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Israeli Society as a Jewish Issue

All Jews who care about the future of our people should show interest in the sovereign society Israel can create
©Roman Yanushevsky/
©Roman Yanushevsky/
Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal Adviser

The last months have seen vigorous debate in Israel over the internal nature of the Jewish state. The massive social protests over July and August (which continue to simmer) produced unprecedented demonstrations calling for “social justice” and a reassessment of national priorities and the distribution of resources. Multiple strikes demanding better employment conditions have raised hard questions about how Israel treats some of its workers. And in recent weeks, the political temperature has risen dramatically as a series of controversial bills have stirred argument in the Knesset on issues such as the nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, the composition of Israel’s Supreme Court, foreign funding of Israeli NGO’s and the possibility of civil claims against those who publicly call for boycotting Israel.

Whatever one’s views about the issues at stake, the fact that the public discourse in Israel has been so focused on these questions, especially at a time of incredible turmoil and rising danger in the region, signals a potential new moment in Israel’s history. There is a sense, born either of despair or of experience (and probably of both), that issues of war and peace will not be resolved any time soon, and they can no longer justify delaying the discussion about the nature of the social contract within the state. Israeli society seems unwilling to allow the security issue to dominate the agenda in the way it once did. If Zionism’s first phase was creating the state we need to protect the Jewish people, Israelis may be shifting their collective attention to its second phase: debating the society that we want.

Until now, however, this debate has largely been conceived in narrow terms: it has been seen by many as mirroring the social protests and political partisanship that have shaken other societies across the globe. It has generally been portrayed as a conventional battle between Right and Left over the limits of free speech, and the need for checks and balances in the branches of government, or between upper and lower classes in society over distributive justice, the cost of living and the relationship between capitalism and social welfare.

It is, of course, about all these important matters. But, for the Jewish people, it is also about something no less profound. As Israel’s prophets constantly remind us, the true strength and character of Israel as a Jewish State will be forged by its internal nature, by the way it treats its citizens, and in the moral values its society strives to uphold. “Zion will be redeemed by justice,” Isaiah declares, echoing the sentiments of so many of our prophets (Isaiah 1:27).

In this sense, all decisions facing Israel are Jewish decisions. The way in which Israel embraces or ignores Jewish values in making these decisions is the measure of whether we have been able to reimagine the prophetic vision of creating a just and exemplary Jewish society in modern times.

If Israel does not constantly seek to balance its moral duties to the Jewish people with its moral duties to respect the dignity and rights of others in its midst, it is, in some fundamental sense, not a Jewish state. If it is not relentlessly preoccupied with the plight of the vulnerable and weak within society it is, in some fundamental sense, not a Jewish state. In short, a state that does not look at the decisions it takes through the prism of the Jewish values and aspirations it seeks to embody is, in some fundamental sense, not a Jewish state.

Because Israel offers us the chance to write a revolutionary new chapter in Jewish history, this is not just an issue for debate within Israel: it concerns the Jewish world as a whole. And yet, across the Jewish world, these issues seem to receive relatively little consideration. While many Jewish communities and organizations provide impressive support for social causes and institutions in Israel, it appears as though the actual debate about the nature of Israeli society itself is less compelling. Sermons, community evenings, and Jewish organizations can discuss the peace process, or terrorism, or anti-Semitism almost endlessly, but the question of how to rise to the moral challenge of Jewish sovereignty attracts far less attention.

Part of this is, of course, understandable. These issues are more removed from Jewish communities outside of Israel. And, admittedly, there is the constant question of the standing that Jews who do not live in Israel have to participate in a debate about its internal character. But part of the relative lack of broader Jewish interest also stems from misunderstanding. Because what is at stake in this debate is not just the quality of life for Israel’s citizens; it is not even just the nature of Israeli society; it is the future of Judaism itself. If Israel claims to be, and is conceived by Jews worldwide as, the homeland of our people, then at some level we must see Israel as a profound opportunity for the Jewish people as a whole to create a state worthy of Jewish history and Jewish values.

There need not necessarily be parity between Jews inside and outside Israel on these questions. After all, the citizens of Israel will be the ones whose lives are immediately shaped by these decisions. But all Jews and Jewish organizations that care deeply about the future of our people should, of necessity, demonstrate a clearer interest in the kind of sovereign society our people can create. This challenge, perhaps more than any other, is the privilege and the responsibility of our generation, and the long, rich chronicles of Jewish history will record whether, as a people, we succeeded or failed in responding to it.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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