One characteristic of Israel that is undeniable but nonetheless can arouse some confusion, is that Israel is both “Jewish and Democratic”.
Daniel Gordis, in his excellent book “Saving Israel” provides some very helpful insights.
Gordis notes that while the many similarities between Israel and the USA (and Australia) include a commitment to democracy, “the Jewish state was not created in order to be a democracy. It was founded in order to change the condition of the Jews.”
Gordis then observes (page 131) that “ Professor Ruth Gavison has pointed out that the real tension is not between Israel’s Jewish and democratic aspects, but between competing ideas within democracy, which are forced to find a balance between complete civic equality and freedom for the majority to chart the country’s course. The Jewish character of the state of Israel does not, in and of itself, mean violating basic human rights of non-Jews or the democratic character of the country. She is, of course, fully aware that the distinct Jewishness of the state makes many Arabs feel like second-class citizens, but she denies that this means that Israel is somehow not democratic. She writes – “non Jews may not enjoy a feeling of full membership in the majority culture; this however is not a right but an interest – again, it is something which national or ethnic minorities almost by definition do not enjoy – and its absence does not undermine the legitimacy of Israeli democracy.
Gordis adds that “Many observers, inside Israel and out, are deeply troubled by the notion that in a democracy, “non Jews may not enjoy a feeling of full membership.” But it boils down to the states reason for being. Gavison, again reflects on Israel’s purpose: The idea of national self-determination doesn’t mean that all the population of a country belongs to one ethnic or national group. It means .. this country does have a specificity and that specificity is the materialization of the right of a specific people with a specific culture, with a specific history, to self-determination, to enlisting the power of the state to protect themselves physically, culturally, and in terms of identity, against the forces of assimilation or liquidation or attack by other groups around them.”
“What Gavison has in mind for Israel, therefore, is not a pure liberal democracy; instead, her vision approximates “ethnic democracy” , a democratic system describes by Professor Sammy Smooha that “combines the extension of civil and political rights to permanent residents who wish to be citizens with the bestowal of a favoured status on the majority group. “
Because ethnic democracy is a system in which “the state belongs to the majority and serves it more than the minority” some legal philosophers consider it a “diminished” form of democracy, and for that reason, many Israelis and supporters of Israel are distinctly uncomfortable endorsing it. Yet, even Smooha, a critic of ethnic democracy and a (Jewish) passionate defender of the rights of Israel’s Arabs, admits that “the democratic framework is real, not a facade”.
The democratic framework may be real, but there is no question that for those not part of the majority ethnicity, it is diminished. The feeling that Israeli Arabs have that they are not fully “mainstreamed” in Israeli society is real and undeniable. The pain that this causes them is also real. Even Jews who may insist that there is no alternative if the Jewish state is to remain Jewish must admit the sense of relative deprivation that Israeli Arabs feel. The fact that Israeli Arabs may have significantly more civil rights than they would have in Palestine is only partially relevant; relative to their Jewish fellow citizens, they are deprived. And no serious discussion of this issue can proceed without acknowledging that.
Gordis emphasises that sympathisizing with Arab frustrations about Israel being a Jewish state doesn’t mean that Israeli Jews should capitulate to it.
The critical question for Israel’s future is not what form of democracy in Israel might arouse the least objection. Instead it is – what form of government system both guarantees civil liberties to all of Israel’s citizens while preserving Israel as the sort of state that can contribute to the survival and flourishing of the Jewish people. That, after all is precisely what a homeland is for. That is the purpose of the Jewish state.
A homeland, perhaps in a way that differs from liberal democracies, does not view citizenship simply as a bundle of rights with people bonded together solely or primarily for the protection of those rights. Implicit in a national homeland is more a “moral” community, a “strong” community, as the political philosopher Michael Sandel notes.
These are the bonds of one history, of shared memory and aspirations.
….. The tension between universal values and a specific commitment to Jewish thriving has always been a factor in Israeli life. Israel’s Declaration of Independence says that the Jewish state “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex. But it also says, that it “will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion
Can the Law of Return mesh with the desire to create a society based on equality without regard to race, religion or gender? Not at all easily. It is thus not surprising that .. virtually every Israeli Arab organisation, in arguing for improved rights for Israeli Arabs, demand the nullification of the Law of Return. From their point of view, the Law of Return clearly makes them second class citizens …
What, we might ask, did the Knesset intend when it passed the Law of Return? It had in mind a sense of Jewish purpose. Israel was not meant to be just another democracy, or simply one more member of the UN General Assembly. It was a country with a mission: the saving and ingathering of the Jews. And given that, nothing could make more sense that admitting Jews just because they were Jews.
So again – It was a country with a mission – the saving and ingathering of the Jews. It had a purpose.