Monday 12 July 2010

Can a Country be Jewish and Democratic?

Israel has frequently been criticised for being undemocratic due to the fact that it is a Jewish state. There are those who believe that it is impossible for Israel to be democratic as long as it is a Jewish country, and continues to adhere to the objective of maintaining its Jewish majority and character and protecting it wherever possible.

The preamble to Israel's Declaration of Independence confirms the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael to be known as the State of Israel. There can be no doubt that the driving force behind the creation of the State of Israel was the establishment of a Jewish country for Jews. The need for this in 1948 seemed to be clear to the majority of the world, as was evidenced by the vote at the United Nations which specified that a Jewish State will come into existence. Although the world order is different now more than 60 years later, the need for the existence of a Jewish state is as strong now as it was then. But, does the fact that Israel is uniquely Jewish prevent it from being a democracy? If so, what elements of being a Jewish state do not allow it to be a democracy?

While there appears not to be a universal definition of democracy, it is generally accepted that democracy is a form of government by the people, usually through elected representatives. The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of English, 2009 says that democracy is "a system of government by the whole population of all eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives". This system of government is one which allows the majority to decide how they wish to be governed. Even though many democracies today have also built in minority protection provisions, this concept is not necessarily a democratic one to the extent that minorities are granted protections or preferences at the expense of the majority.

Although Israel's Declaration of Independence does not mention the word "democracy", there can be no doubt that the founding fathers had every intention of establishing a democratic country. In support of this, the declaration did set out in some detail the democratic principles which the nascent state would follow. It specified that the State of Israel "will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations".

As a Jewish country, some aspects of Israeli society are governed by Jewish law. One example of this is the laws of marriage, which have no civil equivalent. This means that, in order to get married in Israel, it is necessary to hold a religious ceremony and be married by religious law. This is equally true for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. It also means that Israeli law does not accommodate intermarriage between the faiths. While this may be extremely inconvenient, especially for those who wish to marry somebody of another faith, it is applied equally to all citizens of Israel. Can this be viewed as undemocratic? Although it does limit who a person may marry under the laws of the State of Israel, this does not fall into the definition of undemocratic.

The Law of Return, a law which affords immediate citizenship of Israel to all people with one Jewish grandparent, is often cited as being undemocratic. It essentially gives preferential citizenship of the State of Israel to all those who are Jewish or descend from a Jewish grandparent. By contrast, those who do not have Jewish ancestry are obliged to make application through the usual channels for Israeli residency and citizenship, are required to meet qualification requirements and will need to be naturalised. Although the Law of Return is different from laws applicable in other countries, the concept of having residency and citizenship laws which apply to different people in different ways is not uncommon. One example is the laws of the UK which favour citizens of the European Union and of the Commonwealth over other citizens for residency. There are those who may feel that these laws are discriminatory in that they favour some people over others. This may be so, but this fact in itself does not make the country undemocratic.

Israel is a small, democratic and Jewish country. Although it is not a unanimous view, the majority of Israel's residents wish to run it according to Jewish laws and traditions, and wish to see it stay that way in the future. It is for this reason that the weekly day of rest is Saturday and this is also the reason why shops and offices close on Yom Kippur, but remain open on Christmas. The democratic process has determined that this is how people want to live in this country. Other countries choose to adopt laws and traditions of other religions, and this does not cause their democracy to suffer. There should be no reason why the adoption of Jewish traditions should bring Israel's democracy into question.

Because Israel is such a small country, there is always the danger that an influx of non-Jewish people may use the democratic process to change the nature of the country. We already see the ridiculous situation where Arab citizens of Israel are elected to the Knesset as lawmakers of the country, and who then act in a way that attempts to undermine the Jewish character of Israel. They even collaborate with Israel's enemies to place the country's security at risk and endanger her people. Surely this is an abuse of Israel's democracy.

In order to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish country consistent with the objectives of her forefathers, and in the spirit of the approval by the nations of the world at the United Nations vote, it is necessary to democratically ensure that Israel continues to have a Jewish majority. With the vastly varied birthrates prevalent among different segments of the population and the immigration of non-Jews (some even under the Law of Return), this may ultimately prove to be a challenge.

Israel's enemies continue to use every possible tactic to discredit and to de-legitimise Israel at whenever possible. This includes using the notion that a Jewish country can never be democratic because it promotes a Jewish character and gives citizenship preference to Jews. The truth is that these are policies employed by all democracies, albeit in slightly different guises. In fact, it is ironic to see how little democracy is evident in countries from which many of Israel's enemies come. Despite this fact, they have no shame in using this argument against the Middle East's only democracy, and one of the beacons of democracy in the world.

Could it be that these people, to whom democracy has suddenly become an important issue, are using this argument as an anti-Semitic tactic? Stranger things have happened.

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