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Israel Between Democratic Universalism and Particularist Judaism: Challenging a Sacred Formula

One of the most significant and complicated tensions faced by contemporary Israel is between the commitment of most Israelis to the Jewishness of the state, on the one hand, and their commitment to the democratic principles of the state (as they understand these principles), on the other hand. One scholar summed up the dilemma succinctly: "As a democratic state Israel must serve the needs of all its citizens; as the state of the Jewish people its function is to pursue particularistic goals" (Kretzmer, 1990,176).

This tension is at the center of what could be described as a full-ledged Kulturkampf, a political struggle about the very essence of the state fought in Israel for the last three decades (Peleg, 1998). In some ways this tension between loyalty to the demands of universalistic democracy and the tenets of a particularistic nationalism (that is, Zionism), has been present in the Zionist movement from its very beginning. This tension was noted in one of the most famous texts on Israeli politics, written by Horowitz and Lissak (1990) and emphasized in even stronger language by other analysts (Ezrahi, 1993, 256-7).

Although the contrast between "universalists" and "particularists" among early and late Zionists has been somewhat overemphasized by liberal interpreters of Israeli politics as part of an effort to demonstrate that their camp was less nationalistic than it actually was, the distinction between the two approaches has at least some merit. Thus, the dual commitment to the principles of democracy and to the Zionist agenda has been incorporated into official documents forming the Israeli state. The foundational Declaration of Independence of May 1948, for example, asserted that Eretz Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people and declared a Jewish State in Palestine, promising that it will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion. At the same time, this national Zionist document promised the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants, and committed the new State to the "full social and political equality of all its citizens".

Several Israeli "Basic Laws" explicitly enshrined the notion that Israel is "Jewish and democratic", as did several rulings by the Israeli High Court of Justice. Most recently, in an historic decision from March 8, 2000, a case known as "Quaadan vs. Katzir" (Kedar, 2000), the High Court reiterated its position that Israel is committed to both its Jewish character and its democratic nature.

There is hardly a question that the tension inherent in this dual commitment will continue to dominate Israeli politics for many years to come and that it will effect the most important questions impacting the State, including the future of the West Bank and Gaza, the relations between Jews and Palestinians inside Israel, and the status of organized religion (particularly Orthodox Judaism) within the Israeli polity.

A Multidimensional Approach

My approach to a systematic inquiry of this important issue tends to be panoramic and interdisciplinary. Unless one adopts an extremely broad approach, informed by the insights of several disciplines and perspectives, one is unlikely to discover crucial aspects and possibly some solutions to this complex issue.

Accordingly, I propose to look at the tension between Israel's democracy and its Jewishness from at least five perspectives:

HISTORICALLY. Contemporary Israel, and especially the attitudes of the majority of its citizens, cannot possibly be understood outside the confines of the Zionist project and even against the backdrop of Jewish history in general. Thus, the commitment of most Israelis to the "Jewishness" of their state is attitudinally firm, despite the sharp disagreement among Israeli Jews as to the precise meaning of that Jewishness.
LEGALLY. The status of all Israelis, Jews and non-Jews alike, is defined in several pieces of legislation, a few constitution-like documents, and court rulings. It is, therefore, important to look at the relationships between Jewishness and democracy from a legal/constitutional perspective, although (in the spirit of our interdisciplinary approach) avoid at all cost a narrow legalistic approach.
SOCIOPOLITICALLY. While the historical past would undoubtedly impact the resolution of the Jewish/democratic tension, and while legal considerations will inform formal institutions that will determine that resolution, it is likely that the issue will be primarily decided by a mixture of sociopolitical factors such as the overall relations between Jews and Arabs within the state, the demographic balance between them, international pressures, and so forth.
COMPARATIVELY. The vast majority of studies dealing with the issue at hand lack a comparative dimension, thus preventing the type of insightful analysis that depends on comparison with other cases. The particularistic/universalistic tension within Israel is present in other societies and the analysis could benefit from broader perspective than the one offered by most studies.
NORMATIVELY. While modern social science has often claimed disengagement from "values", in an effort to produce objective observations and analysis, my own inquiry is based on the assertion that such disengagement is neither possible nor desirable. It is important and realistically required, however, to clearly distinguish in the process of producing scholarship, between empirical and normative positions, and make explicit any and all "value-based" positions.

My analysis throughout this paper will be committed to these perspectives and these principles as much as possible.

The Israeli Duality

The "dual commitment" inherent in the Israeli political reality has led Israel to adopt since its establishment both "Jewish" and democratic policies. Such policies, however, have often collided and are likely to continue to collide even more severely in the future. Acting Jewishly, the State sponsored the immigration of millions of Jews under a controversial "Law of Return" (1950), acquired lands specifically in order to "Judaize" the country (Yiftachel, 2000) and especially areas inhabited by Arabs (e.g. the Galilee), developed an educational system designed to inculcate Jewish values (Dror, 2003), adopted Jewish myths and symbols (Zerubavel, 1995), and granted special recognition to Ortodox Judaism.

Acting democratically, the State of Israel has established an elected legislature, conducted orderly elections in regular intervals, adopted most (although significantly not all) Western freedoms, enacted Basic Laws (although, significantly again, not a constitution or a bill of rights) to regulate important aspects of public life, has recognized an independent judiciary, and has allowed vibrant and open debate on most political issues.

Despite those significant democratic achievements, recognized by our time's most prominent political analysts (Dahl, 1971; Lijphart, 1977, 1984), Israel's democracy has been problematical in several areas due to its particularistic commitments. The largest minority within the state, Palestinian Arabs who are Israeli citizens (or "Israeli Arabs" as they are often known), has not been able to achieve full equality, either as individuals or as a group. Systematic discrimination has been noted in numerous areas, including education, employment, housing, land purchasing, immigration and citizenship (Kretzmer, 1990; Rouhana, 1997). The political status of the minority remains volatile: while Arab children ordinarily attend Arab schools and while Moslems and Christians Arabs are recognized as members of religious communities, autonomy status was not given to the Arab minority despite its considerable size and distinct character. Arabs are not recognized as a countrywide national group with legitimate representation toward the State and toward the majority. Moreover, within the Israeli political culture, even the most moderate Arab parties are perceived as unfit to serve in any Israeli government.

Despite some improvements in the conditions of the Arabs (Smooha, 2002), it is hard to maintain that Israel is moving decisively toward civic equality. While the High Court of Justice has recently decreed that road signs must be also in Arabic (an official language in Israel, along with Hebrew), since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifadah and the riots that resulted (October 2000), leading to the shooting death of thirteen Arab citizens, majority-minority relationships have deteriorated. In 2001, Freedom House, in its famous annual report, dropped Israel's civil liberties rating from 2 to 3 (Freedom House, 2002), reflecting this reality or its perception.

Israel's dual commitment to Jewishness and democracy impacts, however, not only Arab-Jewish relations, but also relations within the Jewish majority. Many so-called secular, non-religious or non-observant Jews resent deeply the continuous interference of the Ortodox establishment in their lives, interference rooted in the so-called Status Quo Agreement of 1947 and enshrined in several pieces of Israeli law. And indeed, in terms of Western standards, and increasingly worldwide standards, religion is unusually obtrusive in Israel. If freedom from religion, along with freedom of religion, is one of the expected values of modern democracy, Israel's democracy is flawed indeed.

Moreover, some Ultraortodox groups have enjoyed since the establishment of the state special privileges in violation of democratic principles (see below). Thus, not only have Yeshivot received generous financial allocations of public funds, but in 2002 the Knesset has approved, officially and legally, the exemption of their students from military service.

The frequent, on-going collision between the State's commitment to democracy and the Jewishness of the majority-defined religiously (adherence to Judaism as a religion), ethnically (loyalty to Jewish history and culture) or ideologically (support of Zionism)-raises several critical questions:

Is the dual commitment itself oxymoronic in the sense that Israel cannot possibly be really democratic while its majority is loyal to its Jewish agenda?
If we reject the proposition that Israel cannot be both democratic and Jewish, the question is how can Israel achieve both goals? If we assume that not every mix of "Jewish and democratic" meets the minimal requirements of democracy, we need to identify a balance between these two value systems that is acceptable.
Is the real choice for Israel between being a fully democratic Western state, where religion and ethnicity are privatized and all citizens are treated equally (both as individuals and as groups), and being an ethnonational polity or, under the best of circumstances, "ethnic democracy" (Smooha, 1990, 1997, 2002).

Political and Scholarly Camps

Before we address the questions formulated, it is important to look, however briefly, at the opinions regarding an appropriate solution to the balance between democracy and Jewishness, both in terms of the Israeli public and among scholars in the field. Insofar as the Israeli public is concerned, three major camps are discernable. The first camp, on the particularistic end of the spectrum, believes that Israel ought to be committed primarily to its Jewishness. While it generally recognizes democracy as a desirable common good, it views it as secondary to the country's Jewishness (e.g. Cohen, 2001). This position is common among nationalists and especially in religious circles. The late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, used to say, in the spirit of that attitude, that "democracy is not mentioned in the Torah even once" (Levontin in Barak-Erez, 1996, 74).

The position of the particularists could be summed by two propositions:

The requirements of democracy and the interests of the Jewish people are sometimes incompatible;
If and when such incompatibility occurs, the interests of the Jewish people and their state (Israel) win.

While the State of Israel has never accepted formally this position (in fact, it denied it by consistently maintaining its equal commitment to Jewishness and democracy), most Israeli governments to date have, arguably, adopted this position most of the time. Steps toward a more balanced approach have been hesitant at best. I will argue at the end of this essay that more decisive steps toward a new balance are not only possible, but necessary and just, and that they are unlikely to endanger the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

The second camp among Israelis argues that Israel must choose, decisively and openly, democracy over Jewishness. While people who belong to this camp agree with their Rightist opponents that democracy and Jewishness constitute often-incompatible value systems, they prefer democracy to Jewishness on the grounds of universalism.

Within the second camp, we find, in fact, two political solutions to the Jewishness-Democracy tension. Some analysts support the transformation of the "Jewish and democratic" state into "a state of all its citizens", a formula that would presumably turn Israel into a typical Western liberal democracy, with equality of all citizens as individuals and state neutrality toward all its ethnic and religious groups. Others within the second camp would support full equality of individuals ("liberalism") but insist that the state becomes an Arab-Jewish bi-national entity.

Unlike the other two camps, the second one is ethnically mixed. It includes Arab intellectuals such as Azmi Bishara, Asad Ghanem, and Nadim Rouhana, but also Jewish intellectuals such as Baruch Kimmerling, Ilan Pappe, Yoav Peled, and Oren Yiftachel (e.g. Ghanem, Rouhana & Yiftachel, 1998).
The largest camp in Israel, described appropriately as "hegemonic" (Smooha, 2002,500), endorses the definition of the state as "Jewish and Democratic". This position accepts three main ideas, on the basis of a philosophical position, an empirical judgment and pragmatism:(a) Israel's commitments to Jewishness and democracy are fundamentally compatible; (b) Israel has, in fact, kept both of its commitments; (c) the "formula" is a reasonable compromise between two competing forces (Gavison, 1996, 1999).

My thesis in this essay and in other places (e.g. Peleg 1998, 2000) is that while historically Israel's democratic record has not been particularly good (Lustick, 1980; Kretzmer, 1990; Rouhana, 1997), especially in regard to the broad and substantive requirements of modern, Western, liberal democracy (see below), in principle "Jewishness" and democracy might be compatible, but only if the ethnonational nature of the Israeli state is significantly curtailed and the democratic requirements, even more fundamentally, are maximized and enhanced.

While I tend to agree with the efforts to balance the conflicting requirements (reflected in the approaches offered by such intellectuals as Alan Dowty (e.g. 1999), Ruth Gavison (e.g. 1999a, 1999b), and Sammy Smooha (e.g. 2002), my inclination is to endorse a solution by which the old formula of the Israel state-ethnic democracy-is completely discarded and replaced with a new formula based on symbolic attachment to the state's Jewishness and elimination of all material manifestations of ethnic discrimination. Put differently, only complete equality of all citizens as individuals and groups can guarantee Israel's future as a genuine democracy.

While my approach might be perceived as radical, I believe that it is needed in view of the fact that the old formula-identified correctly by Smooha (1990) and Peled (1992) as "ethnic democracy"-is unlikely to work for very long. The violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in October 2000 are, possibly, a sign of things to come. Moreover, intellectual and liberal circles in Israel (including the State's High Court in its Katzir decision and other rulings) have now come to recognize that new ideas are needed.


All arguments about the compatibility of Israel's Jewishness and its democracy depend, to a large extent, on what precisely one means by "democracy". The problem with the notion of democracy, more so than with almost any other political notion, is that it is "an essentially contested concept" (Gallie, 1962), open to numerous definitions. A particular problem in regard to Israel's democracy is that many analysts do not define precisely what they mean by democracy. My own position is that the discussion on how democratic can Israel be despite its Jewish commitment is not very fruitful unless we are, first, clearer in our minds as to the requirements of democracy and, second, apply those requirements rigorously to the Israeli case.

My approach to democracy, which I will apply to the case of Israel, is characterized by several general positions. First, I view democracy not as a dichotomy (that is, a polity either has it or not), but as a continuum-the question is how much democracy does a polity have. Second, my tendency is to take a broader rather than a narrower position on what constitutes democracy; thus, I am extremely uncomfortable with approaches that identify democracy with a set of "liberties" that are guaranteed through a set of formal procedures and institutions, despite the fact that this is the essence of the position taken by some prominent analysts (e.g. Dahl, 1971). Thirdly, my approach to democracy is hierarchical: it identifies the requirements for democracy by going from a lower (that is, less demanding) requirement to a higher (more demanding) level. Such an approach allows one to deal not merely with the issue of whether a country is democratic or not, but to what extent it is democratic: it facilitates a discussion on the quality of a country's democracy.

This three-prong approach to democracy leads me to develop a definition of democracy that contains three components. A full-fledged democracy must meet the following requirements:

a minimalist requirement: conducting regular, fair and free elections in order to establish the rule of the majority;
a mid-range requirement: protecting legally the fundamental freedoms such as speech and assembly, including freedom of and from religion;
a maximalist requirement: guaranteeing the equality of all individual citizens and social groups before the law, as well as in practice.

In the case of Israel the record is mixed. Moreover, all the problems in terms of the quality of Israel's democracy stem directly from the country's adherence to its "Jewishness". In terms of the first requirement, since its establishment Israel has conducted, on the whole, regular elections freely and fairly. Nevertheless, the tension between Jewishness and democracy has been manifested when parties judged to be running against the Jewish or democratic nature of the state were declared illegal by the High Court (in the al-Ard case), by the Knesset (in a law passed in 1985), and by the Central Election Committee, acting presumably in accordance with that law. A party, for example, cannot run today for the Knesset if it proposes a replacement of the State of Israel with a bi-national state, even if it suggests that such a transformation be done through democratic and non-violent means and even if it propagates its position via legitimate and non-violent means. A recent decision by the High Court allowing two Arab parties to run in the 2003 elections despite a decision to the contrary by the Central Election Committee suggests that Israel might be liberalizing in regard to the first requirement of democracy.

In regard to the second requirement of democracy the Israeli record is even more mixed.
First, the various freedoms and liberties given to Israeli citizens are yet to be codified in a constitution, a bill of rights, or any other such comprehensive and protected document. Secondly, while the state has progressed enormously since 1948 in terms of certain freedoms (e.g. freedom of speech, enshrined in the High Court decision known as Kol Ha'am), in regard to freedoms related to the State's Jewishness, as perceived by the Founding Fathers and ever since, the democratic record has not been satisfactory. Thus, the State of Israel is today extraordinarily intrusive in regard to issues defined by it as "religious", issues judged by almost all other countries as matters belonging to a citizen's "private sphere". An example is the requirement for marriage in Israel, a requirement which violates the worldwide acceptance today of civil marriage, as well as the acceptance of intermarriage by individuals belonging to different religions (an option which is not open to Israelis).

The most difficult situation, however, arises in regard to the third requirement of democracy, equality of all citizens, before the law and in practice. In terms of equality, particularly in regard to that between national groups and their members (that is, Arabs and Jews), the Israeli democracy has proven to be flawed indeed. The main forms of legal discrimination are to be found in regard to acquiring citizenship (where Jews are given an advantage through the Law of Return) and the acquisition of land, where non-Jews are prevented from purchasing land under the sovereignty of the state, roughly 93% of the total area of the country (Kimmerling, 2002, 1120). In general, in Israel only Jews are entitled to group rights (Smooha, 2002; Peled, 1992), and the lack of collective rights to other groups impacts negatively the individual rights of their members (Kimmerling, 2002, 1124), as shown in detail in several books (Lustick, 1980; Kretzmer, 1990; Rouhana, 1997). Chief Justice Barak has called publicly for full equality to Arabs, stating that there can be no true democracy in Israel without it (Freedom House, 2000-2001, 28).

The lack of equality stemming from the State's commitment to "Jewishness" is not limited to Arab-Jewish issues. Thus, the imposition of Ortodox-halachic law in Israel leads also to the discrimination of women as a group and individuals (Lahav, 2000; Chesler & Haut, 2000), and the state has systematically privileged the Ortodox population, a discriminatory practice toward the secular population (e.g. special exemption from military service, autonomous educational system, generous allocations to Yeshivot, etc.).

Democracy and Stability

My analysis of the tension between democracy and Jewishness is by no means limited to an idealistic attachment to the notion of a utopian, perfect democracy. The three-prong definition of democracy offered here assumes that most democracies are lacking in one way or another. A more fundamental question than whether Israel is a true democracy is the question of whether the current Israeli political model of unrestrained ethnic hegemony is sustainable in the long run. If the answer to that question is "no", then one has to ask whether there is a solution to a condition that has now survived for 55 years.
The Israeli formula of "a Jewish and democratic state", and the reality of ethnic domination on which it rests, require a comparative perspective. In general, although not invariably, unrestrained ethnic domination of the type we see in Israel today leads to instability, violence, explosion and the eventual decline of the polity. Examples for such fatal instability include pre-1974 Cyprus, pre-1998 Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, South Africa and so forth. In none of these situations was an ethnic regime, however determined and powerful, indefinitely able to hold on to exclusive power. While several ethnonational regimes-defining themselves particularistically despite their diversity-disintegrated under the pressure of their own detachment from reality, other regimes found a way for reformulating the rationale for their being.

My general conclusion is that an ethnicized polity such as Israel has in effect several choices: (a) refusal to transform significantly despite pressures to democratize (Turkey is a good example); (b) transformation in the spirit of enhanced democratization and greater inclusion (examples include the constitutional changes over the last 20 years in Spain, Northern Ireland, and South Africa); (c) further ethnicization in response to diversity (e.g. Serbia under Milosevic, Slovakia under Meciar). In general, Israel has adopted the first route, maintaining the status quo despite pressure to move toward more inclusive democracy. A comparative analysis suggests that such a choice could prove fatal.

Moving Toward Democratic Inclusion

If Israel must change, in its best interests, how and in what direction? Can the now sacred formula "Jewish and Democratic" be salvaged or does it have to be discarded as inevitably undemocratic?
In principle, if the Jewish majority decides to create a more inclusive Israel, it can move in two analytically distinct but practically linked directions. First, Israel can move in what might be called an integrative-liberal direction, dismantling all discriminatory policies toward Arabs as individuals and establishing genuine Liberal Democracy. Under this formula Arab citizens would be able to buy land anywhere in the state, obtain jobs (including governmental positions) in accordance with their skills, and so forth. Moreover, discriminatory practices directed against Arabs, such as organized campaigns against selling them apartments and even the meting of harsher sentences by the courts, would be eliminated.

Second, Israel could move toward a more inclusive democracy by going in a "consociational direction", that is: enhancing the recognition and the protection given to the Arab minority as a distinct national group. Consociational arrangements, recognition, and even culture already exist within the diverse Jewish majority; it could be expanded to the Arab minority. Thus, Arabs could be given full-fledged personal autonomy (Smooha, 1999), granting them direct control over the most important aspects of their communal lives (e.g. education). "Functional autonomy…may be necessary to counter…support for territorial autonomy or total separation" (Dowty, 1999,12). Arabs could also be given a proportional share of the national wealth, their more moderate parties could be invited to serve in the government, and their symbols could be incorporated into the country's civil religion, so as to create a common Israeli identity that is civic and overarching.

While liberal and consociational changes could ease the interethnic clash within Israel, they are unlikely to turn Israel into a bi-national project, a result that the Jewish majority will never accept. Such changes will merely recognize the bi-national reality of contemporary Israel and incorporate it into the country's governmental structure, thus increasing congruence between society and polity for the benefit of long-term stability.

A decisive action of the type discussed here could possibly give Israeli Arabs a reason to identify with the state. The continuation of policy of discrimination and exclusion negate such possibility. The role of the Israeli leadership in bringing about such a change is crucial, but to date we have witnessed minimal attention to this problem.

Is "Jewish and Democratic" Salvageable?

The sacred formula used by Israeli institutions (the Knesset, the HCJ, etc.) and accepted by most individuals-defining Israel as "Jewish and democratic"-has not worked well over the first 55 years of the State. The term "Jewish" has been translated into exclusivist, hegemonic control of the majority in all areas. Short of declaring Israel a Halachic state, the term "Jewish" was interpreted as broadly as possible.

The term "democratic", on the other hand, has been interpreted rather narrowly: majority rule and fundamental liberal freedoms to all citizens, but pointedly no political equality for minorities in what had become, in effect, a "Jewish Republic", no recognition or protection of minorities, and lack of equality on individual or group basis.

Although the Israeli majority is determined to maintain an Israel that is Jewish and democratic, the existing balance between those two components might change, so as to decisively increase the weight of the state's democracy and proportionately decrease the state's Jewishness (as it is currently defined), especially in areas where such overtly particularistic definition is injurious to the democratic quality of the state.

On the basis of what principle can such transformation be affected? I would argue that a polity might justifiably define itself particularistically (as many polities do) only insofar as such definition does not result in the substantive and material discrimination of members of the polity (that is, citizens). Self-definition that results in systematic discrimination is democratically unacceptable.

Inherent in my position is the argument that in the case of Israel, as in numerous other cases, one needs to keep a distinction between the symbolic level (where the majority's particularism may prevail without serious injury to democracy) and the material level, where particularist features of a regime result in real discrimination.

An Israel that eliminate all the particularist features that result in the discrimination of non-Jews will still be "Jewish" in several important ways: the Jewish majority will be sustained, the dominant language will remain Hebrew and the culture Hebraic and Jewish, most of the symbols accepted within the Israeli society will continue to be rooted in the Jewish tradition, and so forth. Even the controversial Law of Return could survive the type of reconstruction suggested here, especially if a Palestinian state with its own law of return is established side-by-side with Israel. Not only could the Law of Return be defended as a historical, collective act of affirmative action, taken by the international system toward the Jewish people, but on the level of principle one can defend discrimination in admitting people to the polity (a practice used by many nations). On the other hand, it is impossible to defend discrimination of individuals or groups once they are already citizens: such discrimination negates the most important principle of democracy.

The transformation of Israel into a genuine liberal democracy via the elimination of all forms of material discrimination could be achieved without endangering the overall Jewish character of the state. Numerous countries all over the world have a dominant culture, existing side-by-side with minority cultures, but without substantive (let alone formal) discrimination against minorities or their individual members. If Israel decides to go through the transformation proposed here, the sacred formula "Jewish and democratic" could survive, but in a significantly reduced form. It will become a reminder of archaic, ethnically based discrimination that has been passed on Israel's way toward genuine democracy.


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