A Jewish State or a State for Jews?

This question has become the pivotal one in Israel’s foreign policy, and, concurrently it is also the core issue behind Israel’s most vexing internal debate.

As Secretary of State John Kerry continues his efforts to broker a formal peace agreement, one issue that continually arises is the insistence by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

After Justice Minister Tzipi Livni indicated that the Palestinians may have agreed to soften their position on the issue, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was quick to deny any flexibility.

“I told minister Livni in Munich recently that we won’t change our history, culture and religion,” Erekat said on Monday. “We are not going to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”

Erekat’s statements came on the same day that the Knesset Shaked Committee began several days of voting on a new military draft bill which includes provisions for recruiting yeshivah students. To the external observer, the deliberations were all about who should serve and for how long. The elephant in the room was the fact that what was really being debated was the future character of the State of Israel.

Netanyahu is fond of pointing out that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” a claim he is, of course, right about.

But as much as Netanyahu and his colleagues in the upper echelons of secular Israeli society would be tempted to declare Israel a pure democracy, free of any limiting adjectives, they can’t possible agree to do so.

There are numerous valid reasons why Israel is under no legal or moral obligation to allow millions of descendants of Arabs who decided to leave the area — many of their own volition — after the War of Independence in 1948 and again after the Six-Day War in 1967 — to settle in Israel. But for Netanyahu, the most effective barrier against such an influx is by insisting that Israel is recognized as a “Jewish State,” an entity that must retain a Jewish majority, which rules out any massive arrival of millions of Arabs into Israel.

While some on the left of Israeli politics, including President Shimon Peres, disagree with the importance of Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, they join their colleagues on the right in their reluctance that Israel become an ordinary, classic democracy.

For while, in a real democracy, the majority may rule, the right of the minority to live a lifestyle they prefer is sacrosanct. In a true democracy there is no room for the use of different tools to foist the cultural views of those in power on all segments of society. For one of the most basic tenets of a democracy is allowing each citizen to live according to his or her own beliefs, free from outside compulsion or interference. Regrettably, the facts on the ground do not describe a democratic Jewish state.

This, in turn, leads to the key question: how should the word “Jewish” — as in a “Jewish State” — be defined?

The Zionist side of the political divide is in full agreement that “Jewish” must not necessarily mean the way the word “Jewish” has been defined for some three thousand years. They are determined that “Jewish” must be reinterpreted to, at the minimum, include elements that reflect a new type of Jew.

Netanyahu and his fellow coalitionists see the term “Jewish” solely as a label for nationalistic purposes, the diametric opposite of being the faithful keepers of a legacy we received at the foot of Mount Sinai. The national religious camp, for that matter, insists on elevating the concept of a nationalist Jewish state into a status of Mitzvah.

Most grievously, they are not content with seeking to establish this definition in the arena of public opinion and in the state-run education system that is geared toward this goal.

The prevailing education system in the state today does not provide for values of Judaism that bear a resemblance to Judaism as it has been known for generations.

What is for some a galus syndrome is for us the guarantee of the survival of a Jewish nation in its authentic fashion. In fact, the religious system of education and society is the only known guarantee for the continuity of the Jewish people to exist as an entity of pure religious and cultural value.

It is about time that the real issues on the table be discussed and debated in serious fashion by people who are not driven by political agendas. It is time that catchy slogans such as “shared burden” and “integration” that are coupled with a price tag that furthers the division of society be replaced with constructive measures that make the economic integration and equality of the chareidi community a reality. This may be the first step for turning a Jewish state into a State for the Jews.

Whether Netanyahu is correct to place such emphasis on Palestinian recognition of a “Jewish State” is debatable. Whether he will be successful remains to be seen. Far more important is whether the prime minister and his coalition partners will acknowledge the inherent contradiction in reckless conduct that is ripping the country apart. For the fomenting of a conflict against Torah Jews — and by extension, against Torah Judaism — contradicts both the fundamental tenets of a genuine democracy as well as every true definition of the word “Jewish.”

Instead of obsessing over getting the Palestinians to recognize Israel as Jewish State, it would be far wiser to concentrate on changing the environment that will allow Israel to be a State for the Jews — an entity where Jews can live a Torah-true life without outside interference and attempts at social engineering.

It might be wishful thinking, but we pray that sensible and objective individuals from all segments of the community, who are genuinely interested in furthering an atmosphere of co-existence without intimidation and force, will sit down at the table. This may help replace the current atmosphere of incitement with one of mutual respect, and replace hatred with ahavas Yisrael.

Undoubtedly, under such conditions, a dialogue can begin that will deal with the burning issues of our day. With good will and determination, amicable solutions can be reached without forgoing any non-negotiable, basic principles and beliefs.