Jewish, Muslim, Democratic: How Can States be Ethnocentric and Democratic?

Jewish and Arab Teenagers in Israel: Do they have a future together?
Jewish and Arab Teenagers in Israel: Do they have a future together?

Foreign Minister of Israel Tzipi Livni is in a fight she is likely to lose to become the next prime minister of Israel. Reports coming in indicate that Likud, and therefore its head Benjamin Netanyahu, will be able to put together the next Israeli government. So it is not surprising that Livni, who has advocated a peace process vociferously, would now be appealing to the right wing in the American Jewish community and in Israel by emphasizing her Jewish allegiances. She said recently:

“The world is willing to defend the right of the state of Israel to exist, this is the part of the requirement that the [Mideast] Quartet demands [of] Hamas. But I would like to add two more words to this demand of the quartet: They need to accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state,” Livni told delegates at the closing ceremony of the United Jewish Communities General Assembly on Wednesday.

Livni told the crowd of Jews from around the world that Israel’s survival was dependent first and foremost on Israel remaining a Jewish state, saying “a Jewish state is a matter of values, it’s is not a matter of religion, it is more a matter of nationality. And a Jewish state is not a monopoly of rabbis, it’s what each and everyone feels inside, it’s about the nature of the state of Israel.

“Its about the Jewish tradition, it’s about Jewish history. – But we need to keep the nature, the character of the state of Israel as a Jewish state because this is – excuse me for using French – the raison d’etre of the state of Israel,” she added.

I have tried for a long time to wrap my head around the idea of an Islamic state, a Jewish state, or a Christian state, that can also be democratic, but I just can’t get it. I can get states that cater to longstanding ethnic, religious, or cultural values, that minister to special needs of particular populations. But I cannot get identifying a country by definition as a state that exists for 70% of its citizens only, or even 98%. Imagine the hue and cry of the Jewish community if the President of the United States systematically introduced legislation to ensure that this country be a Christian country.

I think—I know–that the Jewish community of Israel and the world will eventually come up with a formula for a state that is truly democratic but that caters to the special needs of the Jewish people. This is doable, one sees such formulas in many countries. But I do not see a viable formula yet that is a prescription for living in the Middle East, living with history, and living with justice and equality. So far it is a success from the narrow perspective of Jewish ethnocentric interests and a catastrophe from the perspective of Jewish moral values that its prophets proclaimed over two thousand years ago. This is not sustainable, neither from a realist perspective nor from an internal Jewish spiritual point of view. Judaism and Jewish culture can and will flourish in Israel for centuries to come, but only if its core values survive. Someday it will be seen that giving dignity and honor to neighbors and strangers is not just a good way to survive in the Middle East, it is the only way for Judaism to survive.

© Marc Gopin