Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?

By Ashley Muse

Israeli parliament, The Knesset in Jerusalem (Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The question “Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic” was asked of a panel of experts (both American and Israeli) during this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference. The panelists used their platforms to attempt to define the two basic components of this equation: democracy and Judaism.

The debate about the apparent “paradox” of a Jewish democratic State of Israel reemerged toward the end of last year. On December 28, Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the American public to demonize the only state that is easily identifiable as the one true democracy in the Middle East: Israel. Ending the year with a bang, the United Nations decided to pursue its anti-Israel agenda and obsessive focus on settlements by pushing a U.N. Security Council resolution blocking Israel from building Jewish homes in the West Bank. Instead of vetoing the resolution, the Obama Administration abstained, allowing the 14–0 vote on the anti-Israel resolution to pass.

Kerry then appeared on national TV to tell the world that “Israel can either be Jewish or democratic. It cannot be both.” While Kerry’s speech contained many incorrect sentiments, this flagrant blow to Israel’s democratic legitimacy was by far the most frustrating. It takes only the briefest of looks at Israel’s history to disprove Kerry’s fallacious statement. Israel has fought tirelessly to preserve her democratic values – an effort that has cost many lives in the process. That blood has not been shed in vain.

Here is a look at how those efforts and evidence from history and the present day prove that Israel was, is and can continue to be, both Jewish and democratic.

First, we must define what it means to be a democracy. The term comes from the Greek words demos, meaning people, and cratos, meaning government. Scholars typically agree on a common definition of democracy as a “government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.” With this, the four core elements of a democratic system of government include choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections, active participation of the people in politics and civic life, protection of the human rights of all citizens, and a rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

Now that the structure for a democratic state has been outlined, here is how Israel fits in. The Israeli government consists of three main branches: legislative, executive and judicial. Sound familiar? It should. When brainstorming government structure prior to 1948, Jewish leaders from the Jewish People’s Council purposely modeled their new government after the United States’ emphasis on separation of powers. With this, the executive branch is subject to the confidence of the legislative branch and the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by law.

Israel has democratically elected members of the Knesset, which is part of its legislative branch. Israel also maintains a multiparty system, which contains more legally recognized groups than there are in the United States. The citizens of Israel vote for their preferred party, and thus the 120 seats in the Knesset are assigned proportionally to each party that received votes.

During the AIPAC breakout session, one panelist – Israeli Knesset Member Dr. Nachman Shai –incorrectly suggested that Israel’s current democratic structure can be disputed, and he added that Arab-Israelis do not have the right to vote. This intentionally misleading statement can be easily annulled.

Arabs residents of Israel are allowed to vote, after applying for and being granted citizenship. I often hear the false argument that Israel discriminates against Arabs, when in fact the contrary is true. Not only are Arab citizens of Israel eligible to vote in Israeli elections, they also hold a distinctive representation in the Knesset. This is true across the board. Represented in Israel’s democratic parliamentary are males, females, Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Orthodox Jews, Druze, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Bedouins and many more. In fact, Israeli citizens can only be disqualified from running for the Knesset if they incite racism, support armed struggle against Israel or negate the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state – an irony, to say the least.

Coupled with the argument that Arabs are somehow legally discriminated against in Israel because of “institutional racism” is the notion that Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens because they cannot vote in Israeli elections. That reasoning is counterintuitive. Just like in America, non-citizens do not represent the will of the people, and thus cannot vote. This is not a new concept, and it is not one that is racist in nature. If Palestinians desire to apply for Israeli citizenship, they may do so and will then be eligible to vote in Israeli elections. Israel protects the rule of law for all of its citizens, which is a core element of democracy. And in comparison with Israel’s neighbors, the freedoms guaranteed to Israeli citizens far supersede that of any Arab country.

Take a look at Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World reports from 2010–2015; when it comes to political rights and civil liberties in the Middle East, there is no competition between the Arab states and the Jewish State.

Another example cited by those disputing Israel’s democratic nature is eligibility for the Israeli Defense Force. There is a major misconception that only Israeli Jews are allowed to serve in the IDF. But that is false. Arabs, Bedouins, Christians and Druze alike can join the IDF, and their participation has shot up dramatically in recent years. Bedouin IDF soldier Muhammad Kabiya said that increasing anti-Israel sentiments across U.S. college campuses was one of the driving forces behind his decision to volunteer for the IDF. Additionally, Christian enlistment in the IDF has scored record numbers – in part thanks to Greek Orthodox priest Father Gabriel Nadaf. A native of Nazareth, Nadaf has advocated a strong connection to Israel and IDF service for Christian citizens. The fact is that every citizen of Israel has a voice – if they want one.

Now that Israel’s democratic nature has been established, here is a look at what it means to be a Jewish State. While countries like Denmark, Great Britain and Cambodia do have national religions, Judaism is not Israel’s national religion. In this sense, citizens of the State of Israel are free to worship whomever and whatever they please – unlike countries ruled by Sharia law, which impose the death penalty for atheists, Christians, Jews and anyone else that does not subscribe to the religion of Islam.

Israel is not a theocracy. But Israel is a nation-state of the Jewish people, established as a safe haven and right of self-determination for Jews all around the world. The term “Jewish State” refers to national, not religious, identity. The relationship between nationality and religion in Judaism is a unique one, which is partly why there is so much confusion about what it means to be a Jewish State.

The beautiful irony in this entire debate is that Western-style democracy actually comes from the Judeo-Christian belief that man has a God-given rational nature guiding his free will as self-ruling. The original concept of democracy was born in Greece, but did not come to full fruition as a result of that country’s archaic concept of equality. Christianity did a great deal to achieve a full awareness of the fundamental equality of all mankind, which was generally absent outside of the Biblical tradition. Israel’s Declaration of the Establishment of Israel clarifies the Jewish State to 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.

What is the message here? Israel was established of, for and by the Jewish people, but because of her democratic values – as laid out above – she safeguards the free practice of religion for every citizen.

Refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is exactly what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in 2014: “The Palestinians won’t recognize the Jewishness of the State of Israel and won’t accept it.”

Combining a theological and political perspective, the values of Judaism and democracy are actually congruent, rather than contradictory. So – to twist Kerry’s words – Israel was, is, and will continue to be both democratic and Jewish.

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, May 18, 2017, and reposted with permission.