Today we celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday. Among all that has been written and said about Israel’s myriad successes and future challenges, what has been forgotten is what exactly we should be celebrating and why? In other words, what is the Jewish state after 70 years?

There is no single, official all-encompassing definition of the ‘right’ way to be Jewish and the ‘wrong’ way to be Jewish. Herein lies the essence of the Jewish state: the ongoing debate about its very nature.

And this has been the case ever since the days of the First Zionist Congress.

Zionism and the state of Israel have always been sites of an ongoing and fierce debate about the very fundamental question of what it means to be the Jewish state.

What makes Israel a democracy is necessity. Israel is a democracy not because it has a beautifully-written constitution that guarantees it. It doesn’t. Israel is a democracy not because its founding parents read John Locke or John Stuart Mill. They may have, but they also read Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky.

Israel is a democracy because democracy was the only mechanism that was available to mediate and settle the fierce debates about what it meant to be the Jewish state.

Having spent more than 50 years fiercely debating the Zionist project, it was logical, if not very natural, to extend the debate to those groups who became citizens of the state of Israel, regardless of their views.

Dr. Einat Wilf

The state of Israel became a fierce debate over what it means to be the Jewish state, with the debate conducted now not only among Zionist Jews, but expanded to include the views of anti-Zionist Arabs and anti-Zionist Charedi Jews.

The elected parliament of Israel became a place where those who argued against the very existence of the state, or at the very least made it clear that they could very well do without it, were represented: something which does not exist in any other parliament in the world.

Seventy years after declaring independence, Israel is (by one reckoning) the world’s tenth oldest continuous democracy. It had universal suffrage from its first day – yes, Arab citizens too, and it has continued to operate without military coups, civil wars, or suspension of elections to this day, surviving even the assassination of a prime minister.

Its first Parliament sat in 1949 and was empowered by an electorate of all its adult citizens, counted equally.  Israel is one of only 20 or so countries (out of 200) that has been rated free by Freedom House in each of its annual reports since the organisation started keeping track of democracy around the world nearly half a century ago.

It is precisely this stunning achievement in such difficult conditions that makes Israel’s quite imperfect – necessarily imperfect – democracy such a fascinating topic. Anyone interested in democracy as such should be very interested in studying Israel, even if they have no interest in the specific Israeli story, Judaism, Zionism, or the conflict.

Israel is a democracy, but not everyone who participates in the democratic system is a democrat. In fact, many have decidedly undemocratic and certainly illiberal visions for the state and the society.

But since none of the non-democratic and illiberal forces within Israel are capable of imposing their will – as much as they may be very loud – Israel’s democracy remains vibrant.

Israel can boast of numerous other achievements in high-tech, agriculture and medicine, but perhaps none compares to sustaining 70 years of fierce debate.

And as we look to the future, the fact each of us has the feeling that there are
still ‘not enough of me and way too much of them’, means that we can all agree on
one thing – given how each one of us fears that ‘the others’ might take over, it’s far
better the debate continues, rather than it be settled.

  • A longer version of this piece can be read in the new issue of BICOM’s Fathom magazine