Israel's Jewish state bill may be bad for Judaism

It is social values, not legal declarations, that will decide Israel's Jewish character


The proposed Jewish State Bill has been one of the most hotly contested pieces of legislation in Israeli memory and the controversy - along with considerable ego - has led to the current government's dissolution. Depending on whom you ask, it either corrects or upsets the delicate balance between Judaism and democracy that lies at the heart of Zionism.

Critics have accused the government of racism, demoting Israel's non-Jewish citizens to second-class status. Defenders respond that the current draft is not racist: minority rights are protected, the bill simply enshrining in law that only the Jewish people possess collective rights within the state of Israel. Others ask why specifically now - at a time when favourable world opinion is at a worrying low, and tension with Israel's Arab population at a dangerous high - this legislation should be so necessary.

Yet it appears to me that a tacit, dangerous assumption is left unquestioned by everyone: that Judaism and democracy are easily separated entities, locked in a zero-sum game where concern for individuals and minorities battles the power and prestige of an ethno-national group.

This may be the Judaism of Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman (allowing for the slight differences of head-coverings and food restrictions) but it appears to me to be a drastically limited and distorted representation of what Judaism has to say about the nature of politics and the state.

The Bible's most instantly recognisable political model is probably that of prophet and king. The Bible features good kings and bad kings, but each is a fallible human whose realm is politics. It is the prophet, the man of God, whose role is to speak truth to power, to highlight hypocrisy, the avoidance of responsibilities, and the abuse of the weak and poor.

The festival of Chanucah provides the best example of Jewishness

Consider the words of Micah, criticism as eloquent as it is furious: "Listen O heads of the House of Jacob… who detest justice and pervert all that is straight. Who build Zion in blood, and Jerusalem in sin. Her leaders judge in bribery, her priests teach for a fee and her prophets divine for money - yet they rely on the Lord saying, 'God is in our midst, no evil shall come upon us!' Therefore, on account of you, Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become heaps of rubble and the Temple Mount like heaps in a forest."

It is social injustice, abuse of power and religious hypocrisy which enrage the prophet. So powerful is this position that Harvard political scientist, Michael Walzer, saw it as the model for all future social criticism. Based on this, some argue that combining religion and state co-opts and neuters Judaism, preventing it from critiquing and balancing political power. Paradoxically, then, religion and state should be separated from one another precisely in order to increase the role of religion. From this perspective, the idea of a Jewish State Bill may be as offensive to the Jewish element of Zionism as to the democratic one.

Yet one does not need to go so far to query whether a Jewish State Bill is necessary or desirable for the Jewishness of the state.

The festival of Chanucah provides the best example of the sort of Jewishness that the proponents of the bill argue for. As the contemporary Book of Maccabees describes it, the festival celebrates renewed Jewish independence in the land of Israel through a military campaign. In this war, Jews proud of their distinct national-religious identity triumph over Hellenised, universalist Jews.

And yet the Chanucah we all know is not that of the Book of Maccabees, but the talmudic version of several hundred years later. In the sages' telling, the Chanucah celebration focuses not on the military victory and consequent national pride but on the miracle of the oil which lasted for eight days instead of one as the Temple was rededicated - a miracle that does not even appear in the Book of Maccabees!

The political message of the tradition is clear: the lasting Jewish significance of Chanucah lay not in military victory and political success, but in the opportunity the event afforded for rededicating Temple and nation to God.

There is a moral here for those of us concerned about the Jewish character of the state. The state in itself is not holy. It is not the goal of Jewish existence but rather the enabler. Its value and significance from a Jewish perspective lies in the framework it provides for the development of a society based on tzedek u'mishpat, righteousness and justice, and which has at its centre the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot. Whether the Jewishness of the state is enshrined in law is meaningful only in so far as the society reflects these aspirations.

Chanucah gives us the opportunity to question the logic that associates right-wing politics with "Jewish Zionism", and left-wing with "democratic Zionism". Jewishness is simply too broad, rich, and complex to be facilely contrasted to ideas such as democracy and human rights. Zionism and Israel will, God willing, flourish best when their Jewish and democratic elements are envisaged by both left and right as working not in opposition, but in harmony.

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