Jewish Democracy in Action

by Fred Schlomka -The term 'democracy' is used today by so many people from different backgrounds that the word has begun to lose any definitive meaning. In particular the dichotomy between the reality of the 'Jewish Democracy' in Israel and the Liberal Democracies of the West seems to be diverging rapidly, resulting in a serious communication disconnect between supporters of Israel and its detractors. When a Zionist talks about democracy in Israel, is she/he discussing the same concept as, for example a non-Zionist American or Swede?

My Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (circa 1937) declares that democracy is 'Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people, and is exercised either directly by them or by officers elected by them.' It goes on to state that 'In modern use often denoting a social state in which all have equal rights.' Then, and most importantly to my mind, the dictionary states that 'A state or community in which the government is vested in the people as a whole', which is what Liberal Democracy means in the West.

Liberal Democracy is often called in Israel, 'A state of all its citizens.', and opposed by the vast majority of Israeli Jews who argue, correctly, that it would mean the end of Jewish rule of the state. Thus, unlike a liberal democratic state,  the Jewish state must retain a majority of Jews in order to be at all democratic, since the desire for Jewish control of the state is central to the tenets of Zionism.

Israel has no constitution but has created twelve Basic Laws, which were passed by a majority of the Knesset (parliament). An Ordinary Law cannot contradict or supersede a Basic Law.  The collection of Basic Laws are in effect a de-facto constitution.

The Knesset was originally elected as a Constituent Assembly whose sole function was to draft a constitution under the terms of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. The war of 1948 and the Nakbah (Palestinian Catastrophe) intervened and a state of emergency was declared by the Assembly which then granted itself additional powers.

On February 16, 1949, the Assembly adopted the Transition Law that is the sole authority for today's Israeli parliament. As a result Israel has no constitution and a single chamber legislature based on proportional representation that serves the interests of power brokers within the political parties. There are no electoral districts or constituencies. This is a unique system of government which is found in no other democracy. Israel is also the only country in the world that grants citizenship based on a person's membership in the state religion - Judaism (Law of Return 1950). No other country in the world grants citizenship solely on the basis of religion.

It should also be noted that Jewish residents who vacated their homes in Palestine during Israel's war of independence were able to return unhindered after the cessation of hostilities, whereas Arab residents were for the most part not allowed to return home even if they remained in the territory that became the state of Israel. Among todays 1.2 million Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, about 250,000 of them are classified in Israeli law as 'Present Absentees', who had their property confiscated by the state (Absentees Property Law 1950).

In liberal democracies immigration or citizenship is not based on membership in any religion, race, ethnic group or other personal status definitions. These types of screening mechanisms have been outlawed in liberal democracies.

The definition of citizenship in liberal democracies generally falls into two categories. Citizenship by birth, or citizenship by immigration and naturalisation. Israel has six distinct methods of acquiring citizenship (Israel Nationality Law 1952 and subsequent amendments). Generally these categories either apply to Jews or non-Jews and differ dramatically from practices in Liberal Democracies. For instance any Jew in the world (as defined by the state of Israel) may come to the country as an immigrant, be granted citizenship without any further application, and may retain any other nationality or passport (dual citizenship). If a Jewish immigrant does not want to obtain Israeli nationality, then she/he must make a declaration within 3 months of becoming a landed immigrant otherwise Israelicitizenship is conferred automatically by the state.

Non-Jewish immigrants are also required to reside in the state for at least 3 years out of the 5 years prior to their application for naturalisation. A non-Jew who becomes a naturalised citizen (a rarity) must renounce any other citizenship. Non-Jews, unlike Jews, are also required to sign a loyalty statement.

Through these few examples it is possible to see some of the differences between 'Jewish Democracy' and 'Liberal Democracy'. There are many more. However the scope of this essay is merely to point out that there are structural distinctions between the accepted norms of democracy in the West and in Israel.

Fred Schlomka is the CEO of the Green Olive Collective and Director of Green Olive Tours. He cruises the highways and byways of Israel and the Occupied Territories daily. He also enjoys organic gardening, juggling, and practicing Shotokan Karate.


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