If you had asked me a few months ago whether I could imagine speaking at a ‘spontaneous protest’ regarding the legislative proposals of an Israeli government, I would have thought it implausible. Yet there I was this past Monday night in Cleveland Circle, at a gathering in support of Israeli democracy organized by Israeli-Americans, many of whom have previously served or currently serve in leadership roles in this local community and within JCRC.
On Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his Minister of Defense – who had publicly warned of the danger of proceeding with the judicial overhaul – prompting a general strike across the country on Monday that shut down businesses, schools, and Ben Gurion airport. This included the shuttering of Israeli embassies around the world and the consulate here in Boston, as our local friends and colleagues joined in the strike. I probably don’t need to tell you that these events this week were a pivotal moment in Israel’s debate over the character and forms of its democratic future.
And while there was a ‘suspension’ of the drive toward a judicial overhaul this week, this debate in Israel is hardly over. In this context, I’ve been asked a number of times this week what JCRC’s ‘position’ is on Israel’s debate over its democratic character and the various bills being considered by the Knesset.
For JCRC, our position has always been a commitment to support a safe, secure, Jewish and democratic state of Israel.
But terms like ‘democracy’ can and do mean different things for different people. ‘Democracy’ isn’t only about elections; one only need observe the Cuban national ‘elections’ this week – in which candidates chosen by local party cadres run unopposed (and so, every nominee was also the winner). And among nations that have multi-party competitive elections, the structure of those elections and governments can be profoundly different; See the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and India, for example.
So, what do we mean when we talk about Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the context of its competitive multi-party, unitary district, and one-house parliamentary elections? (yeah, I’m a political science nerd).
In our engagement with Israel, we strive to view the answer to that question not through our American constitutional lens, but rather through Israel’s Declaration of Statehood. For it is in this document – with its “appeal to Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally around” Israel in the struggle of realizing an age-old dream – that we also find a definition, by Israel’s founders, of the character of its democracy:
“It will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
As with many states, Israel can be and aspires to be a nation-state defined by its Jewish character and culture. Much as France is French or Japan is Japanese – in Israel, the languages spoken, the holidays that are state days, and the cultural touch-points of the public discourse, all have a Jewish character. There is a continuing conversation about what makes up the state’s ‘Jewishness’ – but that is a conversation about the expansive fabric and character of Jewishness, not the fact of the state’s Jewish identity.
And Israel– like many but not all nation-states– lays out a vision for itself as a nation-state in which the rights of national minorities, and of individuals, are to be protected and accommodated. The structures of a healthy democracy, the checks and balances, the limitations on majority control over minorities – though they may take somewhat different forms in different liberal democracies – are the protection and guarantor of these rights.
We at JCRC have not taken official positions on individual pieces of legislation before the Knesset. But it is not lost on us that our partners and friends on the ground, Israeli citizens both Jewish and Arab, are deeply concerned about some of the judicial reforms that were working their way through Knesset readings these past weeks. They are concerned that these reforms do, in effect, set the table for other legislation proposed by members of the current coalition that would actively withdraw rights and protections to religious, gender, sexual-identity and other minorities – even potentially taking away rights for many individuals who voted for parties currently in the governing coalition.
None of that is to say that we are opposed to ‘any’ judicial reform. We hear and listen to the many thoughtful people who are saying that reform is needed, that a balance of institutions needs to be renegotiated and defined. That is work we hope to see done thoughtfully in the months ahead. We pray that wise leaders will work to unite, and not demonize, the Israeli people – with an eye toward building a broad national consensus.
Lastly, we continue to respond to the vision and the invitation of the founders. It is an invitation and a call for us to “rally around” the Israeli people as they work to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants”.
When we sing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah (‘The Hope’), we sing the words ‘lehiyot Am chofshi b’artzeinu’: “to be a free people in our land”. We Diaspora Jews take those words seriously. We rally to them, our Israeli partners, to be free from terrorism and rockets, free from those who seek nuclear weapons to eliminate them, and free from those who deny the legitimacy of Jewish national aspiration. It also means that we rally our support to Israelis in their defense of their own freedom as citizens, as promised in the Declaration of Statehood.
This has always been our commitment to the Israeli people, and my commitment to our partners in Israel, and to the Israeli-Americans and others here in Boston.
P.S. For more information on what’s been going on this week, I recommend this excellent podcast discussion from Monday with the Hartman Institute’s Yehuda Kurtzer to unpack this moment in Israeli public life.