Year 11 student Tahra Allen gave a thoughtful and well-articulated address at the recent Moriah Foundation Lowy Institute Dinner. See a full transcript of her speech below.
Good Evening Ladies and Gentleman,
Israel’s recent election gives us time to pause and reflect on whether Israel can simultaneously be both a Jewish and a democratic state.
From a Jewish perspective, there is no tension in principle between these two concepts. We all know that Israel’s democratic character comes among other things, from its representative parliament, free and fair elections, and a peaceful transfer of power from one government to the next. Freedom House has given Israel’s electoral process a 12 out of 12 rating.
Israel is also universally regarded as the only functioning democracy in the middle east and despite the internal and external issues it faces, Israel remains a democratic role model to its neighbours and the world; with a free and vibrant press and civil society, an independent judiciary, and constant, vigorous, unfettered and often irreverent public debate.
It was on IST last year that we were confronted with the terrible reality of the Holocaust, and going to Israel straight from Poland cemented for all of us the fundamental importance to every Jew, both in Israel and the diaspora, of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
The words of David Ben Gurion, inscribed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence lays out the right and legitimacy of Jewish nationhood:
“This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”
Those words have a powerful resonance for those of us who were fortunate enough to have experienced IST. And on that note, I would like to express the deep appreciation of the 2018 IST cohort to the Moriah Foundation and Y2I for facilitating that life-changing experience.
However, some recent developments in Israel have been considered contentious. The Netanyahu Government’s recent ‘Nation State Law’ has been criticised, and with good reason, but contrary to some opinion, it does not affect Israel’s democratic status. The free and open debate it generated and the transparent manner in which it was passed, in part, evidences this.
While provocative, divisive and arguably counter-productive, the law essentially asserts that Israel exists as an expression of Jewish national self-determination. This is not controversial and is consistent with both Israel’s Declaration of Independence and treaty law which called for the establishment of Israel precisely so that the Jews could exercise their self-determination.
The relegation of Arabic from an official language to a ‘special status,’ is again provocative and does nothing to stimulate social harmony.
As a consequence, Arab Israelis and the Druze in particular, felt that their status had been degraded to that of second class citizens. Druze lawmakers called the legislation an extreme act that discriminates against the country’s minorities, stating that it infringes basic rights and insults their loyalty and dedication to the country.
But the Nation State Law does not, in itself, alter Israel’s democratic status.
It is easy to be critical of Israel’s policies, but when you go to Israel, the reality is striking: Israel’s geographic location, a small country, born in war, populated by successive waves of immigrants and surrounded by enemies, makes the complexity of its political problems so much more real.
It must be noted that in those conditions, for Israel to maintain democratic traditions, let alone have a thriving democracy, is really remarkable.
How does a government balance the security and identity of a Jewish state with western democratic values?
It is important to emphasise that when we talk of Israel being a Jewish state, we do not mean to exclude anyone, but simply to characterise a country, Israel, as existing to safeguard and preserve the unique heritage, culture and language of a particular people. The concept of a national home of the Jewish people should not alter its democratic character, so long as full civil rights are extended to non-Jewish minorities, as they are.
One of the challenges in the balancing of a Jewish and democratic state that is seen to face Israel, is the rise of the religious right, and its representation in the Knesset, which has resulted in what some regard as giving them a disproportionate amount of power. Tensions between secular and religious Jews as well as between Jewish and non-Jewish Israeli citizens have also been heightened, as demonstrated by such issues as the egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and the control by the Chief Rabbinate of the conversion process, which is a source of great frustration and discord both within Israel and in the diaspora. Those tensions have the capacity to impact the Jewish and democratic nature of the State.
The main religious parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) have always been represented in the Knesset, reflecting that Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up a sizeable portion of the Israeli population (roughly 15%) and are therefore a critical political player. However, even though in last week’s election those two parties increased their Knesset representation by one seat each, reassuringly, the election results showed overwhelming support for centre and centre-right parties and minor electoral support for extreme right parties or the “religious right”. The main “religious right” party of Naftalia Bennett and Ayelet Shaked failed to meet the small threshold needed to enter the Knesset. That in itself might help to diminish the claim of disproportionate religious power.
Although the vast majority of Israelis are committed to Israel remaining a strong and dynamic democracy, there is increasing division on how to ensure that Israel retains its democratic fabric, especially under the challenges of the religious right, who appear to be traditionally intolerant of those who do not adhere to their beliefs and values. There is, however, thankfully, no suggestion that the State will become a theocracy such as we see elsewhere in the Middle East, for example in Iran.
Mr Netanyahu has demonstrated considerable skill in navigating the parliamentary process in order to stay in power. Over the last decade, the national discourse has become more partisan reflected in a move to the right. The 2019 election result reducing the Labour party to only six seats would have been unthinkable in the recent past.
So, can Israel be a Jewish and democratic state for everyone? In response to criticism Mr Netanyahu has said:
“Israel is a democratic state… but it is the nation state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”
However, President Reuven Rivlin said last month, in what was widely understood as a rebuke of Mr Netanyahu:
“There are no, and there will be no, second-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters. We are all equal in the voting booth. Jews and Arabs, citizens of the State of Israel.”
Israel is a fully fledged parliamentary democracy, not only on paper but in reality. We can be very proud of the fact that non-Jewish minorities are free to observe their religion without interference from the State. Israel’s achievements in addressing inequality – for example, the doubling of Arab PhD candidates in the past year, and the recent appointment of Israel’s first ultra-orthodox female judge – Israel’s diplomatic and economic achievements, the richness of its public discourse, and its general sense of national purpose and harmony, in spite of its problems, are really praiseworthy.
But as Israel will be first and foremost a Jewish state, the tensions in its democratic identity will continue to exist, as will the challenge to maintain the full democratic rights of Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens in the future.
There are rocky times ahead: the proposed annexation of settlements with its obvious negative implications for a two-state solution; the suggested adoption of a law to quarantine Mr Netanyahu from indictment while in office; and the threat to Israel’s international standing. These are matters which, as a young Australian Jew, I care deeply about.
I would like to conclude with a quote from a distinguished Israeli academic and writer, Yossi Klein Halevi, who wrote recently:
“Israel’s significance as a democratic state has been its ability to serve as a laboratory for what happens to democracy under conditions of extremity… Against all odds, Israel has maintained flourishing democratic institutions… The persistence of Israeli democracy has been a kind of miracle. But miracles cannot be taken for granted and require constant protection.
“Whether the newly invigorated centre finds itself in government or in opposition, its most urgent task will be to try to restore a broad consensus around Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state, and defend the miracle of Israeli democracy from those who threaten one of the great achievements of the Jewish people in its restored homeland.”
I thank the Moriah Foundation for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.