Monday, August 17, 2009

Jewish and democratic: is it possible for Israel?

(From Drt. Zohar Raviv's lecture and published paper for the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, currently in Melbourne.)

Israel's Declaration of Independence reads:"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books… We….hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel."

Raviv contends that the above is a result of the uniqueness of Judaism which cannot be confined to religious terminologies as are other systems of faith. Judaism is not solely a religious system but rather a religious skeleton fortified by a national backbone whose raison d'etre was and continues to be relationship between the People, the Torah and the Land of Israel,- the first two inextricably entwined with the latter. (The aborigines may be the only ones who feel this connection to their land,- but for the Jewish people it is in the Torah as a covenant with God,-i.e. the land not the people!) He calls it 'theography', not geography being the most important aspect of the Jewish state of Israel!

Can Israel sustain a democracy on the Western model while retaining its unique Jewish character? Raviv contends that it is impossible to superimpose foreign models of democracy, with their separation of religion and state,- over the Israeli conceptual backbone. Rather it should concentrate on articulating and realizing a model that accepts the Jewish skeleton of the state as fundamental to its vision. This debate should be viewed by the Jewish citizens as a healthy part of its trajectory. For non-Jewish citizens, the unique condition of the Jewish state renders them equal in rights, but unequal in standing,- as controversial as this may be.

Raviv explains that (in his opinion),it is not possible for non-Jewish citizens to have the same affinity (cf. patriotism) for the symbols of the Jewish State such as its name, its anthem, its symbols in the flag, with its rights to sustain a Jewish majority, etc.. These are the quintessentials of all Western democracies, where there can be total separation of Church and State, but unrealistic in the Jewish State of Israel. Were these Jewish symnbolisms removed from Israel, then forget it as the Jewish State.

If one needed to choose between democracy and Jewishness in Israel,- some Western Jews would argue for democracy,- while the majority would argue for Jewishnes and democracy, (as long as the notion of equality of rights before the laws of the state are guaranteed and properly applied for all). However, as questioners in the lecturer's audience pointed out, for many Jewish secular Israelis, being an Israeli is enough. The 'Jewish' aspect is passed over as secondary or irrelevant. Raviv put it as a fault of the education system which failed or fails to emphasise Judaism without religious dogma.

What then will the future hold for the "Jewish State" in this case? Raviv has no answer,- he just left it for future researchers to address. In the diaspora communities such as in Melbourne, he feels the people feel more Jewish and connected to the Jewish state of Israel than many secular Israelis. He stated on previous occasions that our diaspora communities should build bridges with Israelis to teach them how to be Jewish in a multicultural democracy, rather than the reverse!

(Dr. Zohar Raviv is an Israel;i, now a resident of Chicago, where he is an author, teacher and academic in Jewish Studies.)

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