By Arieh Saposnik, Associate Professor at the Ben-Gurion Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev.  Saposnik headshot

A century ago, world Jewry faced impossible challenges. Persecuted and pauperised, it confronted a devastating crisis of culture, identity, and faith. Somehow, from within this great malaise, European Jewry produced giants able to reshape the fate of Jews in the twentieth century.

The intellectual stature of an Ahad Ha’am or a Bialik, the vision and daring of a David Ben-Gurion, the almost prophetic eccentricity of an Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, converged to transform what appeared to be a moribund Jewish life into a vibrant, Hebrew-speaking society, living today in an ethnically diverse, technologically sophisticated, and culturally effervescent democracy.

As Europe abandoned its liberal ideals and turned toward authoritarian, xenophobic and often anti-Semitic regimes, Zionism largely maintained its earlier commitment. The Jewish renaissance it sought was part and parcel of the last century’s struggle for liberation, human rights and social justice. The crowning achievement of this effort was the establishment of a Hebrew-speaking society and culture living in a Jewish democratic state.

“From generation to generation we are diminished,” one sixteenth century text teaches. “And if the first [sages] were as giants, we are but gnats.” This seems painfully true in the history of Zionism and Israel.

The current government of Israel seems determined to erode Zionism’s near-miraculous achievements. The farcical saga (and cynical political games) surrounding the “Jewish nationhood bill” is but the most recent, and perhaps the most painfully ironic attempt to do so.

The context is a government with members seemingly committed to questioning Zionism’s combination of particularism and universalism. This combination informed the state’s establishment as inherently both Jewish and democratic. Sure, dual commitment has posed challenges since Israel’s birth, but Israeli history is the story of a tantalisingly balancing act on this tight-rope. Facing often outrageous challenges, Israel became both the national home of the Jews and a living democracy – a flawed but stunningly successful experiment in democratic values and legal structure.

One challenge to this has always been the charge that a Jewish state cannot also be democratic (an often willful distortion of the meaning of Jewish statehood, and of democracy). But far more disturbing is the realisation that key members of Israel’s government have now essentially endorsed the view that the Jewishness and democracy of the state cannot coexist. The bill, we are told by its proponents, stems from the need to ‘prioritise the Jewishness of the state over its democratic character’.

The leading version of the bill explains at length the ways in which the state’s Jewishness must be manifest. Many paragraphs detail expressions of the state’s Jewishness: the national anthem, flag, holidays, Jewish historical bond to the Land and the ingathering of the Jewish exiles. But on democracy it says little more than noting that the state “will have a democratic regime.” It is unclear what this is expected to mean, and seems to indicate little more than a parliamentary structure based on majority-rule.

What this neglects – and what Israel’s Proclamation of Independence makes clear – is that democracy is in fact much more than a majority-rule regime. Democracies, as the Proclamation of Independence states, are based on democratic principles—on “freedom, justice and peace … equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex … freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”. Indeed, the legal and political technicalities of how democracies function, far from fetishising majority-rule, are often designed precisely to guard against tyrannies of the majority (or minority) in the interest of protecting these values.

To argue, as MK Avi Dichter does, that the Proclamation of Independence does not mention the word “democracy” is to miss the point, and demonstrate a misunderstanding of the meaning of democracy. The Proclamation need not make recourse to the word precisely because it is a self-evident corollary to the values that the state it established is compelled to uphold.

As opposed to the anti-Zionist accusation that Israel, as a Jewish state, is not and cannot be democratic, I remain firmly convinced of what I see as a fundamental Zionist tenet—that the two are of a piece, and that Israel must be both the Jewish national home and a democracy. This is the tension of an indissoluble bond, a yin-yang of modern Jewish life. To question this twofold nature of the Jewish state is to undermine its very foundations and to undercut the State of Israel itself.

In the name of a Zionism it has hijacked, this government is pushing the miracle of the Jewish renaissance down an anti-Zionist path. Those who would besmirch Zionism as inherently undemocratic will be cheering at the work being done on their behalf.