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Israel, despite turning 75, remains divided on defining itself as a Jewish state that upholds democracy.


While Israel 75th anniversary of foundingand nearly a century and a half after the first Zionists came to Palestine from Europeis the core tension behind the founding of the country — whether a Jewish state could be a democratic state, whether Zionism could accommodate pluralism — is clearer than ever.

Israel is today a military superpower and one of the 38 members of the influential Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developmentestablished in 1961 to promote cooperation between democratic, free-market-oriented governments.

Such strength and economic viability would be unknown to the Jews whose identities had been forged in the United States European diaspora. There, Judaism and its practitioners shunned political and military power. They saw themselves as a minority facing discrimination, persecution and violence. Power was the domain of pagans.

Jews, often separated from the non-Jewish worldfocused instead on developing social institutions to help the poor and weak, not to assert their will as a political community.

This attitude towards the state and politics began to change for the Jews of Europe aftermath of the French Revolution, when the majority of Jews lived in Europe, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. As some of the traditional legal and political barriers that kept Jews out of mainstream society began to crumble, Jews began to integrate into wider society and culture.

This process also brought about for some Jews new attitude towards their Jewish identity.

Many no longer defined themselves as members of a religious community. Like many others groups started doing in Europe, they saw themselves as belonging to a national community. For some, nationalism also offered a way out of the predicament facing Jews in Europe: hatred and discrimination, which came to be known as anti-Semitism.

This nationalism was called Zionism. And the thought went that if the Jews are a nation, they should have their own nation-state, preferably in Palestine, the ancestral homeland of the Jews. There they could take control of their historic destiny, so as not to be at the mercy of non-Jewish nations and rulers.

Zionism sought to solve a particular Jewish problem by gathering Jews around the world, ending the uniquely Jewish historical experience of centuries of living under the rule of often hostile governments, and universalizing the Jewish experience by creating a Jewish to create a state and society like all other nations. . It was the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own destinylike all other nations, in their own sovereign state,” said Israel’s declaration of independence.

But how universal would a Jewish state be? Could such a nation be both Jewish and Democratic?

That is the central question that, more than a century later, still needs to be answered clearly and affirmatively.

An article by the Zionist Theodor Herzl for the London-based Jewish Chronicle, January 17, 1896.

Reconcile universal and special

Theodore Herzelan Austro-Hungarian Jew who is recognized as the father of modern Zionism considered this tension in his 1902 utopian novel “Altneuland’ or ‘The Old New Land’.” Herzl tried to imagine what a future Jewish society in Palestine would look like.

One of the novel’s major storylines involves a political campaign in which a xenophobic rabbi who preaches the community’s Jewish character faces off against a secular candidate who advocates for inclusiveness and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in this imaginary Jewish society.

Herzl’s choice: the pluralist candidate won.

But throughout the history of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, what Herzl described has been a core source of tension. This duality was fully on display in Israel Declaration of Independencein many ways the ultimate manifestation of political Zionism.

On the one hand, the document offers a version of Jewish history that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Jewish experience and provides a historical justification for creating a safe haven for the Jews.

After establishing the attachment of the Jews to their ancestral homeland, the statement’s authors turn to the Holocaust, writing that “the mass murder of millions of Jews in Europe … was another clear demonstration of the urgency to address the problem” of Jewish “homelessness”. by “reestablishing” the Jewish state, which would “open wide the gates of the homeland to every Jew.”

At the same time, the document promises that the State of Israel would be faithful to the UN Charter and protect the rights of all minorities: “The State… shall be based on liberty, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure full equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants, regardless of religion, race or sex.”

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, suggested that once the country was established, Zionism would languish. The nation, as a Jewish state with laws protecting minorities, would resolve the contradictions inherent in Zionist ideology.

But as long as the majority of Israelis felt a sense of existential threat – both from neighboring Arab states And harsh economic conditions – Zionism continued to provide most Israelis with a unifying ideological umbrella.

After 1967 a transformation

In the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day Warwhen Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria, the country emerged as a regional military and economic power.

It was a time of great social, political and economic change.

A growing number of Israelis – especially those from the more secular, upper classes – began to doubt the particularism of the country, which saw the country as a haven for Jews that would protect them from outside threats. For these upwardly mobile Israelis, you know like the post-Zioniststhe founding myths of a fragile young state no longer seemed relevant.

They wanted Israel to become a completely normal part of the American-led world order. They believed that the country should continue to integrate into the region resolving the conflict between Jews and Arabs. And they wanted to participate in the global economic market as the country transitioned from a state economy to a free market.

At the same time, religious Jews and poorer Israelis, mostly descendants of Jewish communities in the Arab Middle East and North Africa, are resisting this cosmopolitan liberal shift. They held firmly to their Jewish identity, rejecting what they saw as compromises driven by foreign ideals such as democracy and pluralism. To this group, called neo-Zioniststhe ideal was a Jewish state as protection against the rapid changes sweeping the country.

Men lying on the ground with hands behind their heads, under the supervision of armed soldiers.
Palestinians surrender to Israeli soldiers in June 1967 in the occupied West Bank during what is known as the Six-Day War.
Pierre Guillaud/AFP via Getty Images

Palestinian issue disappears

From the 1970s through the 2000s, much of the post- or neo-Zionist division has centered on the occupation of the West Bank. where 3 million Palestinians live. Will there be peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

Post-Zionists wanted peaceseeking a two-state solution that would see a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Neo-Zionists rejected any territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

In the 21st century, in the aftermath of collapse the peace process And the second intifadaor Palestinian uprising, the Palestinian issue has all but disappeared from Israel’s political landscape.

Instead it has the country’s attention returned to the old divisions among those who advocate a policy that would reinforce the Jewish character of the country and those who favor universal policies more favorable to excluded minorities.

The Israeli government that came to power at the end of 2022 most powerfully represents the nationalist, specific camp. The main agenda was a plan to curtail and curtail the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court. For the ruling coalition, the court has been an obstacle in pursuing policies to promote the Jewish character of the country.

This so-called reform has driven hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets. Their demand is simple: democracy.

Israel may no longer be a young state, but it has yet to overcome the fundamental contradiction that has defined it from the very beginning: can it be Jewish and democratic?

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