The Truth About Israel as a Jewish State

A lot is being written and said about the recent passage of a Knesset motion that, among other things, will reaffirm that Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state.

For the uninitiated, Israel is a complex nation. It is founded on Jewish values and principles as well as on democratic values and principles. By definition, that results in some contradictions. What does Israel’s Declaration of Establishment mean when, in 1948, it declared itself clearly to be a “Jewish state”? Israel has wrestled with that concept and will continue to. Unlike America, there is no wall of separation between the secular state and religion. Religious authorities – and not just Jewish ones – have some governmental authority and support. Freedom of religion is clear in Israel, yet some rabbis and Jewish religious movements are not given the same authority and support that other religious groups have.

In short, it is a wonderful, messy, Jewish state that also has citizens of many other religious and cultural backgrounds. What Knesset attempted to do was to reaffirm the Jewish character of the state and to take another step towards articulating what that means.

For those of you who have read the headlines, but not the fine print, Knesset approved some principles that now need to be further clarified for a future statement of law. These are the principles (my appreciation to the folks at the Israel Consulate in Miami for passing them along) that Prime Minister Netanyahu drafted:

Objective

Defining the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish People, and anchoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Basic principles

The Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish People and the place of the establishment of the State of Israel.

The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish People in which the Jewish People realizes its right to self-determination in accordance with its cultural and historic heritage.

The right to realize national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.

The State of Israel is democratic, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law.

Symbols of the State

The national anthem is Hatikvah.

The national flag is white with two sky-blue stripes close to the margins and a sky-blue Star of David in the center.

The national emblem is a seven-branched menorah with two olive branches at its sides and the word ‘Israel’ below.

Return

All Jews are eligible to immigrate to the country and receive citizenship of the state according to law.

Ingathering of the Exiles and Strengthening Links with the Jewish People in the Diaspora

The State will act to gather the exiles of the Jewish People and strengthen links between Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

Assistance to Jews in Distress

The State will act to assist Jews in distress and in captivity due to their being Jews.

Heritage

The State will act to preserve the historical and cultural heritage and tradition of the Jewish People and to enshrine and cultivate it in the country and in the Diaspora.

All educational institutions that serve the Jewish public in the country will teach the history, heritage and tradition of the Jewish People.

The State will act to enable all residents of Israel, regardless of religion, race or nationality, to preserve their culture, heritage, language and identity.

Official Calendar

The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the State.

Independence Day and Remembrance Day

Independence Day is the national holiday of the State.

Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day are the official remembrance days of the State.

Public holidays

The regular public holidays of the State of Israel are the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays on which no worker shall be employed except under conditions to be defined by law; members of recognized faiths shall be entitled to rest on their Sabbaths and holidays.

Jewish Law

Jewish law shall serve as a source of inspiration for the Knesset

If a court shall consider a legal question that requires a decision and not find an answer in legislation, precedent or clear inference, it shall render a decision in light of the principles of freedom, justice, fairness and peace of the heritage of Israel.

Maintaining the Holy Places

The Holy Places shall be guarded against desecration, any other damage and against anything that is liable to infringe on freedom of access by worshippers to the places that are holy to them or on their feelings toward those places.

Infringement of rights

There shall be no infringement of rights according to the basic laws except by law that befits the values of the State of Israel, that is designed for a worthy purpose and which does not exceed that which is required.

Israel faces an existential dilemma. Jews with any resources whatsoever, are not facing limitations on where they may live. While anti-Semitism has reared its head in recent years around the world, Jews feel safe in most lands in which they are concentrated. And there are easier places to live than Israel. So why have an Israel for the Jewish people? And why would Jewish people choose to live in Israel? I would argue that it is to provide a living experiment for Jewish values and even for Torah and Mitzvot: To demonstrate whether it is possible in today’s “real world” to live in accordance with at least some, if not all, Torah principles. And also to articulate where it might not be possible and to determine where and how adjustments are to be made.

In the final analysis, the ability to use an approach of what Gidi Grinstein refers to as “flexigidity”, balancing tradition and continuity with change and innovation, is going to be what moves Israel forward.

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