Sunday 19 September 2010

Is Israel Really a Jewish Country?

The issue of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish country has once again become an issue in the context of the current round of direct peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinians agree to recognise Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state in the proposed two-state solution. For some, however, it seems that this is a step too far.

What right does Israel have to define itself as a Jewish country? Even though the population register shows that 80% of its citizens are Jewish, is this enough? Brazil, Italy and The Philippines do not define themselves as Catholic countries despite significant Catholic majorities, so why should Israel insist on being recognised as a Jewish country? A recent survey in Israel showed that more than 40% of its citizens regard themselves as secular Jews. This is as opposed to those who consider themselves to be religious or traditional Jews. Does the fact that so many citizens are Jewish by birth, but don't participate in Jewish religious traditions and practices reduce Israel's right to be defined as a Jewish country? There seem to be many questions whose answers could have a significant impact on Israel's future, and on the shape of her future.

Israel was established as a homeland for the Jewish people, and nothing has changed during the course of the last 62 years. At the time of independence in 1948, Israel represented one of the only safe-havens for Jews to live free of persecution and anti-Semitism, irrespective of whether they wished to practice their Judaism or not. It is this principle which is still in force today. Israel remains a Jewish country, and being Jewish is part of its character and make-up. It is not coincidental that the only day in the week that schoolchildren have off from school is Saturday, the day of the Jewish Sabbath. It is not by accident that the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange trades on Christmas Day, but not on Yom Kippur (or any of the other Jewish religious holidays). These practices have been put in place because of the fact that Israel is a Jewish country, and not simply to be different from other countries. Jewish practices are applied uniformly to all who live in Israel whether they be religious, secular or somewhere in between. They also apply to non-Jews who make Israel their home.

Being Jewish is not governed by a person's level of religiosity, or the extent to which he or she observes Jewish law. A person is determined as being Jewish at birth if he or she is born to a Jewish mother. No further qualifications are required. Even though there are those who renounce their Judaism in favour of other religions or beliefs, Judaism does not really believe in the possibility of becoming non-Jewish at any time. It is true that non-Jews can convert to Judaism, but this is a one-way street which does not allow Jews to escape their roots entirely.

The most holy day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, was observed over the past weekend. It seems to me that this is one of the true tests of how Jewish Israel really is. A few facts about Yom Kippur really stand out for me, and I am reminded of them each year that I am in Israel. They seem to be highly relevant to the argument of whether Israel is truly a Jewish country or not. Somehow, Israelis across the political and religious divides seem to return to their roots on Yom Kippur day. It is interesting to me that a recent survey revealed that only 28% of all Israelis had decided that they would not fast on Yom Kippur. In addition to all religious respondents and the vast majority of traditional respondents saying that they would fast, the survey revealed that half of the secular respondents also said that they would fast. During the course of Yom Kippur, no vehicles can be found on the roads in the cities across Israel. Although Jewish law demands that vehicles not be driven on Yom Kippur, there are many secular people who do not subscribe to this law but still do not drive on Yom Kippur. It is part of the atmosphere and the tradition of the day that all Israelis choose not to drive their cars. The fact that children take advantage of the vehicle-free streets to ride their bicycles and scooters in large numbers does not, in my view, detract from the spirit of Yom Kippur. A really lovely tradition is for pedestrians to walk in the middle of the street while the cars stay away. It allows people to be outdoors together in an atmosphere of unity and togetherness, that is difficult to find anywhere else that I have been.

In the city of Ra'anana where I live, the municipality arranged religious services in school halls throughout the city. These services are directed at regular people who have no affiliation to a synagogue, but still wish to attend a Yom Kippur service. I attended one of these "Yom Kippur for all" services, and observed a basketball hall packed to capacity of people who otherwise do not attend religious services. This is in addition to the hundreds of synagogues across the city who were filled with regular members and visitors.

Immediately following the conclusion of the fast of Yom Kippur, sounds could be heard across the city of people constructing their temporary dwellings, Sukkot, for the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) that follows a few days after Yom Kippur. The construction of these temporary structures is a tradition followed by many secular Jews in addition to their religious and traditional brethren. Once again we have evidence that, no matter how secular the society is, there are certain traditions and practices of Judaism which are uniformly followed by a vast majority of Israeli Jewish citizens. These include the celebration of the Sabbath in some way each week, and celebrating the festival of Purim amongst other things.

If there is a requirement to prove that Israeli society follows Jewish practices, the evidence seems to me to be overwhelming. It is almost inconceivable that Israel's status as a Jewish country would not be respected and publicly recognised in a peace agreement. If Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries can be a Islamic countries, there is no reason to prevent Israel from being a Jewish state, the only Jewish state. If this simple fact cannot be acknowledged and set in stone in an agreement, for me there can be no peace deal.

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