Democracy in Israel: How Jewish Can the State Be?

By Zackary Sholem Berger

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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How Jewish can a democratic state be?

That was the question at the heart of political philosopher Michael Walzer’s recent lecture, “The Jewish State and the Democratic Tradition.” Walzer, editor in chief of Dissent magazine and a professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, delivered the keynote address earlier this month at a conference titled “The Jewish State and the Democratic Tradition,” sponsored by the Israel Studies Project of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The conference also included two panels addressing different aspects of Israel as a democratic state, one on cultural issues and another on its political and legal structure. Participants included Yael Zerubavel of Rutgers University, who spoke about major themes in modern Israeli literature; Martin Edelman of the State University of New York at Albany on the functioning of Israel’s political system; and Malvina Halberstam of Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law spoke on legal and constitutional issues in Israel’s democracy.

But it was Walzer’s address that gave the conference its context. He began by asserting that Jewish emancipation is irreversible because of the severe weakening of thesemiautonomous communal structure called the kahal that until two centuries ago dominated Jewish communal affairs in Europe. Today, Jewish communities in the Diaspora are either built around loose associations of like-minded individuals, as they are in the United States, or remnants of the kahal system, as in many European countries. Under either system, Jews can effectively opt in or out of the communal structure. The only truly comprehensive, self-sufficient Jewish political entity is Israel. What sort of entity should it be? What meaning should be attached to the adjective “Jewish” in the phrase “Jewish state”?

According to the strong sense of the adjective, state power would be used to reverse the Haskalah (enlightenment) and reduce the number of ways of being Jewish. However, Walzer claimed, there is no way in which a post-emancipation Jewish state can represent only one sort of Judaism (that is, the sort sought by the ultra-Orthodox) –– for in that case “there would have to be an additional adjective.” Israel would be not a state in which all Jews can see themselves, but an Orthodox Jewish state.

What, then, should be the liberal conception of a Jewish state? Such an Israel need not be neutral, devoid of cultural or religious identity: It could provide a protective structure, but “loose” and “latitudinarian,” allowing for a rich variety of approaches to Judaism within a majority Jewish culture. “Won’t this lead to the lowest common denominator?” Walzer asked rhetorically. “Yes!” he answered, “But this doesn’t mean kitsch, it doesn’t mean ‘low’ in the sense of common or base.” It would be a “distillation of Jewish history and values in which almost any Jew can recognize themselves.”

The public sphere of Israel, Walzer said, should be Jewish, with a Jewish calendar, plus Jewish holidays, public ceremonies and school curricula; its culture would partake of Jewish poetry, philosophy and fiction. Rabbis and decisors of rabbinic law would also participate, Walzer said, but would be limited to exercising “the authority of their persuasiveness.” These religious figures would be legislators the way Percy Shelley saw poets as “legislators of the human race” — speculatively and intellectually.

What would such an Israel look like? Walzer gave two possibilities from the history of post-religious states: It might be like Ireland in the time of James Joyce, “priest-ridden and parochial” and a negative influence on its writers, or like France in the age of Georges Clemenceau, “anti-clerical and secularist, home to the avant-garde.”

Walzer left the hardest question for last. How does the adjective “Jewish” apply to the Arab minority living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders and the Palestinians living in the territories? Attempts to transcend Jewish-Arab differences by the use of the term “Semite” are not historically or culturally realistic; “Israeli” as a non-Jewish descriptor still does not exist. Arabs, however, could exist in Israel as a cultural minority in the same way that Arabs live in France — not legally discriminated against, yet not part of the majority society. The problem with this solution, Walzer asserted, is that in the case of a Jewish state, Arabs will always be at the margins. Nevertheless, he said that he hoped the issue would play out in a liberal fashion, one in which the Arabs should have a role in determining the meaning of the word “Jewish” in Jewish state.

Complicating the issue is the possibility of the Arab minority one day becoming the majority as a result of rapid population growth. Is there a solution that salvages both liberal-democratic principles and the Jewish nature of the state? Bi-nationalism may have been a solution in Belgium, but closer to home — in Lebanon and Cyprus — it hasn’t worked. Either way, a bi-national model would probably undermine the Jewish character of the state.

Walzer foresees two options. The first would be the fulfillment of the right-wing’s dream of a Greater Israel. But to maintain a Jewish majority, Walzer said, would require the expulsion of the area’s Arab population. Though unlikely, Walzer warned that this would be a “black mark on the Jewish people.” Jews aware of their own Diaspora history would identify with the Palestinians, who would then be comparable to the exiled Jews of Spain.

Alternatively, Walzer said, a “little Israel” might be able to coexist with a “little Palestine.” Israel would then be engaged in a Kulturkampf between secularists and the ultra-Orthodox. But “a cultural war isn’t so bad,” Walzer said. “It’s better than the other kind.”

Zackary Sholem Berger is a contributor to the Yiddish Forward.

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