It was a question that took me by surprise.
“Why do you care so much about democracy anyway,” a friend asked me during a break between heated arguments at the last World Zionist Congress. I wasn’t used to the question, as most people I talk to generally agree that democracy – while not perfect – is a good thing.
“I mean, we only have one Jewish State, and I’m not necessarily against democracy per se, but when push comes to shove [and it most likely will] then I will be forced to choose the Jewishness of the State over democracy,” he continued to explain.
We, in the Reform Movement, espouse the concept of Israel as a Jewish and democratic State. As journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi simply stated: “Israel is based on two non-negotiable identities. The homeland of all Jews, whether or not they are citizens of Israel, and it’s the state of all its citizens, whether or not they are Jews.”
Yet, as it turns out, maybe in today’s reality one of those is negotiable. Some Israelis were outraged by PM Netanyahu’s recent public announcement that he would annex parts of the Jordan valley and the West Bank, but others didn’t bat an eye.
Many dismiss this as empty campaign rhetoric posed as an attempt to woo voters away from right-wing parties to vote Likud, and its cavalier use entrenches the belief that the majority of Israelis have come to terms with the possibility of prioritizing a Jewish State over a democracy.
According to pollster Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin writing this week in the Washington Post:
“In the July 2017 survey, we asked: “Do you support or oppose the annexation of Area C, which includes 60 percent of Judea-Samaria/the West Bank where most of the settlers are located, the Jordan Valley, and about 300,000 Palestinians who will receive full Israeli citizenship?”
Forty-three percent of all Israelis supported the Area C annexation. Among Jews, 45 percent supported it (49 percent in May), and 35 percent among Arabs. However, as an experiment, only half of the respondents were asked the question above (in two surveys, thus providing a full sample).
In each survey, the remaining half of respondents were asked the same question but told Palestinians would be permanent residents rather than full Israeli citizens and, thus, unable to vote for the Knesset (like East Jerusalem Palestinians). This time 52 percent of Jews supported the idea, confirming the May study which showed 54 percent support among Jews. Among Israelis who defined themselves as right-wing, two-thirds supported such a move in the July study. These are the voters Netanyahu is courting.”
Now, this shows a change from the past.
Sometime around the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, a majority of Israelis woke up to realize that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. That the three principles and desires of the Jewish state were in fact mutually exclusive:
1. A Jewish State, or a State with a majority of Jewish people with the right to self-determination (we’ll leave the question of “Who is a Jew?” for a different discussion).
2. A democratic State, which according to a 2007 project of the Israeli Democracy Institute, the State of Israel as a democratic country is manifested by two basic principles. The first is the recognition of the dignity of man qua man, and the second, derived from the first, is the recognition of the values of equality and tolerance. Democracy’s basic principles require equal treatment of all those included as citizens of the State, without regard to their ethnic, religious,
3. The Greater Land of Israel. To retain the land conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Anyone familiar with this conundrum knows that it’s impossible to maintain a Jewish majority, hold on to land while ruling over millions of non-citizen Palestinians, and also be a democracy. This requires us to choose which central principle we would be willing to give up.
In the end, mainstream Israel, somewhat painfully (and at times by a narrow majority) came to the conclusion that the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel was more important than the vision of the Greater Land of Israel.
Thus, was born the equation of ‘Land for Peace’. Meaning that Israel will give up land to its Arab neighbors/Palestinians in exchange for a peace treaty or an ‘End of Conflict’ agreement. This worked with Egypt in the 1979 Camp David Peace accords in which Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for recognition and open borders, and with Jordan in 1994. Of course, no one claims that we harbor great love for each other, and Egyptians are not sending their kids on Birthright nor are they welcoming the Ministry of Tourism to set up shop in central Cairo, but the border has been relatively quiet for the past four decades and a cold peace is always preferable to a hot war.
This equation ended in tragedy with the Palestinians as the Oslo peace process tanked in the summer of 2000, and shortly afterward deadly violence broke out. Today, sadly, the prospects of ‘End of Conflict’ and the establishment of a Palestinian State are exceedingly improbable, and while Israel is not to blame solely for the impasse – and I believe wholeheartedly that the Israeli efforts for peace were genuine and sincere – the Prime Minister’s recent remarks about annexation, which would solidify Israel’s hold over disputed territory, pose a serious and fundamental question challenging the foundation of a Jewish and democratic State.
Democracy is not a given.
As political scientist Paul Eidelberg points out:
“Democracy is a relatively recent and still far-from-universal human achievement; if we posit universal suffrage, including women, as part of the minimal criteria, there were no democracies at all until the early twentieth century, and only twenty-three states have been continuously democratic since the immediate post-World War II period. All of these are relatively well-developed, prosperous nations; all but Israel, India, Costa Rica, and Japan are in Western Europe, North America, or the British Commonwealth.”
So, it is something of a wonder that Israel, in the Middle East, nevertheless insists on democracy, especially this week as Netanyahu’s campaign speech was cut short due to rocket attacks on the Southern city of Ashdod.
Should we be bothered by this?
Anything that risks either the Jewish or democratic nature of the State should bother us. Deeply.
Our continual advocacy for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic expresses the notion that the Jewish nation-state is an ideal in which cultural boundaries match up with political ones.
Annexing Area C (which was not exactly what the PM suggested) would cause our political boundaries to exceed our ethnic and cultural ones.
That’s the more technical answer.
After my friend posed the question to me, I paused, thought a bit and responded.
It comes down to one simple rationale. If we fail to uphold equal treatment of all citizens of the State, regardless of their ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic affiliations, or continue to rule over people without a vote or political rights, then not only doe lose Israel as a democratic state, but according to Torah that I read, we also lose it as a Jewish State.