Yuval Steinitz

By Yuval Steinitz

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The persistent survival of Orthodox Judaism irritates the secularist, since it interferes with the fashioning of the non-Jewish Israeli nation.
—Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Religion, Humanism and the Division of the Nation
What lies behind the misgivings expressed by wide segments of Israel’s liberal Left during the country’s semicentennial celebrations? The attempt to answer this question should take center stage in the debate over Israel’s character from now on. According to the conventional wisdom, which feels no love lost for these circles, such misgivings merely reflect a grudge held by some on account of the outcome of the 1996 elections. Yet a serious look at the manifestations of this mood, from the TV miniseries Tekuma to popular songs such as Shalom Hanoch’s “Don’t Call Me a People,” to articles by scholars such as Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, reveals that under the veil of opposition to the current right-wing government lurks a worldview which calls into question the very right of the Jewish state to exist.
This belief stems from the notion that a state which is Jewish cannot at the same time be democratic. The claim is made that since Judaism is both a religion and a nationality, it necessarily follows that a state which calls itself “Jewish”—a term which implies content and not just composition—may be expected to deteriorate at one time or another into an Iranian-style theocracy or fascist nationalism (or maybe even a combination of both). Even without such a decline, the argument goes, Israel’s present condition already contains distinct anti-democratic elements of racial discrimination and religious coercion, and therefore all those who love democracy in Israel must struggle with all their might for the separation of Judaism from the state.
This argument is fundamentally in error. The demand to separate the people’s religion and nationality from the state “for the sake of democracy” ignores the fact that political expression based on ideology and values is a basic democratic right, even when referring to religious and national values, even when these values happen to be Jewish, and even when this is expressed, as the accusers claim, through a certain degree of discrimination and coercion.
I begin with the issue of religion. The declared intention behind the demand to separate the Jewish religion from the state is to prevent any possibility of religious coercion, which until now has been conducted legally and with the sanction of the Supreme Court, whether it has meant Knesset legislation influenced by considerations of religion and tradition, or government actions that take such considerations into account. The “enlightened” of Israel want a constitution that will prevent religion from intruding into our political life, on the grounds that religious coercion is irreconcilable with democracy. In that event, religious parties such as the National Religious Party (NRP), Meimad, Shas, United Tora Judaism and the Islamic party, whose self-definition as “religious” parties eloquently testifies to their intention to inject religion and tradition into the workings of the Knesset and the government, would automatically be disbanded.
But then, watch what necessarily follows: When the religious parties are eliminated in the name of democracy, or at least lose their ability to act on behalf of their religious and traditional values as they have until now, non-religious parties—socialist and capitalist, humanist and Green, Arab and Russian, and Communist parties seeking to fulfill the commandments set forth in the holy writ of Marx—will be allowed to continue the struggle to realize their ideologies through involvement in parliamentary and government activity. This will lead to an absurd situation in which any attempt by the NRP or Shas to meddle in our private affairs via “primitive” legislation which for religious reasons prohibits pig-eaters such as myself from selling or eating pork will be regarded as an attack on democracy, and therefore will be thwarted from the outset by the constitution. However, an attempt by Meretz or the Greens to meddle in our private affairs via “progressive” legislation, such as that in Sweden outlawing the sale or consumption of whale meat, will be seen as consistent with democracy and therefore will be permitted under the constitution. In other words: The banning of whale steak will be kosher, since it is motivated by a secular, environmentalist ideology of foreign origin, while the banning of spareribs will be treif, because it originates in the ancient Jewish religious ideology. Moreover, legislation mandating the observance of the Sabbath as the day of rest on Jewish religious grounds will be defined as coercion and will be categorically rejected, since a secular store owner must not be compelled to honor a religious value which he does not hold, while a law recognizing the Sabbath as the day of rest in order to protect workers will naturally be acceptable, since a capitalist store owner may certainly be compelled to honor a socialist value which he does not hold. Laws prohibiting erotic billboard displays on the grounds of offending the religious public will be considered invalid, but an identical law put forth with the rationale that such displays offend women by cheapening the female body will be perfectly acceptable.
The proposal to separate state and religion in such a way as to rob a major segment of the population of its right to give democratic expression to its feelings, values and desires is the most totalitarian proposition in the annals of the state. In the long run, one result will likely be to deny the religious person the right to elect and to be elected. Nevertheless it may reasonably be assumed that, at least formally, religious citizens in Israel will continue to be allowed to vote, and even stand for election, on condition that when they enter the voting booth, they leave their religion in the closet. And, since no one can really be expected to shed his ideological skin when voting—religious or secular, Communist or capitalist, Jew or Arab, Green or anarchist—the proposed separation will result in de facto segregation, revoking the right of the religious and traditional public to employ democratic tools to express its values and desires.
Furthermore, the claim that on this issue, we must learn from the practices of enlightened Western countries, with their presumed separation of church and state, is similarly unsound. No democracy in the West (other than the limping democracy of Turkey) still practices this sort of secular-religious apartheid, forbidding the religious public from founding parties or proposing laws (read: coercion) based on religious principles. On the contrary: Most Western European nations have strong Christian-Democratic parties which, by definition, mix church and state. In some European countries, laws are in force restricting abortions—laws which were enacted under the influence of, among others, religious groups. Other countries have legislation ensuring the special nature of Sunday as the day of rest, when certain types of businesses are forced to close by law and by police enforcement. Separation of church and state does not even exist in the United States. What goes by that name there, as de Tocqueville well understood in Democracy in America, is something completely different: The religious institutions are separated from the state, meaning that the state may not intervene in the affairs of religious institutions by funding or other means. Religious coercion—namely, legislation passed for religious reasons or as a result of pressure by religious voters—is not prohibited.
Now to the issue of separating nationality from state. The prevailing claim among the post-Zionists is that political nationalism, by its very nature, necessarily discriminates among members of different nationalities, and that such prejudice is inconsistent with democracy. The extremists among those who repudiate the Jewish state even see Israeli nationalism as fascist: In their view, the Law of Return discriminating between Jews and non-Jews, or the activity of the Jewish Agency in settling Jews (but not Arabs) in the Galilee and the Negev, is racist in the truest sense of the word.
But here’s the rub: The same enlightened circles that preach, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, for abolishing the “Jewish state” in favor of a “state of all its citizens,” at the same time insist upon the right of the Palestinians to a nation-state of their own. How might this contradiction be resolved?
The solution begins with a certain softening of the objection to discrimination, leading to the possibility of granting legitimacy to a nation-state if and when it is nationally monolithic, or nearly monolithic. A democratic country, it is said, may not discriminate among citizens on the basis of nationality, race or creed. But since it has no fundamental obligation to care for the rest of the world, the problem with discrimination does not apply to citizens of other countries. Consequently, Britain, for example, most of whose citizens are of long-standing British stock, is entitled to preserve its national tradition and to educate to this end, since this does not lead to discrimination against a sufficiently large portion of its citizenry. Similarly, it may implement a selective immigration policy and grant immigration rights or work permits to members of certain nationalities (or those from Europe in general), while at the same time denying those rights to other people.
According to this principle, the State of Israel is different. To advocates of such a view, because about one-fifth of the state’s citizens are of Arab nationality, the Jewish nation-state, in its current West European format, is transformed into one great injustice that cannot be tolerated from a democratic standpoint.
Champions of this position generally stop short of declaring Herzl’s or Ben-Gurion’s vision of a Jewish state to be inherently racist or anti-democratic. Implicit in their reasoning, however, is that Israel’s restraining itself from committing complete “ethnic cleansing” during its War of Independence made the dream of a “Jewish-democratic state” into an impossible one. Moreover, even if the socioeconomic situation of Israeli Arabs were to improve drastically in the future, the very definition of Israel as a “Jewish” state would constitute a kind of emotional discrimination against the Arab minority. How is an Israeli Arab supposed to feel about the Law of Return, which decrees that his Palestinian relatives in Syria cannot immigrate and settle in Haifa or the Galilee, while our Jewish relatives in Russia can? How will he reconcile himself with the Israeli policy of population distribution, under which Jewish citizens living in the periphery are entitled to benefits not granted their Arab neighbors? Or with the fact that the national flag and anthem, the Hebrew language and biblical education, the Holocaust and the Jewish national rebirth, and innumerable other historical and cultural markers that occupy a central position in Israeli statehood, are all distinctly Jewish?
For years my friends and I shouted at leftist demonstrations, “Two states for two peoples!” in the name of justice and preventing discrimination. What we did not imagine in our innocence was that, concomitant with the establishment of the Palestinian national homeland now taking shape before our very eyes, we would be asked by some of our own comrades-in-arms to slaughter—in the name of the selfsame principles of justice and preventing discrimination—the precious lamb of the Jewish national home.
Although it is proper to consider the feelings of Israeli Arabs, the idea that an eighteen-percent minority population should force the majority to waive its historic right to self-determination is patently anti-democratic. In contrast to the compromise brokered in the past between the secular majority and an Orthodox public roughly equal in size to the Arab population, here the enlightened Israelis seek to subordinate the large Jewish majority in a total, and therefore totalitarian, manner to the sensitivities of the Arab minority.
In this matter we may, and should, follow the example of European countries whose democratic traditions have stood far longer than our own. Although the portion which foreign nationalities make up in those countries approaches that of the minorities in Israel, none of these states has seen that as reason to surrender its distinctive national and Christian characteristics, or its regulations governing immigration (which discriminate against minorities in their midst, such as Asians, Africans and Israelis, relative to Europeans).
In conclusion, one might well ask: Can democracy be reconciled with the coercion and discrimination which, as the critics rightly claim, all religious and national legislation entails?
The simple answer is that every operative law of any type necessarily contains elements of discrimination and coercion: Discrimination, since there is hardly any law in a democracy that does not meet with ideological opposition of one sort or another, and its enforcement upon the population as a whole necessarily discriminates against groups that do not share the values on which it is based (these being ideological groups which at times are religious, secular or national in character); coercion, since, as has already been explored by Kant and Freud, the goal of every human law or taboo, insofar as it is not a natural law but the work of man, is to impose conduct that is contrary to people’s natural inclinations.
In principle, there is no difference between Jewish, national, religious legislation and any other discriminatory or compulsory laws enacted in the name of other values. Consequently, the argument that we must sacrifice the Jewish state on the altar of democracy is fallacious, and takes the name of democracy in vain.

Dr. Yuval Steinitz is a lecturer in philosophy at Haifa University, and the author of A Logical-Scientific Missile to God and Back (Zmora Bitan, 1998).

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