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World Jews Want a “Jewish and Democratic Israel” That Isn’t Too Different from the One Israelis Want

by Shmuel Rosner

May 22, 2014 | 3:09 am

Credit: Barry Geltman, JPPI

Yesterday, the Jewish People Policy Institute released its special report, "Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry" – a report of which I'm the principle author (and head of project, together with Ambassador Avi Gil). We had a small gathering at the JPPI, with Head of the Jewish Agency Nathan Sharansky and Prof. Ruth Gavison as speakers. The JPPI project was initiated to supplement the work of Prof. Gavison on the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel. Prof. Gavison was appointed by the Minister of Justice to investigate the need for a new "constitutional arrangement dealing with Israel’s identity as a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state”. She believes, as we do, that JPPI’s project sets an important precedent in attempting to inject the perspectives of Jewish communities around the world into a principally “Israeli” discussion.

The report is long, and our six months of work, which included dozens of seminars in Jewish communities around the world, can't be summarized fully in a short post. Yet, in the short introduction to the project we attempted to give our readers an encapsulated version of the main themes that have emerged from this endeavor. With the permission of my JPPI superiors, I post this introduction here and invite you to take a look at the full report on JPPI's web site. I'm quite certain that this isn't the last word on the timely topic. Here we go:

At a time of frequent bickering over specific policies, language, and conduct, and in an era where strife and disputes get the limelight, which creates a (mis)impression of unbridgeable fissures, JPPI’s project on world Jewry’s views regarding the Jewish and democratic character of Israel concludes on a positive note: Jews around the globe support Israel and see their connection to it as important and enduring. Israel is – and could be even more so – a positive and inspiring common denominator for world Jewry. Non-Israeli Jews have a vision for Israel that is much more aligned than it is disputed. Moreover, the vision of Diaspora Jews for Israel is often similar to that of Israelis themselves.

Surely, there are gaps in interpretation and emphasis of needs and goals that should not be ignored. There are differences between non-Israeli communities and individuals, and between them and the Israeli Jewish public. It is also quite possible that this project’s methodology contributed to the relative harmony we found (we dedicate a chapter to explaining the strengths and limitations of JPPI’s process). Still, this report will leave you with the impression that the overall objective of a majority of Jews is to work jointly in building a “Jewish and democratic” state. A state that is safe, moral, economically and culturally prosperous, and markedly Jewish.

Jews around the world did not initiate this discussion. They were invited and encouraged to take part in the internal discussion currently underway in Israel. Yet those Jews who came to the table – representatives of dozens of communities around the world that differ in shape, size and character – did so with gusto. They understood the significance of the discussion for Israel, and were quick to demonstrate that what’s important for Israel is also important for them. In JPPI-initiated seminars from Brazil to the Netherlands, France, Britain, Canada, the United States, and Australia, Jews delved into the nuanced questions presented to them as stakeholders. “This is very personal, this is about me," a New York participant said when talking about the Jewishness of the Jewish state.

Indeed, the issue of Israel’s Jewish nature is the one the world Jewish community strongest messages in this report: If Israel wants to be “Jewish and democratic” in a way that speaks to non-Israeli Jews, it needs to first modify its understanding of what being “Jewish” means to many millions of Jews today – and find a way to be more inclusive of them. In every discussion JPPI conducted, in every community and every setting, Jews challenged Israel’s current interpretation of “Jewish.” At the conference in Glen Cove, the culmination of the discussions, one of the most dramatic moments was when a Conservative woman spoke about her struggle with Israel’s religious reality. “Our support of Israel is unambiguous, it’s wall to wall,”, she said, “but I want to know there is a place for me there where I can put on my Tallit every morning. May I do that in the State of Israel and not have things thrown at me? Will the government arrest me? Is there a place for me in Israel?”

Israel’s implementation of Jewishness was challenged because – the way world-Jews see it – for Israel to be truly deserving of the title “Jewish,” it needs to be a place where more Jews can feel comfortable in expressing their type of Judaism. It was also challenged because – to Diaspora Jews – not being inclusive and tolerant of other types of Judaism makes Israel less “democratic.”.

Non-Israeli Jews are not blind to the difficulties Israel must overcome, nor to the dangers it must face as it strives to retain its Jewish and democratic character. They also reject false allegations against Israel’s democracy – one notable example from JPPI discussions is the almost-unanimous rebuff of the attempts to present the Law of Return as an impediment to Israel’s democratic nature. But they set a high bar for Israel on democratic values: ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’ alike are binding terms to them and mandate sensitivity to minorities and respect for human rights. As discussants were asked to look at the text of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, and the difficulties it poses for non-Jewish Israelis, they struggled with their instinctive attachment to it, coupled with the understanding that it is, indeed, somewhat exclusionary of non-Jewish minorities. The conclusion reached about Hatikvah was somewhat murky in many of the discussions: keep Hatikvah but be “sensitive” about it. Currently, many Jews believe Israel is less than meticulous in properly keeping to values that protect human rights, or with showing the proper sensitivity when circumstances necessitate and justify a deviation from strict interpretation of these values.

There is a certain quality of moderation to the findings presented in this report. Just as political views and religious affiliations accurately foretell the position of Israeli respondents to public opinion surveys on the Jewish-democratic spectrum, the same is true for Jews around the world. Jews on the political far-right and on the political far-left can at times "dismiss the question [of what’s more important, Jewish or democratic] as too obvious to warrant deliberation." Far-right leaning groups stress “the priority of Israel's Jewish [character] over its democratic character," and far-left leaning groups regard "Israel's Jewish character as anachronistic." But the majority of Jews at the center want to have it both ways, and believe it is possible to do so. They thus find the questions related to tensions and contradictions between ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’  "quite difficult to answer." Frequently, their answers hedge around tensions and keep the formulation of having both values at the same stand intact.

For many Jews, some of the appeal of the formulation ‘Jewish and democratic’ is in its vagueness. The more they delve into attempts to exact its meaning, the more some feel the need to opt-out in disagreement. “Vagueness is good for Israel. Leave it unclear. Don't define Judaism. Judaism has never been a fixed entity. It's always been grey,” a discussant said in a Washington DC JPPI seminar. One message, however, was conveyed throughout the process with no ambiguity: Jews around the world would like to be consulted by Israel on matters of importance to them, and many of them believe that these consultations should have more impact on Israel’s policies.

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