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Jewish Journal

Allegiance to a Jewish Democratic State

by Dr. Michael Berenbaum

October 12, 2010 | 6:56 pm

Sunday’s decision by Israel’s Cabinet to require that “those seeking to become naturalized citizens will take an oath that their allegiance is to the State of Israel, “as a Jewish and democratic state,” and that they “promise to honor the laws of the state” will raise far more questions than it will answer.

Those of us who were raised in the Zionist movement have always viewed Israel as a Jewish State. For my parents of blessed memory who would have turned 100 this year the achievement of the Jewish State of Israel was one of the most magnificent moments in their lives as Jews. They transmitted that enthusiasm to me. This past summer my children, wife and I visited Independence Hall, the former Tel Aviv Museum, in which David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel. We sat in the audience in the very room and heard Ben Gurion’s recording. We were in tears. One could sense the passion of the Declaration, the historicity of the moment.

It is because I support Israel as a Jewish democratic state that I have long opposed settlements not as illegal but unwise, counterproductive and antithetical to Israel’s interest in remaining a Jewish and democratic state. Demographers agree that soon, all too soon, Arabs will constitute a majority of those living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea so for Israel to remain democratic and Jewish it must find a way to withdraw from many of the territories captured in 1967, or find a way to expel Arabs or deny them citizenship. I oppose the last two options as anti-democratic and as antithetical to the values of Jewish history of the last 2,000 years. The withdrawal from Gaza was a simple trade, even with its considerable security risks – 1.5 million Palestinians for 8,000. The situation on the West Bank will be more complicated and much more difficult and dangerous.

But the irony is that there are many Jews who do not support Israel and could not swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic State. Some, but by no means all, religious Jews believe that a Jewish state must be a Halakhic state, governed by the laws of the Torah and the Rabbis and democracy as we know it was unknown to the Rabbinic and the great religious decisors of past generations. Jewish Law with its grudging acceptance as necessary for orderly and peaceful existence and for its suspicions of the state because of Jewish history’s long experience of the state as oppressive, has not kept pace and not fully absorbed the consequences of democracy, which respects human rights and accepts full participation of its citizens.  Other religious Jews presume that a Jewish State should be initiated by God and not by David Ben Gurion and his successors. Some Jews on the left believe that Israel must become a state of all of its citizens, encompassing Palestinians and other non-Jews. They would find it difficult to swear allegiance to a Jewish state.

The debate will be interesting because it grapples with a core issue of Israel’s life: how can a state be both Jewish and democratic and what does that mean in the contemporary world when more than one in five Israeli citizens are currently non-Jews including an unknown number of former Soviet Jews who have some distant kinship with the Jewish people but are not Jews by any sense of the term, even as they increasingly regard themselves as Israelis.

I suspect that the Cabinet may not quite understand the questions such an oath of allegiance raises, not just for non-Jews but for Jews as well.

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