CAN ISRAEL BE BOTH A DEMOCRACY AND A JEWISH STATE?
As resources for this question, I refer the writer to Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality, edited by Elliot Dorff and Louis Newman, specifically chapters 29, 31 and 32 by Irving Greenberg, David Hartman and Einat Ramon respectively. I will quote from Greenberg’s entry, “The Ethics of Jewish Power.”
The question implies another: is it moral for the Jewish people to live without a state of their own? In the aftermath of the Shoah and the countless other massacres of Jews throughout our history, I would say the answer to the latter question is a resounding “no.” To be unable to rescue or protect Jews in distress; to be unable to provide a haven for all Jews would violate the words of Leviticus 18:5, “v’chai bahem,” “You must live by them.” We now have the power to protect the lives of Jews. It would be sinful not to use it.
It is also immoral to demand that Israel be perfect in all ways. Greenberg writes, “to insist on perfection – that Israel must never fail the highest standard – is to deny its right to exist.” (p. 417) The messiah has not come yet. No state will be without blemish in its execution of power.
What are necessary for the moral exercise of power – and what Israel has – are three related and essential elements of a democracy: the right to question and challenge the government and its leaders openly, without fear of reprisal; mechanisms to correct faulty policies or replace those leaders who impose them; and an independent judiciary. Greenberg writes: “the ethical health of a society is judged not so much by its ideal procedures or potential ability to do good but by the excellence of its corrective mechanisms.” (p. 411) The freedom of the Israeli press, the ability of Israeli citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, to protest government policies in the streets, the appointment of government commissions to investigate the actions of public officials, and the ability of all people to get a fair hearing in the courts all testify to the openness of Israeli society and its freedom.
All this said, Israel cannot be Jewish and a democracy if it rules over a majority population of non-Jews. I believe that Israel must disengage from the West Bank – the contours of the borders being negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians – and end its rule over the Palestinians of this territory. In doing this, Israel is justified in making sure its borders are secure in order to protect its citizens. This should happen as soon as the Palestinians are prepared and willing to govern themselves, including policing terrorist cells, but not before.
As for Muslims and Christians who are citizens of Israel, they must be afforded all the rights of citizenship. Israel has much room to improve in this regard. But, as I wrote above, I believe it already has the “corrective mechanisms” to make this happen.
Can Israel be both a democracy and a Jewish state?
Israel can, and must, be both a democracy and a Jewish state. These two things together form the essence of Israel. What Israel cannot do is maintain its hold on the West Bank territories and the Arab sections of East Jerusalem, and still maintain its democracy. The only solution to maintaining Israel’s democratic character is to withdraw from the West Bank, dismantle the settlements, and assist the Palestinians in creating their own (hopefully democratic) state. If Israel tries to maintain control over the Palestinian population much longer, without granting them citizenship and equal rights (as Arabs within Israel have) then it will no longer be able legitimately to consider itself a democratic state. But the demographic reality makes it impossible to extend citizenship to the Palestinians and still be a Jewish state. The only thing to do is to allow the Palestinians their own state. The Reform movement has long been a supporter of the two-state solution as the best way to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic. See http://rac.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=4031&pge_prg_id=12499&pge_id=2424 for more information.