Amitai Etzioni

By Amitai Etzioni

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If Israel ceased to be the Jewish state, another one would have to be invented. The Jewish people require a homeland to protect them not merely from physical annihilation, but also from cultural devastation. The Jewish history of suffering and sacrifices secures Jews the right to be shielded not merely from all enemies, foreign and domestic, but also from their own inclination to assimilate and vanish when residing outside the Jewish nation-state. Only a Jewish state, as a tool of Jewish nationhood, can provide the basis for Jewish continuity—in the homeland and elsewhere. It follows that to deny Israel this role is to reject much more than the very troublesome theocratic elements of the existing Jewish state; it is to deny—indeed, betray—the Jewish fate.
During a recent meeting of the American Political Science Association, political theorist Yael Tamir suggested that Israel cease to be a Jewish state, and that those who do not accept “the rules of the game,” the constitutional elements imbedded in the civic foundations of Israel, should either leave for some other shores or be made to abide by these rules. She ignored the fact that the rules of the game, established against all odds through the blood, sweat and tears of Israel’s founders, are Jewish rules, and not some faceless and faithless civil-libertarian principles. While I certainly do not wish anyone to depart or be forced to violate his or her most profound beliefs, given the special foundations of Israel, the question stands: If anyone is forced to leave or to comply, who should that be—those who seek to maintain Israel as a Jewish state, or those who wish to turn it into a state indistinguishable from any other, a kind of Lebanon II?
All this is not to suggest that if one continues to embrace Israel’s destiny as a Jewish state, one must therefore accept the particular manifestation of Jewishness present in Israel today. Indeed, some of the claims laid by the Haredim are not much more essential to Jewish tradition than are the goyish clothes which the Haredim wear so devoutly.
Reforming the Jewish elements of the State of Israel rather than eradicating them is first of all a political matter. It is misleading to argue that Israel, under the thumb of the Haredim, is being undemocratic. The Israeli voters are regularly given the opportunity to accord more votes to secular parties, or to strong advocates of civil rights. But so far, the voters have refused to do so, at least in part because voters do not buy significant parts of the secularists’ agenda.
Moreover, if the existing main parties chose to form a national coalition for a period of reform, many of the excesses of the Haredim could be rapidly eradicated, without turning Israel into a secular state. There would be no risk of losing Israel’s rich history, tradition and identity, of becoming a state without nationhood which commands no loyalty and for which none would risk their lives. Such a coalition has not yet been formed because the parties, both on the Left and on the Right, have found it politically advantageous to cut deals with the religious parties rather than with each other; this political opportunism is neither undemocratic, nor a reason to deny the Jewish fate. Those who favor reform would do best to moderate their often extreme agendas and to urge voters to demand a national coalition of the main parties, rather than vainly try to dejudaize the State of Israel.
In the process, the champions of reform need to show a great deal of pragmatism. They must realize that democracies are not places where fifty-one percent govern and impose their views on all others, and are not polities that either run roughshod over minorities or yield to them. Instead, democratic polities try to work things out. Israelis need to realize that a true democracy, encountering a large and dedicated minority, looks for pragmatic solutions that differ from one issue to another, rather than to simplistic, grand solutions such as the “separation of church and state,” which are not followed by most democratic states. Thus, in most of the country, Israelis have already found ways to buy all the pork they want, despite the fact that this is a gross violation of Jewish tradition. Israelis have also worked out ways to drive on the Sabbath, despite some limited inconveniences. (For instance, they can choose from among a dozen airlines if they wish to fly on the Sabbath, but cannot fly El Al.) In other areas, people of good will have worked out solutions, such as agreements allowing roads to be paved through burial grounds as long as the remains are reburied according to rituals, but on the condition that ancient urns are turned over to archaeologists.
Additional concerns, of which there are quite a few, require far greater concessions from the Haredim—women’s rights, for instance. These issues might be better addressed if one looked for bases in Jewish tradition rather than to John Locke or even to Betty Friedan. Still other issues, for instance, requiring everyone to serve in the military and to receive civic education, might gain much broader support if not lumped together with an all-encompassing anti-religious agenda.
In short, attacking the essence of Israel, rather than seeking to reform it, is one of those radical ideas that please diehard followers but have little political viability and less moral justification. Working things out within a Jewish framework is challenging, but more likely to work in the long run and to honor Israel’s obligations as the homeland of the Jewish people.

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor of Sociology at George Washington University and editor of The Responsive Community. He served in the Palmah and the IDF during the Israeli War of Independence.

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