The Curious Case of Jewish Democracy

By Amnon Rubinstein

Does Israel suffer from a split-personality disorder?

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he question of Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state is as old as the state itself. Since David Ben-Gurion announced “the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel,”1 the matter of its democratic character has been the subject of countless legal disputes, political feuds, scholarly works, and public debates—and we are no closer to a resolution today than we were 62 years ago. Indeed, with the growing demands of anti-Zionists abroad—and post-Zionists at home—that Israel shed its particularistic Jewish identity; with the insistence on the Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state becoming a major point of contention in the Israeli-Arab conflict; and with the perpetual struggle within Israeli society itself to determine what exactly “Jewish and democratic” means, the problems surrounding the state’s dual character seem only to be intensifying with time.
In light of these mounting attacks on Israel’s foundational identity, as well as the widespread belief that “Jewish” and “democratic” can never be reconciled, it behooves us to revisit the issue and examine it in the broadest possible context. We must consider how this identity was created, how it is anchored in the state’s constitutional and political institutions, and the validity of the charges currently being brought against it. Accordingly, this essay will present a brief survey of some of the main arguments against the viability of Israel’s dual nature, such as the claims that the state’s national symbols reflect its Jewish majority, thereby ignoring minority cultures; that the continued occupation of the West Bank undermines Israel’s democratic character; that the discrimination against the Arab community contradicts the principle of equality; and that religious legislation is incompatible with the democratic principle of freedom.
Although the objections to Israel’s twofold identity are many and varied, they do nevertheless have one thing in common: They all presuppose that the state is Jewish in the religious sense of the word. As I will seek to demonstrate, however, if we were to define Israel’s Jewishness as essentially national or cultural rather than religious—thus returning to Herzl’s original Zionist vision—we would discover that many (if not all) of these objections are rendered null and void, and that, in the final analysis, a Jewish state is not at all at odds with the liberal-democratic ideal.

Amnon Rubinstein is professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya and an Israel Prize laureate.

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