Can Israel be both a democratic and Jewish state?

Illustration of a ballot box at a polling station in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Danielle Shitrit/Flash90)

The highly charged debate over whether Israel can be both democratic and Jewish represents a clash of Western post-Christian, Islamic and Judeo-Christian world views. Each of the three narratives has historically embraced elements of the other, but a polarization is taking place raising the question: Which position represents truth and which should Israel follow in order to usher peace into the region?

The Western post-Christian position represented by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would like to see two states living side by side in peace. The radical Islamic position represented by Hamas supports one Jew-free Islamic state. And the Judeo-Christian position represented by Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett supports one Jewish state democratically accommodating all ethnicities.

In a recent speech, Kerry questioned a fundamental premise of the State of Israel that it is both Jewish and democratic. He argued that it is unreasonable for the Jewish half of a single state to shape the nation in terms of religion, legal and socio-cultural matters, the military, economy, education and language. In a single state, where a large percentage of the population would be Arab, Kerry would presumably prefer a pluralistic framework where the values of each competing group were compromised in order to reach consensus and cooperation.

“Today, there are a similar number of Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They have a choice. They can choose to live together in one state or they can separate into two states,” Kerry asserted in a recent speech. “But here is a fundamental reality. If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic. It cannot be both. And it won’t ever really be at peace. Moreover, the Palestinians will never fully realize their vast potential in a homeland of their own with a one-state solution.”

Kerry perhaps fails to realize that the Islamic worldview would not coexist with a competing Jewish worldview, even as neighboring states. Islam under Sharia Law, which is what Gaza’s Hamas government advocates, has at best only a highly subservient place for the unconverted living in Muslim lands. Proposals for a future Palestinian state do not include a single Jew much like Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution of ‘Judenfrei’ states.

Furthermore, Islam’s ultimate goal is for the entire region to be Islamic, making Kerry’s position appear hopelessly naive.

The Obama administration has long held Turkey as a model of a modern, Westernized, tolerant, pluralistic, moderate, secularized, Muslim-majority nation. However, Turkey’s current leadership has been described by Middle East expert Joel Richardson as increasingly “Hitleresque.” It seems that core Islamic values of domination, discrimination and submission ultimately rise to the surface so that pure Islam and democracy can no more mix than oil and water.

So can Israel be Jewish and democratic and include a substantial Muslim population?

Ex-Chief Justice Aharon Barak’s minimal definition of “a Democratic State” is:

“Recognition of the sovereignty of the people manifested in free and egalitarian elections; recognition of the nucleus of human rights, among them dignity and equality, the existence of separations of powers, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary system.”

Currently Israel’s Arab Christian and Druze population provide a model of minority groups thriving in the State of Israel and benefitting from such a system. One prominent Druze leader recently described the UN’s criticism of Israel’s treatment of his community as “laughable.” For Nazareth-based Greek Orthodox priest Gabriel Nadaf, Israel’s democratic principles are well founded in law, but its Jewish principles do not go far enough.

“It is important to clarify in law to the citizens of the state, who maybe have forgotten this, to our neighbors, and to the entire world, that it is not worthwhile for them to err. The Jews have returned home and established their national state. They are no longer temporary residents in the Land of Israel,” he wrote in 2014.

A substantial number of Arabs prefer to live with the freedoms and opportunities the State of Israel provides. A 2015 poll carried out by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, based in the West Bank, found that 52 percent of Palestinians living in Israeli-ruled East Jerusalem would prefer Israeli citizenship with equal rights, while 42 percent would prefer to be citizens of a Palestinian state. Following recent wildfires in Israel a Muslim who helped rebuild a fire-damaged synagogue stated: “Jews and Arabs live together in Haifa, and there is no discrimination. We must continue with this co-existence and promote peace.”

Under David’s reign as king we find a model of non-Jews thriving in a Jewish state. For example, Obed-Edom the Gittite, from the Philistine city of Gath, received God’s blessings after taking care of the Ark of the Covenant and subsequently rose to positions of responsibility in Israel. However, he had clearly rejected the traditional gods of his heritage in favor of the God of Israel. Followers of other gods would not have had such an opportunity.

Thus, an uncompromising Jewish interpretation of statehood differs in key points from the modern-day pluralistic, multi-faith understanding of democracy: Jewish democracy is subservient to the principle of a Bible-based theocracy. For Bennett, who told Kerry to “pick up your Bible and read it,” only one god can shape the future of Israel. As Ireland and Greece declare their Christian faith in their constitutions, Bennett wants Israel to maintain its Jewish faith.

Lawmakers have attempted to pass a “Jewish State bill,” currently shelved. The bill would affirm “personal rights of all citizens according to the law,” while communal rights would need to be aligned with Jewish values. Minority groups would not have the right to national determination. Critics of the bill have called it undemocratic, while proponents see it as safeguarding democracy.

The total number of Jews in the world is, conservatively, just over 14 million. The prophet Micah spoke of the return of all Jews to the land of Israel, which would maintain a Jewish majority.

“I will surely gather all of you, Jacob;
    I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel.
I will bring them together like sheep in a pen,
    like a flock in its pasture;
    the place will throng with people.”
Micah 2:12

The real battle is not about whether Israel can be both democratic and Jewish, but about the claims of three competing world views: post-Christian Western, Islamic and Judeo-Christian – and for Kingship of Israel. The King himself will one day usher in true and lasting peace after much opposition and conflict.

“The One who breaks open the way will go up before them;
    they will break through the gate and go out.
Their King will pass through before them,
    the Lord at their head.”
Micah 2:13