Values of the State of Israel

Short Essay to answer:
How would you characterize the main values of the State of Israel?
Comparative Politics and Israel

The main values of Israeli society can most aptly be characterized as both Jewish and democratic. However, the definition of these two terms and their relation to one another is somewhat problematic, even for Israelis. These terms were enshrined early on as the main descriptors for the new state appearing in the original declaration of statehood read by Ben Gurion in 1948. Since that time they have also been more fully enshrined within the national ethos by their being incorporated into the two Basic Laws which were passed by the Knesset as part of the “Constitutional Revolution,” namely Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation and Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

As for the first—Jewish—the State of Israel was intended from the beginning to be a home for the Jewish people who had experienced dispersal throughout the world. It was intended as a homeland that all Jewish people, no matter what other “homeland” they were coming from, would be able to relate to and to associate with. Thus, the one common bond that these peoples would have was their Jewish heritage and culture. For this reason, many of the secular pioneers of the country and those secular Israelis alive today would see this as meaning that the country was built upon clearly Jewish principles, ideals and morals, similar to the many nations throughout the world that define themselves as built upon “Christian” morals, beliefs and ideals. These Jewish ideals would be broad enough to encompass the basic rights to life and liberty for all minorities within the state and be completely in line with the modern Enlightenment ideals that have been set up as the basis for the modern nation-state.

In contrast to this, many feel that Israel must be solely built upon the religious aspects of Judaism, particularly with Halakhic law and the Torah forming the backbone of the social fabric, transforming the nation from a state for those of Jewish heritage, religion and ethnicity to one of solely Jewish religiosity. This stance though is almost universally accepted as a position diametrically opposed to democracy because attaining this extreme definition of the character of Israel would reduce it solely to a Jewish state, with no place for minority rights and/or democratic process.

On the other hand, the other characteristic—democratic—portrays Israel as a member of the elite modern nation-states throughout the world that are striving to ensure the rights and privileges of all their citizens, not just those of the majority persuasion. To attain this characteristic, the state must see itself as open to all forms of dissent and argumentation as well as determined to advance the equality of all her citizens. This would require certain reliance upon ideals of equality and liberty as espoused by many of the Enlightenment thinkers and their successors in political theory.

The main dilemma in the characterization of the State of Israel then is a comparison between these two terms, how they are matched and of course, when push comes to shove, which is more important and will take precedence. I personally am of the opinion that these two ideals are not mutually exclusive; they can both be obtained and maintained concurrently. However, to do so, the Jewish term must, as Aharon Barak has stated, be defined broadly enough or with enough abstraction to allow for a combination with the democratic processes that allow for minorities to not only feel comfortable and secure within the state but to also flourish because of their equality, liberty and freedoms. To define the Jewish character of the state in any other way will certainly place limits on the state’s character as democratic and will allow for the definition and relegation of any within the state who do not fall into the category of “Jewish” to second-class citizenry. As to deciding which characteristic will take precedence, I would venture as well that if there is any dispute about which must be followed, the democratic values must win out. This would allow for all the free exercise of individual will and religiosity as well as ensure that all parties are treated equally.