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Judaism and Democracy in Conversation

The Israeli political system is shifting. Although the democratic system is a parliamentary one, there is a widening gap between two major political blocks.
Tani Frank is the Director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Since 2013, Tani has worked with MK Elazar Stern (Major-General Res.) as a senior consultant for economic and legislative affairs, including the responsibility for drafting bills and promoting ideas on issues of religion and state. Following the 2015 elections in Israel, Tani was one of the founding directors of “Judaism for All,” an initiative focused on creating

The Israeli political system is shifting. It’s becoming more and more clear that, although the democratic system is a parliamentary one, there is a widening gap between two major political blocks. This gap hasn’t anything to do with right-wing or left-wing policies with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, the gap first emerged around Prime Minister Benjamin

Netanyahu and his legal affairs; one block supports his rule and won’t challenge him, and the other block refuses to form a coalition with him.

These blocks have evolved to stand on opposite sides of an ideological line reflecting the dual identity of the State of Israel as Jewish and democratic. The current coalition, which emerged from an ongoing campaign for a “Jewish State,” promotes legislation for the sake of Judaism, while the opposition fights judicial reform mainly for the sake of democracy.

If this trend continues, Judaism will come to be perceived as a value belonging only to right-wing, Orthodox Jews, while democracy will be seen as a value belonging only to left-wing, secular Israelis. Furthermore, demographic predictions for Israeli society suggest that within 40 years, the ultraOrthodox (Haredi) community will make up a third of the total Israeli population. As a result, the meaning of Judaism may eventually be limited to the most extreme interpretations of Jewish tradition and halakhah (Jewish law). This, in turn, will deepen the growing ideological gap between diaspora Jewry and Israelis to the point that it may become irreversible.

We must deal with both parts of this equation: reclaiming Judaism and reclaiming democracy. The way to do this is first and foremost to acknowledge they are not necessarily in contradiction. Nowadays, when some accuse the Israeli Supreme Court of being, among other things, anti-religious or even anti-Jewish, we must reiterate the fact that there are many roots for democratic values within Judaism.

The liberal idea of humanism is one example of a democratic value also found in Judaism. The Knesset recently debated the question of expanding the death penalty to terrorists. The leader of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, Itamar Ben Gvir, claimed that such a law is in line with Jewish moral values. The reality is the complete opposite: there is a consensus among most rabbis that the death penalty is against halakhah. According to the Talmud, only a Sanhedrin—a rabbinical court of 71 rabbis—may sentence a person to death. Jewish sources further state that even when there is such a court, it should not execute a death sentence more than once every 70 years. Despite this, and even though the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef opposed the legislation under debate, most of the voices speaking out against it spoke from liberal-democratic positions, rather than Jewish ones.

In contrast to the situation in which we find ourselves today, my vision for Israeli society integrates liberal concepts into both its Jewish and its democratic natures. This will make it possible for Judaism and democracy to be in conversation. We can build such a vision by realizing that legislation fueled by a wrongful interpretation of Judaism cannot be fought with counterarguments fueled by democratic narratives alone, but must also be countered by better interpretations of Judaism. This is only possible if those who are most committed to democracy do not give up on Judaism. We must simultaneously show communities in Israel that are rejecting democracy that supporting democracy does not mean rejecting Judaism. In these times, this is the right thing to do, lest we lose what remains of the solidarity that we still have.

This essay is from a special Yom Ha’atzmaut edition of Tamuz, an online magazine of the The David H Sonabend Center for Israel at the Marlene Meyerson JCC, presented in partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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