Israel Can Be Jewish, Democratic, and Committed to Human Rights, Without Contradiction

December 16, 2016 | Ruth Gavison
About the author: Ruth Gavison was the Haim H. Cohn professor emerita of human rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the founding president of the Metzilah Center.

Looking to Israel’s Declaration of Independence for guidance, Ruth Gavison addresses the polarization within Israeli society that has resulted from fierce debates over identity, the status of the Palestinians, religion, and the like:

We [in Israel] have forgotten that democracy, human rights, and the Jewish state, [all of which are enshrined in the Declaration], go together very well. Jews used to understand this. Not only do they go together well, they are required for each other. The people who struggled to establish the Jewish state knew that they were going to have a democracy and they were very responsive to the idea of human rights. . . . But these three interlocking elements . . . are today viewed by many as totally distinct, with either major tensions or even outright contradiction among them.

So, increasingly, we find people who want to take one element of the complex vision . . . and make it primary. They give their primary ideal a very expansive interpretation. They demand that the other two elements be operative only within the constraints of the broadly-defined primary element. And this happens from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum. . . .

The “wisdom” of the Declaration, and of the decisions that the founding fathers and mothers made in the first decades of Israel, was their agreement to disagree. . . . The Declaration itself [thus] left many ideological questions open. . . . Who is a Jew? What role does the Jewish religion play in the new state? What is the relationship within Judaism among nationalism, culture, and religion? What is the status of the Arab minority and what are its rights? . . .

[These questions] were to be dealt with politically, by a series of arrangements that Israel made. Israel created a set of impressive democratic institutions and an independent court, but it refused to transform the elements of its vision into legal questions of principle. Whether Israel was a capitalist or a socialist country, a religious or non-religious country, whether God would feature in the Israeli constitution—all of these were things people did not want to decide on. And that agreement not to decide permitted Israel to move on to the urgent challenges [facing it].

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