When it suits us, we refer to Israel as "the only democracy in the Middle East." When it suits us, we refer to Israel as "the Jewish state" or "the state of the Jewish people." And now and then, we describe Israel as "a Jewish democratic state."
But that last does not quite roll so trippingly off the tongue. At some level, we seem to be aware that there is at the least a tension between being a democracy and defining yourself as the state of one particular population group. We slide around the tension, vastly preferring to sweep it under the rug.
In the distance, we hear some of Israel's own Palestinians -- 20 percent of the population -- assert that Israel should be "a state of all its citizens," and the assertion causes us discomfort. "A state of all its citizens" surely has surface appeal, but then we also understand that Israel has a distinctive Jewish mission.
That mission is expressed in a wide variety of ways -- among them, until now, restrictions on the sale of Jewish National Fund (JNF) land to non-Jews. The JNF was formed in 1901 as a vehicle for the purpose of purchasing land in (then) Palestine on behalf of the Jewish people (worldwide).
Every penny, piaster, ruble, lira, franc put in the blue-and-white JNF box went to buy land. It was widely understood that once bought, the land would belong to the Jewish people in perpetuity.
Perpetuity is a very long time, and things have a way of changing. The once-revolutionary idea of purchasing the land of Palestine in the name of the Jewish people has considerably less power once there is a Jewish state. And, indeed, in the post-independence years, the JNF has often seemed an institution in search of a mission -- specifically, of a mission consonant with its past and distinctively different in its responsibilities from the normal work of the State of Israel itself.
Now comes Menachem Mazuz, Israel's attorney general, and announces that henceforward, the sale of JNF land cannot be restricted to Jews. Such discrimination, he says, is insupportable legally.
The Mazuz ruling is explosive: Tzipi Livny, minister of justice, asserts a sharp distinction between state-owned land and JNF land, purchased as part of "the Zionist project." (It evidently does not occur to her that the state itself is the richest expression of the Zionist project.) Member of Knesset Nissan Slomiansky of the National Religious Party holds that "the attorney general chose to sacrifice the last Jewish institution on the altar of equality."
Perhaps the most interesting of the critical responses comes from Aryeh Eldad, a far-right member of the Knesset, who insists that Mazuz has violated Israel's Declaration of Independence by preferring Israel's democratic character to its definition as a Jewish state. Most interesting, because Eldad grasps that a commitment to democracy can and sometimes does create strains for the Jewish state, as that term is conventionally understood.
Israel is, after all, not merely a Jewish state by cultural disposition, but also by explicit legal, even constitutional, intention. Jews are privileged not only by virtue of their demographic majority but also by laws, rules, regulations and customs large and small.
From the Law of Return, which establishes the priority (for immigrant citizenship purposes) of Jews to the words of "Hatikvah," the nation's anthem, from the extensive government support provided the yeshiva world to the content of school curricula to Israel's readiness to intervene on behalf of Jews anywhere in the world, Israel is officially, formally and legally a Jewish state, a state that so understands itself and is so understood by others.
Even were it not for Israel's chronic conflict with its neighbors, its Jewish commitment would create strains with its democratic commitment, in part because of the many Jewish Israelis for whom being Jewish is at most a residual category (and some for whom it is still less than even that) and in larger part because of Israel's Arab minority -- objects of discrimination that are sometimes incidental, sometimes purposeful -- and always inherent.
All this hardly means that Israel is not a robust democratic state. It does mean that in the years ahead, democracy will continue to bump, sometimes rudely, into Jewishness in disconcerting and divisive ways. Tensions will now and then explode into full-fledged contradictions, and the system will experience severe strain.
Democracy will sometimes win and sometimes lose; the underlying conflict will not soon be resolved.
The Mazuz decision on JNF lands is a victory for democracy; the secret Cabinet decision last July to implement the 1950 Absentee Property Law in East Jerusalem (even though previous governments had refrained from doing so since 1967) is a defeat. That decision essentially permits the expropriation of privately owned Arab lands in East Jerusalem and their sale to Jewish buyers, enabling the construction of Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem's Palestinian center.
Such are the details through which the grand abstractions of Israel's twin missions are worked out. Much of the time, but not every time, the tensions between democracy and Jewishness can be blurred. But the day will come when blurring will no longer be possible.
Palestinians will press their case for Israel as a state of all its citizens; some sectors of Israeli society, as responses to the Mazuz JNF decision show, have little regard for the requirements of democracy. One hopes that even without legal privilege and protection, Judaism will continue to enjoy the special cultural status the nation's history so plainly recommends.
One hopes that government and law will always bend toward democracy.
Leonard Fein is the author of "Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent's Story of Love, Loss, and Hope" (Jewish Lights).