An old issue – how does Israel define itself – has now been resurrected and has come to the fore in the Knesset. Is Israel a Jewish state? Is it a democratic state? Is it a pluralistic state that represents the plurality of its citizens and, if so, should it make any pronouncements as to its ethnic, cultural, or religious identity? How is Judaism defined in the state? What role does Turkish law, HaMaharah, play in the modern Israeli society?
These are all questions that are being debated in light of the Cabinet’s recent approval of the “Jewish state” bill and its consideration by the Knesset. To some people these questions may reflect an exercise in semantics, and their response may be, “This is such a waste of time.” Yet, what they should realize is that both the body – the political borders of the State of Israel – and the soul of the state have continually been under discussion by the international community and the body politic of Israel.
Although the international community carved out a piece of the State of Israel from an area known as Palestine, which had earlier been part of the Ottoman Empire and then a British Mandate, there was never any agreement on its final borders. In 1948 an armistice line was drawn to end the fighting that was initiated after the United Nations voted to create the State of Israel. After its creation Israel continued to defend itself and fight for its survival in a series of wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006, and 2014. After 66 years of existence Israel continues to fight for its political and geographic integrity in a world that at best has ambivalent feelings about Jews and their right to live in the Land of Israel.
This continual struggle for Israel’s legitimacy has an impact both of the citizens of the state and on Jews who live in communities around the world. For those of us who live in Israel there is an ever-present feeling of insecurity in face of the militaristic threats from those countries and the radical groups that seek our destruction. For Jews around the world there is a fear that the Jewish people will face another Holocaust, God forbid. Perhaps this is why a sense of vigilance pervades the Jewish people’s perspective on the world, as well as that of the political entities that make decisions that affect the present and future existence of the State of Israel.
There is little sense of security, and the Jewish people’s guard is never relaxed. The present Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement is proof that the world does not truly accept an independent political entity with its own governmental structure and geographic area for the Jewish people. In spite of what takes place in other countries – their acts of genocide, torture, and ruthless slaying of innocent civilians – Israel continues to be in the spotlight as responsible for the absence of peace in the Middle East. So much for the world’s righteousness as the battle for Israel’s political and physical existence continues.
Within the State of Israel there is no unanimity on the meaning of Jewish or Israeli identity. There are disagreements internal to those who identify as Jews, and there is even more angst when it comes to defining who is an Israeli, particularly those citizens of the state who do not identify as Jews. Depending on how individuals define themselves they either want a state governed by Jewish law, or one governed as a religious democratic state, or a state identified with Judaism but not imposing Jewish law on the Jewish citizens of the country.
This lack of unity on whom and what we are only exacerbates the tensions among the various religious groups and among those who define themselves as secular. It does not matter whether we are focused on Judaism, Christianity, or Islam: not only is there no modicum of clarity as to the role religion plays in Israel society but there is even less acceptance of difference among the various religious groupings. All of these issues are rolled into the present debate about whether a law defining Israel as a Jewish, Jewish democratic or democratic Jewish state is something that should be passed by the Knesset.
It is unfortunate that more disagreements than points of consensus are being expressed in the Knesset debates, newspaper editorials, and public discussions. Perhaps it is a sign that Israel still needs to go through a maturational process that will allow people to find a way to listen to each other, engage with each other, and accept their differences, rather than just continue to dig into their own positions. This lack of understanding of the importance of societal plurality also prevents Israel from speaking with one voice in an international forum.
If the social fabric of Israeli society begins to unravel, then it will be tragic and the monumental gains made by this young creative country during its first 66 years will give way to an internal process of political and social disintegration. Let us hope the politicians and religious and civic leaders can confront the real issues and concentrate on strengthening the unity of the state; let us hope they can work to emphasize the constructive aspects of diversity, rather than the destructive aspects of differences.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.