Analysis: Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?

While the Jewish nation is unique, Israel is far from unique in being a state that combines democracy with a specific national and religious nature.

By Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

While the Jewish nation is unique, Israel is far from unique in being a state that combines democracy with a specific national and religious nature. Liberal critics frequently blast Israel as an “anomaly” among the family of nations. Critics argue that Israel is “archaic” and even “racist” for defining itself as a democratic and Jewish nation-state.

Is Israel an anomaly among the world’s modern democracies? Is it possible to be one or the other — Jewish or democratic — but not both?

In Israel and the Family of Nations, the Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights, legal scholar Amnon Rubinstein explores the fundamental question: Can Israel be both Jewish and truly democratic?

His conclusion, in brief, is yes. Professor Rubinstein is by no means a supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or conservative Israeli governments. Quite the opposite. Rubinstein is left-wing and a former member of the radical left Meretz party. However, Rubinstein’s meticulously researched book shows that the Jewish nation-state is frequently and unfairly singled out among the world’s democratic nation-states.

Critics often argue that a true democracy must be culturally “neutral.” However, such idealized utopias do not exist in reality.

Law(s) of return

Israel’s Law of Return for Jews is often labeled “racist” and incompatible with modern democracies. However, Israel is far from being the only democracy that has a law of return for members of its national majority. The democratic nation-state Finland has an immigration law that grants people of Finnish ethnic extraction from the former Soviet Republics and elsewhere the right to immigrate to Finland.

Germany is today a symbol of European democracy. However, Berlin’s immigration laws enabled many ethnic Germans to immigrate to Germany from Poland, Romania and other East European countries. Greece, the cradle of democracy, has immigration laws, which allow foreign-born people of Greek ancestry to immigrate to Greece. This includes individuals of the Greek diaspora, which has existed outside of modern Greece for centuries and even millennia.

Other European democratic nation-states that have preferential immigration laws for their respective diasporas are Poland, Hungary, Armenia and Lithuania. Like Israel, most of these nation-states have ethnic and religious minorities but this does not lead to anyone questioning their commitment to democracy.

Denmark is often hailed as a model liberal Scandinavian democracy. Yet, it is nevertheless a Danish nation-state. The official religion is Lutheran Christianity. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Denmark states, “The King shall be a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.” In other words, non-Christians and even non-Lutherans cannot become the Monarch of Denmark.

Liberals have harshly criticized Israel’s recent Jewish Nation-State Law, which defines Hebrew as its only official language. However, it recognizes Arabic as an important secondary language. By contrast, Danish is the only official language in Denmark despite the fact that numerous other languages are spoken in Denmark including Turkish, Arabic and Urdu.

The situation is similar in other Western democratic nation-states. German is the only official language in Germany and French is the only official language in France despite the presence of large and growing Arabic- and Turkish-speaking minority communities in those countries.

Is the Union Jack racist?

Critics of Israel often claim that non-Jewish minority citizens in Israel cannot identify with the Star of David on Israel’s national flag. Ironically, the Scandinavian democracies are often hailed by liberals as role models for genuine democracy. However, all the flags of Sweden, Norway and Denmark are dominated by Christian crosses. So are the flags of Greece and Finland.

Britain’s flag, the Union Jack, consists of three crosses: the Scottish Cross of Saint Andrew, England’s Cross of Saint George and Saint Patrick’s Cross. Britain is today a diverse multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious society. Yet only English is the official language of Britain whereas Scottish, Welsh and Gaelic are recognized as minority languages. Japan and South Korea are the thriving democratic nation-states of the Japanese and the Korean nations.

There are unique features that distinguish Israel from other democratic nation-states. Israel is the only nation-state whose name is not referring directly to its national majority. While the name Israel is undoubtedly part of ancient Hebrew history, its people are today called Jews. By contrast, the name Denmark is directly referring to its ethnic Danish majority while Finland is referring to its ethnic Finnish majority. Ironically, it is therefore easier for non-Jewish minorities in Israel to define themselves as “Israelis” than for non-Danish minorities in Denmark to define themselves as “Danes.”

The Jewish nation’s complex history is also a reason why Israel’s official language is called Hebrew and not “Israeli.” By contrast, the official language of Sweden is Swedish and the official language of Poland is Polish.

Centuries of homelessness and anti-Jewish persecutions in exile, has elevated Israel’s Law of Return from a universal national right to a particular human rights necessity. With rising levels of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, Israel’s Law of Return is a compassionate life insurance policy for countless Jews living outside of the Jewish state.

European nation-states have embraced largely failed assimilation policies towards their non-European ethnic and religious minorities. By contrast, neither Jewish nor Arab citizens believe in assimilating Arab minority citizens into Israel’s Jewish majority. While being increasingly integrated into modern Israeli society, Israeli Arabs insist on preserving their linguistic, religious and cultural identity. Yet, most Israeli Arabs are fluent in Hebrew and better integrated into Israeli society than millions of Muslim citizens residing in Europe’s socio-economically troubled ghettos.

Far from being “an anomaly” among democracies, the reestablishment of a democratic Jewish national homeland offers the Jewish people something that most other nations including Arabs take for granted: a place under the sun where its national culture, language, history and traditions are the norm.