Ever since its founding in 1948, one of the proudest -- and truest -- facts over which khov'vei yisrael ("Lovers of Israel") have been able to kvell (take pride in) is that this tiny patch of land is the only Democracy in the Middle East. And for the past 66 years, the democratic principles undergirding the Jewish State have been adhered to both in times of both war and peace, in days of calm and calamity. As many know -- and many, many more do not - Israel has never had a Constitution. Rather, its democratic principles are embodied in its "Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel," which was first made public on May 14, 1948. Among other things, this Declaration proclaims:
[The State of Israel] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Sadly - and for many of us frighteningly - recent actions and deliberations within Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's cabinet bring into serious question just how much longer Israel will remain a Democracy. Faced with a rising wave of violence, Netanyahu and his cabinet are readying a plan to legally formalize Israel's status as "the Jewish state." Netanyahu says it's a needed response to those who question Israel's right to exist. It doesn't take a political maven to figure out that the measure will unquestionably anger Israel's Arab minority and could easily draw international condemnation, severely testing a delicate balance between democracy and the country's Jewish character.
The proposed legislation includes language that is widely seen as favoring the country's Jewish character over democratic ideals. One proposal would remove Arabic as a national language. Even a watered-down version proposed by Netanyahu says that Jewish law should "serve as an inspiration" for the legislature. What the precise definition of "serve as an inspiration for . . ." is anyone's guess. However, when one considers the strong and politically influential haredi (ultra-Orthodox) faction within both the cabinet and the Israeli knesset (Parliament), there is good reason to worry about the future of the secular Democratic Jewish State.
From the standpoint of the political chessboard, it would seem that Netanyahu is pushing this legislation in order to fend off the hard-line critics within his governing coalition . . . especially with a party primary coming up in January. Already, centrist members of his coalition -- notably Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni -- have pledged to vote against the bill. It should be noted that their two left-of-center secular parties - yesh atid (Lapid's "There is a Future") and ha-t'nuah (Livni's "The Movement") - occupy 25 of Netanyahu's 68 coalition seats in the knesset. Without these 25 votes, it is likely that the government could collapsed, thus triggering elections.
They are not alone in their condemnation. Former President -- and Nobel Peace Prize Winner -- Shimon Peres called the proposed legislation “an unnecessary religious argument instead of a broad national agreement, which could turn a political conflict into a religious upheaval that would be difficult to stop.”
Without question, Israel's Jewish character has been a well-established fact for a long time; her flag proudly sports a magen david (Star of David); her national anthem -- hatikvah ("The Hope") -- ends with the words:
עד לא עבדה תקותינו
התקוה בת שנות אלפים
להיות עם חפשי בארצינ
ארץ ציון בירושלים
Our hope is not yet lost;
The hope of two thousand years,
To be free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem
And yet, for some, this has never been nearly enough; Israel's religious Jewish nature, they believe, must be codified, not merely implied. Netanyahu's legislation proposes to do just that, for the bill stipulates, among other things that:
Arabic – the language of 20 percent of the country’s population – will lose its historic status as an official language;
That the equal rights of minorities to live anywhere in the country will be compromised;
That Jewish law, which is assimilated into Israeli law, will be given preferred status; and, most of all,
That Israel’s definition as a Jewish state will prevail over its definition as a democracy.
Without question, the antipathy and ensuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians has been taking on an increasingly religious coloration. The horrific murder of Jewish scholars in the synagogue in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, the torching of a mosque outside the West Bank city of Ramallah and a fire-bomb attack on a historic synagogue in northern Israel had little to do issues of economy, settlements or two-state boundaries. Rather, they are expressions of a growing religious tension, much of which centers on the iconic Old City plateau revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. An increasingly fiery and vocal minority both within Israel and the galut -- "The Diaspora" -- has been calling for the razing of the Al Aqsa mosque in favor of rebuilding The Temple. To a great extent, this is the faction to whom Prime Minister Netanyahu is paying political obeisance.
In a scathing editorial, the Israeli daily Haaretz (which occupies roughly the same position as the New York Times) said of this proposal: "The much-needed debate on the dangerous ramifications of this law has been replaced by speculation on whether the government can survive after it is voted on. The question of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means to use the law as a way of catapulting his partners/rivals out of the ring so he can establish a new coalition, or to force a new election, is overshadowing any discussion of its foolish clauses. Thus, the State of Israel’s identity – which was never subject to dispute since its founding – is liable to be held hostage to the desire of ministers and their parties to favor their political ambitions over the principles on which a democracy should rest."
Many say "It doesn't matter whether Arabs hate the legislation or the rest of the world gets angry; they hate us anyway. We've got to do what's best for us." Unbelievably, one New Jersey rabbi recently wrote a blog post calling for Israel to collectively punish Arab Israelis and Palestinians until they realize “they have no future in the land of Israel.” In his post, he suggested that Israel essentially end civil and human rights for many Arab Israelis and Palestinians. Beyond killing all terrorists and demolishing their extended families’ homes, he writes, Israel should destroy entire Arab villages if more than one terrorist comes from them. All the residents of those villages, he writes, should be expelled.
This rabbi is not alone in his radical prescription. What he -- and many others -- are urging is that Israel jettison its democratic principles in the name of national survival; that it do to the Palestinians what the Palestinians do to them . . . before they do it. Here in the United States, we are repulsed when hard-right Christians talk about making our laws conform to their version of Christian morality. Likewise, we are dumbfounded by the idea of curtailing civil liberties in order to protect "the Homeland" from terrorists. We wonder at the way many of our politicians roll over quiescently whenever hard-corps Christians bang the gong of morality or militarists seek to shred our civil rights. But this is, to a great extent, what is going on in Israel
I can well understand the anger, the angst, the grave concerns that khov'vei yisrael have about the future existence and security of the Jewish State. But Netanyahu's plan is not the way to go. Neither is caving in to the political demands of religious extremists -- regardless of what their religion is. Israel cannot -- indeed, must not -- respond to the murderous attacks of totalitarian thugs by taking civil and human rights away from more than 20% of its population. Hyping the mass deportation of Palestinians has as much of a whiff of unreality in Israel as do mass deportations of illegal immigrants in the United States. If convocations and conversations between Israeli and Palestinian diplomats are fraught with difficulty and frustration, imagine the even greater danger attached when the two sides are "represented" by members of their most intolerant, millenialist factions.
I sincerely doubt that Netanyahu's legislation -- even in watered-down form -- will be enacted. Israelis across the political spectrum support safeguarding the state’s democratic character. Even Naftali Bennett, who leads the HaByit HaYehudi, the furthest-right party in Knesset and strongly opposes a Palestinian state, came out quickly and vehemently last week against an Israeli city’s ban on Arab construction workers. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent” are nonviolent, he said, and Israel should not discriminate based on race or religion.
Israel must remain a democracy; it must continue to set the example. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of Jewish destiny. God forbid Israelis should wake up one day and, in the words of Pogo, say "We have met the enemy . . . and he is us.
And who knows: maybe the day will come when we can all kvell that "Israel is the oldest Democracy in the Middle East . . ."
Copyright©2007 Kurt F. Stone