The Imperative of a Pluralistic, Jewish, and Democratic State of Israel

While I deeply believe that Israel should be a Jewish as well as democratic state, there are many ways to be a Jewish state without elevating one expression of Judaism over the others and denying the fundamental rights of so many Jewish citizens, and without denying non-Jewish citizens equal rights.

The question is urgent: What should the foundational principles and practices of a Jewish and democratic state be? Israel at 75 is still grappling deeply with this question. Most liberal Jews can’t imagine a Jewish state that is not democratic, while the converse is also unimaginable – a State of Israel that isn’t fundamentally Jewish. The balance between the Jewish character and its democratic norms is being tested daily. There are those who would easily sacrifice Israel’s democracy in favor of their view of Jewishness. Driven by Jewish supremacy, this growing cohort of Israelis refuses to subject their ultra-nationalist commitments to the moderating imperatives of a functioning democracy. And at the very same moment, there are those who feel that Israel’s democracy is fundamentally compromised by Jewish imperatives, whether religious, cultural or historical. Though complex and challenging, I am deeply committed to the Jewish and democratic pillars of Israel forever being integrated in dynamic tension without either prevailing.

While I deeply believe that Israel should be a Jewish as well as democratic state, there are many ways to be a Jewish state without elevating one expression of Judaism over the others and denying the fundamental rights of so many Jewish citizens, and without denying non-Jewish citizens equal rights.

Pluralism and equality aren’t favors granted or denied by benevolent Israeli leaders but rather fundamental rights within a democracy. Non-Orthodox Jews will not tolerate the sale of our rights for political expediency. The argument that when Israel has more Reform and Conservative Jews, whether home-grown or through aliyah, they will demand their religious and legal rights, is not how democracies are supposed to work. Fundamental rights should not be subject to majoritarian vote or legislative decision. Minority rights must be protected as fully as those of the majority. Israel must no longer remain the sole democracy in the world that sanctions legal discrimination against Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews (and increasingly Modern Orthodox Jews as well). In denying them the right to engage in State-recognized life cycle ceremonies, in accordance with their conscience, performed by their rabbis, on the same basis as most Orthodox Jews; in denying their Jewish institutions the same support that most Orthodox institutions receive, their fundamental rights are violated, and Israel’s democratic character is diminished.

In recent years, one part of this struggle has focused on creating an egalitarian, pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel. A victory for equal rights at the Kotel is important both intrinsically and symbolically. Making the Western Wall an image of Jewish equality would be a concrete step to create momentum throughout the Jewish state toward ensuring religious and civil equality – in matters of marriage, conversion, support for synagogues, rabbis, schools, and more – for all streams of Judaism and for secular Jews as well.

The overarching view of Judaism for Zionist thinkers is the notion that Jews are fundamentally a people. But Jewish peoplehood must not be a concept of empty tribalism. Rather, peoplehood should embody our Jewish tradition’s core values of responsibility for the safety, dignity, and welfare of all members of the Jewish people no matter their Jewish beliefs or practices. Jewish peoplehood must also obligate social justice and ethics, as inspired by Jewish tradition – protecting the widow and the orphan, providing for the poor, the hungry and the ger (the non-Jewish resident sojourner), making real the mandate of Pirkei Avot: “On three things the world endures – truth, justice and peace.” (Mishna 18a) This stance is fully in keeping with important strands of Zionist thought, expressed by such influential thinkers as Ahad Ha’am, A.D. Gordon, Martin Buber, Henrietta Szold, and Judah Magnes. We, like them, must work for an Israel – a Jewish state – that will be a light unto the nations.

Zionist values of justice are embedded in the words of these earlier prophetic Zionist leaders; so, too, are they embedded in our belief in the need to strengthen democracy, the rights of minorities, and the ability of each individual to live life to their fullest potential. These values are incompatible with ultra-nationalist states in which the ethnic, religious, or racial-national character serves as a justification for depriving minorities of political, economic, or cultural rights. In the United States and Canada, the Jewish people have known more rights, more freedoms, and more opportunities than ever in the history of diasporic Jewish life – and the remarkably robust religious, cultural, and scholarly Jewish life in North America has much to offer Jews throughout the world, including in Israel.

Throughout the centuries, Jews have lived under authoritarian rulers where our fate was precarious. In democratic countries, our safety and freedom have been most effectively protected, which is yet another reason why Israel’s democracy must be protected and strengthened.

The modern State of Israel was founded mostly by people who were fleeing oppression and persecutions – from Russian Czars to European dictators and Middle Eastern monarchs. Israel’s founders created a more enlightened democratic form of government. For some Zionist thinkers, the idea of the rabbinate as a leadership meritocracy opened to all (males, at least) that provided legislative and judicial branches of government committed to the rule of law, were seen as proto-democratic institutions. The Talmud’s insistence that minority and majority opinions be heard and recorded, thus creating a free marketplace of ideas, were concepts that spurred Israel’s democracy. Israel’s founding narrative of oppressed people fleeing persecution and seeking opportunity, safety, and freedom – particularly religious freedom – and our embrace of democratic values, was indispensable to achieving such a nation.

Yet, as of late, there is a deep concern that democratic norms are facing dangerous challenges in Israel and around the world. Indeed, we are witnessing an alarming erosion of such norms, as reflected in the alarming increase in autocracies and the growing suppression of human rights. Religious leaders can be powerful voices for protecting democracy in our respective countries, or they may be the very people who most threaten democracies.

Regrettably, Israel does not have any real separation of religion and state that serves as a bulwark against religious coercion and privilege. While this is not the only model for securing religious freedom and equality, what is most disturbing is that Israel’s lack of separation was used to give Orthodox Judaism the power and authority to oversee and control much of Jewish religious life and the personal status of Israel’s Jewish citizens. Under both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Israel’s Declaration of Independence, no one’s rights as a citizen should depend on their religious beliefs, identity, or peaceful practices. Yet millions of Israelis – non-Orthodox Jews, non-religious citizens, and members of some more recently-arrived minority religions in Israel are denied basic rights to marry or to divorce in accordance with their religious conscience. We may all agree that the only Jewish state should center Judaism in important ways, such as having the official calendar follow the Jewish tradition’s holidays, having state references to Jewish heritage, inculcating Jewish culture, and teaching Judaism in its schools Jews attend. But when it comes to the state recognizing life-cycle ceremonies of only one stream of Judaism, or when it provides massive funding to only one expression of Judaism, the state has rejected religious equality for many of its Jewish citizens and is acting in a way that weakens its democracy and alienates large numbers of Jews in Israel and across the globe

The legitimacy of Israel as a nation-state should be judged just as we would judge any other nation-state. If, in the name of the Jewish character of the state, the Arab minority in Israel is deprived of its rights, the very legitimacy of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation-state will be damaged.

Unfortunately, the Nation-State Bill that passed in July 2018 with a vote of 62 to 55, after years of political debate, has become one of Israel’s Basic Laws taking on quasi-constitutional force. Efforts to have the law include a clear provision for the fundamental principle of equality, have been repeatedly rejected. This controversial law demotes the place of Arabic language and culture as it privileges Jews in almost all matters of the state. The new law is a blow to Palestinian citizens of Israel who constitute 20 percent of Israel citizens. It grants legitimacy to their feeling of second-class citizenship.

The largest threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is the continuing occupation of the West Bank where Israeli Jews live under Israeli law, vote in Israeli elections, and live next to disenfranchised Palestinians who have little say in basic aspects of their lives.

It is no secret that the growing strength of the settler movement is focused on expanding settlements throughout the West Bank with the hope of one day annexing the entire territory. Such a move would end the possibility of a two-state solution, which is indispensable for any realistic peace agreement. Annexation of the land and population of the West Bank would eliminate Israel’s Jewish majority thus undermining the very Zionist enterprise of a safe and secure Jewish and democratic state. Annexation would be a one-state solution that denies Palestinians any claim to sovereignty. Even though everyone agrees that we are nowhere near achieving a two-state solution, without even the possibility of this option, Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state would be imperiled.

As a diverse and strong Jewish people, we should relish our pluralism and celebrate the strength of our commitment to democratic values that has allowed our people to flourish through the centuries. Zionism must be more than what Israeli politicians say or do. Authentic Judaism is much more diverse than whatever the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate proclaims. Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state must remain a core commitment if Israel is to be the inspiring and safe Jewish homeland, embodying the most noble and essential values of both Judaism and democracy.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is President of the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization for North American Reform Judaism, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.