Building a Jewish-democratic state

How to build a Jewish-democratic state? For some, it’s a dream; for others, an impossible enigma. For Dr. Arye Carmon, it’s a daily mission with an action plan.

The Pras Yisrael (Israel Prize) winner and Israel Democracy Institute founder spoke recently on the subject at a leadership breakfast. Carmon opened his talk by acknowledging Israel’s amazing journey, taking pride in its many successes over the past six decades. He reminded the audience that while Israel was established with a strong and unequivocal commitment to being a democratic state, about 95% of its population came from non-democratic countries, thus bringing with them no previous experience with democracy.  The idea of living under a government that one respects, supports, and looks up to -- a government that counts one’s voice and treats all equally -- wasn't an obvious part of the experience of the Diaspora Jew.

"Some people say that Israel is the answer", Carmon began, "though we're often not sure any more what was the question... We solved the external challenge, and at the same time, since so many resources were directed to building our physical infrastructure, we didn't have the time or energy to deal with content. We are now struggling with issues like who are we; we’re dealing with the idea and identity of our Jewishness... and we haven't finalized the definition of our democracy".

After transitioning the lecture to discuss some of Israel’s notorious enemies, Carmon flashed a slide with the chilling title: "The Silent Killer, Israel’s Threat from Within" and began to address a few very specific challenges:

  • Territories:

It’s not about solving a land puzzle but about a possibility for a civil war between one Jew and another, because while an estimated 80% of the settlers will adhere to any solution the government will decide, that leaves 20% who might not. Further, what if there is a peace agreement on the table and 69% of Israel’s population vote in favor? According to democracy, it should be accepted, but what if 20% of the 69% are Arabs, and 49% Jews? That means that a peace treaty for the Jewish State was signed without a Jewish majority. Would that be accepted? How? That’s where a table is needed and representatives of the various groups gather to figure out solutions.

  • Conversion:

There are 300,000 olim (new comers) from Former Soviet Union whose Jewish status is unclear, a significant number of them of child bearing age. The rabbinate passes only about 2,000 conversions a year; the army catches a few more, but either way, at this rate it will take years to complete the process. During these years people from both “sides” of Jewishness might get married and have children. Without a solution, the problem will fester and be perpetuated to the next generation(s). We see the danger of another split is we struggle over definitions and identity.

  • Terrorism and Democracy:

“Fear and Anxiety are the biggest enemies of any democracy… we live in a country faced with constant threats over its survival… it can make me angry”, said Carmon, “but I can sympathize and it has to be acknowledged: how to run a democracy while one’s is under attack for their life’s survival?”

  • Civil – Military continuum and government structure:

There is a close relationship between the military and the civil arm of government which has caused further tension. Add to that the fact that Israel has “basic laws” but no constitution, “and you find yourself standing on shifting ground: a simple majority can change major issues.” Carmon pointed out that since 1996, none of the prime ministers had a majority and many struggled with party discipline issues, making for an unstable system.

Carmon touched on other issues including the Knesset structure, the education system, Orthodox\secular tensions, and the Arab sector. The talk concluded with a discussion about the relationship between our Bay Area community and Israel. In spite of the challenges, both sides crave an honest, deep dialog. A suggestion was brought by the audience to create conference days so more time can be spent to gain understanding and build a meaningful, strong bridge. We look forward to partnering on those.

-  by Michal Kohane, Israel Center Director

The December 9, 2010 leadership breakfast was created through a partnership between the Israel Center, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and The Israel Democracy Institute. Please visit our calendar or sign-up for our newsletter to receive more information about upcoming events.

Categories: Events, Israel


December 10, 2010


The Federation