. After 75 years of sovereignty much has been achieved, but the task of shaping the state’s identity is still before us, and it will be the task of every new generation to address in order to maintain and at the same time advance the Jewish state’s flourishing.

At the turn of the 20th century, borne on the waves of the Springtime of the Nations in Europe, the Zionist visionaries sought to establish a Jewish nation-state in Eretz Israel. From the First Zionist Congress in 1897 until today, the challenge of Jewishness and how to define it has troubled, one might even say haunted, the Jewish state. “What constitutes the Jewishness of the Jewish state?” the early Zionists asked themselves, and the Jews and Israeli citizens of the 21st century are wondering the same thing.

Theodor Herzl, the visionary of the state, and many of the Zionist thinkers who preceded Israel’s founding, wanted a Jewish Israel, but one whose Jewishness would differ from the Jewishness they had known in the past. They embarked on a historical project of secularizing Judaism and sifting out the religious components that had been at its core at least since the Jews lost their political connection to the Land of Israel with the destruction of the Second Temple. David Ben-Gurion and his fellow founders of the state were, by and large, partners in this effort. They wanted a Jewish state, but one where the religious aspects of Jewishness had only a marginal presence and as little influence as possible.

After three generations of sovereign existence, it appears that their enterprise has failed. In the U.S. News and World Report’s annual index of 85 countries, which ranks them by perceived religiosity, Israel took second place in 2022, just after Saudi Arabia. In 2021 Israel topped the rankings. That is, Israel was perceived by survey respondents as the most religious country in the world. Studies conducted within Israel also show that the religious sector is growing, and that the Israeli-Jewish population’s attachment to religion is trending upward. Moreover, the prevalence of legal arrangements on matters pertaining to religious norms demonstrates the failure of the attempt to establish a Jewish state where the religious dimension of Judaism would have no real foothold. Religion as an identity attribute of the Jewish nation-state is a fact. How does this affect Israel’s future?

A certain degree of identity chaos also characterizes the world’s most advanced and liberal countries, even those with written constitutions and long-established, stable governmental traditions. This chaos manifests in law and in practice. In the sense relevant to this discussion – that of characterizing the identity of the Jewish state – we are talking about the tension arising from the nature of Israel’s Jewishness. Tension also exists between the state’s Jewish, national, and religious identity and its liberal-democratic identity. These tensions cause Israel to appear more chaotic than other Western countries. Since the founding of the state and with greater intensity over the past four decades, Israel (in contrast to Western democracies with higher degrees of ideological uniformity) has been mired in a unrelenting clash between its “Jewish” and its “democratic” identity components – between its national-secular Jewish character and its emphatically religious Jewish character. This clash has resulted in a deep normative non-clarity, and a complete lack of consensus on the state’s basic identity elements. The conflict also has repercussions in the constitutional and regulatory spheres.

Israel does not have a written constitution. The debate over the meaning of its “Jewishness,” which has been underway since the early statehood years, is one of the reasons for this. But over time the state assembled a constitutional framework based on the Declaration of Independence and on Basic Laws enacted one by one over the state’s 75 years of existence. The Declaration of Independence, the Basic Laws enacted in 1992, and the 2018 “Nation-State Law” together established Israel’s dual, complicated character as a Jewish and democratic state. In so doing, these constitutional norms have been effectively built upon a foundation with an inherent potential for major conflict.

Disorder and non-consensus also reign in the regulatory sphere, i.e., regarding legislation with ramifications for the state’s identity.  On a number of issues relevant to all Israeli Jews and, indeed, to all Israelis – issues with a strong Jewish-religious dimension – regulation resembles a patchwork quilt. The two most significant and illustrative issues involve the questions of “who is a Jew” and how Jewishness should be defined for immigration purposes. But on other issues such as the status of women, Sabbath observance in the public sphere, the provision of religious services, or mandating equality when equality conflicts with religious doctrine – regulation can be like a jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing. On these issues there are also large gaps between the actual situation and what is mandated by legislation, and the enforcement of legal arrangements is weak.

These tensions undermine Israeli society. Because of this, attempts have been made over the years to reach mutually-acceptable arrangements on the main issues – through legislation, through High Court rulings, and through social contracts. In retrospect, and in light of the deepening divisions in Israeli society, the question arises whether there is any hope of forging an identity that would establish an ideological common denominator for Israeli society; whether the possibility exists of formulating arrangements that would express that identity; and whether an “end to the conflict” on the societal level is even conceivable.

My short answer is no. And for a longer answer: The question of the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and its democratic characteristics, especially given the tension that persists between them, and the nature of the state’s Judaism – national and religious – are fundamental questions of Israel’s identity. They touch the core of the existence and beliefs of Israel’s constituent ethnic groups (Jews and Arabs) and of Jewish identities (secular, traditional, religious, and Haredi). Each of these groups has a different perception of democracy. Not only that, but there is great variation between the different Jewish groups with regard to Judaism and its meaning for the state. The identity of any country, including Israel, does not remain static. Even in countries like the United States that have written and stable constitutions, questions that go to the heart of identity and identification for different subgroups are controversial matters that affect and alter the state’s identity – all the more so in Israel. Israel has no written and agreed-upon constitution, and its societal rifts along various mutable axes run deep. The probability of reaching an arrangement that would put an end to tensions over fundamental matters is slim.

Against the backdrop of a glorious Jewish history punctuated by brief periods of sovereignty, Israel’s founders had to create the miracle ex nihilo – the appropriate compound, a beacon of morality and the orderly structure of the Jewish state. They set out equipped with a magnificent intellectual-religious-ethical heritage, but a poor national heritage. Adopting an identity that rests on two pillars – religious values and liberal nationalism – each of which bears an important values-based load but with an inherent tension between – was itself an inspired move. The fusion of these values-based identities into a single functioning compound – a state – that stands proudly on both “pillars” is almost alchemical.  

Israel’s ideological-constitutional-regulatory portrait can be described as chaos, but also as a finely crafted mosaic. Over the decades of Israeli statehood, this mosaic has become richer and more diverse. It is reflected in the legal culture that has developed here, in intellectual writings on the state’s character and identity, as well as in the state’s everyday political, social, and even economic life, and is embedded in Israel’s constitutional norms. Were Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish thinker who was preoccupied with the idea of a future Jewish state, to visit modern Israel, he would undoubtedly be impressed by the way in which the basic Jewish values he helped to distill and refine have been integrated within the structural architecture of a modern Western state. We who live this reality on an everyday basis are oblivious to the miracle. But the broad perspective occasioned by the 75th anniversary of Israeli statehood will bring it to the fore.

In this reality, will the citizens of Israel – Jews and non-Jews – be able to feel at home in their country? One possible answer to this question lies in the distinction between Israel’s “private rooms” and its shared spaces, i.e., between localities and cities of a distinct character, and the neutral, pan-Israeli space. While Israelis living in homogeneous, single-identity localities will be able to feel entirely at home in those localities, they will nevertheless experience both the feeling of belonging and a sense of foreignness in the country’s shared spaces and in its shared ideological-legal realm. For if the daughters and sons of one group feel completely at home in the shared spaces, the daughters and sons of the other groups will by definition feel excluded.

Under these circumstances, the hope that the Jewish State of Israel and the Israeli society can agree upon a common Israeli identity to be etched in constitutional stone, an identity whose profile may be preserved over the long term, is in vain. Further, the realization of that hope could potentially entail privileging one side of the Israeli debate over another, and thus result in the exclusion of many Israelis. It is more reasonable for the two pillars to continue to serve as the state’s ethical/ideological foundation, while the precise structure resting upon them will change in accordance with the times. In the present state of affairs, this is also a more appropriate option than enshrining a constitution.

And even so, we must be aware of two dangers that lie in wait for us. First, if Israel leans sharply toward one “side” and greatly disfavors one of these two pillars – Jewishness or democracy – it will lose its distinct moral character. The second – and this is a danger that must be clear to all who treasure Israel’s existence as a Jewish state – is that the discord will devolve into an all-out civil war. And more: it must be agreed that both of these values-based pillars will continue to serve as a robust basis for any structure built upon them. The values of the Jewish State of Israel and the state’s Jewish constitutional, legal, and regulatory culture are nothing short of miraculous, and it is incumbent upon us all to foster, cultivate, and safeguard them at all costs.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is Vice President of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer in law at Peres Academic Center. A legal scholar, researcher on religion-and-state topics, author, and publicist.