Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The riddle of the century: 'A Jewish Democracy'

A few nights ago in Jerusalem, there were about two thousand secular Israelis demonstrating against police weakness in the face of what they branded ultra-Orthodox religious coercion and violence. (Nir Hasson, Haaretz) Holding signs labeled "Israel is also ours" they reinforce the ever present divide between religious and secular in Israel.. They were protesting against the overwhelming amount of ultra-Orthodox demonstrations that have been happening in Jerusalem, especially since this summer. I'd like to repeat what has been happening in Jerusalem, in case any readers are unfamiliar. This summer, there were many riots held by ultra-orthodox Jews, protesting the opening of a parking lot in a Haradi area. They opposed the building claiming it "violated Shabbas, and interrupted the staus-quo". Violent interactions between police and Haradi Jews erupted in Jerusalem. There were more riots after the arrest of a Haradi mother, accused of starving her baby , and more recently, the opening of a Intel plant in a religious area (Intel is open on Shabba) The secular protest was not only against police inaction, but also a general stand against, what they believe, the statement or the idea that Israel is exclusively for the religious, and that Israel is a land of Judaism. In simpler terms- there is a clear friction between a Jewish state and a democratic state. (Interesting side note though: the ways in which the Haredi express their opinion is through a democratic means)

I think it's really interesting to talk to Jewish tourists about this balance. While Jewish visitors love the Jewish character of Israel, most secular Israelis don't. There is a certain novelty of restaurants and stores being closed, buses not running on Shabbat and other such things. For them, coming from countries that run on the Christian calender, the excitement of seeing how a country can be run in a "religious" manor makes them proud to be Jewish- regardless of how "Jewish" they are or not. Why wouldn't it be exciting to have a country of Jews who follow the rules. But how would these tourists feel if they had to practically live here?? This is the problem that secular Israelis face. They are told they are living in a democratic country, but yet they face injustices because of religion. The friction between "church and state" is never so clearly seen than here in Israel. If an Israeli Jew falls in love with a non-Jew- they don't have the right to get married in Israel. Democracy? Yet, what happens when we strip away these Jewish practices, how Jewish does our state become? What are we willing to sacrifice between the two in order to reach some sort of balance? This question of reconciliation between the two is incredibly tricky.

I think it's useful to think of the "Jewish-democracy scale", where we want to get as most democracy and Judaism into the state as possible. All Judaism and no democracy would be a religious autocratic state, similar to what the Taliban set up in Afghanistan.(with Islam) How would this look in Israel? A team of rabbis running the country. No Judaism, and all democracy would be similar to US, where there is a separation of church and state. In Israel, this would grant full national, (and all other rights) to Palestinian Arabs but also to Israeli Arabs. There would no long longer be any 'Jewish' state- although all the Jews in Israel could continue living here, with the same rights they hold today. With no Judaism and no democracy, we get something like Stalinst Communist Russia. I couldn't even begin to think how that would affect Israel though. Therefore, the goal is to get the most democracy and the most Judaism into this state. But I suppose this is also easier to say than to do or put into place. The status-quo of Jewish laws has been kept since the creation of the state of Israel itself. While Ben-Guirion's Zionism preached a secular re-invention of the Jew- he still made a coalition, and a deal, with the religious Zionists, who envisioned Israel to be eventually run in a purely religious manor. From this stemmed many religious laws in Israel. (one of the most popular, disputed and therefore controversial is the exemption of religious Jews from the army in order to study in Yeshiva, a status-quo that was created right at the beginning) I think that this idea is particularly interesting in the puzzle of a Jewish-democracy, because it was the secular that invited the religious into this state, in some ways. It is well known that the secular movement itself, although deeply secular in practice, had undertones of religious Judaism in their ideas. For example, the use of the Hebrew language- the ancient religious and sacred language of the Jewish people was chosen. (and don't think that this was obvious, because a bitter battle ensured between Yiddish and Hebrew- and German was even took a place in this fight) Further, the insistence of the land of Israel, rather than another type of land- say territorialism in Russian, or a piece of land in Uganda, was insisted by the WZO. The land of Israel is strongly connected to the Jewish religion. Therefore, I would like to argue that, despite the split of religious-secular in the beginning of the creation of the state of Israel, there was also some sort of unison: if at least as some sort of spiritual understanding. Unfortunately, I think that this split has not stayed in unison, but has only continued to part.

The friction that exists between the Jewish part of the state, and the democratic part of the state, runs deep. There are no right answers here. The balance between a Jewish democracy is continually tipping, and each question needs to be individualized. I personally believe that without the Jewish character of the state, we destroy the seams of which this country was sewn from, and destroy Zionism- despite it's deeply secular character. How much am I willing to concede and how much democracy am I willing to sacrifice? This is an unfortunate question that each Jew must struggle with. This struggle is represented in the two types of people in this country- the religious and the secular. Each has to live with the concessions that the other has forced the state to make. It is therefore no surprise that there is an incredible bitterness between them. The secular perceive the religious as non-nationalistic bums, who don't work, don't give anything to the country (a lot of this is related to the fact that the ultra-orthodox don't go to the army)- yet they take and take from the country- namely through welfare. The secular are perceived as hedonistic sinners,many of whom they don't even consider Jewish, who don't care at all about Judaism or Jews. Obviously many of these are hyperboles or based on mythology. So, is there any hope?? Or are we simply looking into a dark abyss?? Let's also remember that much of this divide is also fueled by ignorance and stereotypes. While talking to a religious teacher in a secular high school, she confided in me the ignorance she faces surrounded by secular students. She expressed that people right away assume that she didn't go to the army, or that she doesn't believe in the state of Israel, and that she too agrees with all the actions that many ultra-religious profess to. She feels as though they perceive her as a democracy-hating Jew, who wants to let only rabbis run this country. Astounded, she says she is happy she has the opportunity to educate these kids, and explain to them the differences in religious opinions; she too struggles with a Jewish democracy. Just as secular Jews may find themselves not in the same opinion about many things, so do religious Jews- they are far from a united front. She tells them that many religious people go to the army, including women- although many also choose to participate in the "national service" program, where they get the opportunity to service their country in different ways through volunteer work. I think it is through people like her, that we are hopefully beginning to bridge gaps and old bitterness. There is no right answer but to know that despite our beliefs we are all Jews; this land belongs to all of us- and therefore it is all of our struggle.


  1. Interesting link:
    related to my article. Enjoy.

  2. I really like the analysis especially how you define the tension between Jewish and Democratic.

    Your last line is key, "this land belongs to all of us". Your religious Zionist teacher friend may be a model but making everyone the same is not going to be the solution.

    The solution has to be one of tolerance. There are going to be anti-religious people in the state and there are going to be anti-Zionist people living here as well. We need to find ways that they can tolerate each other- not necessarily like each other, but tolerate.

    Here I see the need for three things: status quo agreements, dialogue and education.

    Status qou agreements recognizes that the other side is not going to change so stop trying to force them to do so. The ultra-religious are not going to for the most part do army service and the ultra-secular are not going to stop partying on Friday night. Sensitive issues to both sides need to be approached cautiously.

    Clearly there needs to be more dialogue on both sides. By focusing on what values we have in common, as opposed to what we disagree upon is a good way to start. Actually working together on projects of mutual concern (such as health issues, poverty or the environment) can build some real bridges.

    Education is the third tool that needs to be encountered. Are the school systems teaching love or hatred? Are they teaching an appreciation in the ultra-orthodox school system for the sacrifice that secular Jews have made to saving Jewish lives? Are they teaching in the secular system that if it wasn't for the religious education for the last two thousand years, often at the risk of life and livelihood, than there wouldn't be any Jews around today for there to be a state?

    Things to think about.