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A Jewish State?

December 2, 2014 | By: Haviv Rettig Gur and Daniel Gordis

A bill to formally define Israel as a Jewish nation-state has become a political flash point. Two Tikvah veterans, alumnus Haviv Rettig Gur and faculty member Daniel Gordis, have offered differing, nuanced takes on the political wisdom of the bill. Rettig Gur details how the idea of such an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law began in the political center, as a response to changing Israeli Arab prerogatives. In the end, according to Rettig Gur, the political debate has been much theater about very little.

Ministers shouting untruths about a constitution-altering bill at the cabinet table and then proudly leaking news of their bickering; an attorney general lecturing ministers against approving private member bills on constitutional matters, without mentioning that that was precisely how previous constitutional revolutions, ones with which he more readily agreed, had been passed; centrist legislation that is transmuted through sheer political posturing and media ignorance into a far-right proposal – it’s enough to make even the most optimistic Israeli wonder whether the country’s political class and public debate are up to the still unfinished task of building the very nation-state so many political leaders are so loudly trying to rescue.

Daniel Gordis regards the bill as a bit more problematic diplomatically, and as a wedge between competing factions in Israel. But deeper than those practical challenges is an argument about Zionism offered by President Reuven Rivlin which Gordis expands upon:

Rivlin, rapidly becoming Israel’s most interesting and nuanced public figure, understands what Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin — the founding fathers of the Likud tradition — intended, but that Netanyahu has missed. Israel is “a state established on two solid foundations: nationhood on the one hand, and democracy on the other. The removal of one will bring the whole building down,” Rivlin warned.
Zionism was always more a conversation than an ideology. Religious versus secular, socialist versus free-market, in favor of Palestine or a homeland anywhere it could be gotten — Zionists argued vociferously without ever resolving their differences. The horror of the Holocaust and the crumbling of the British Empire led to a unique moment, on May 14, 1948, on which the Jews, divided though they were, could seize the opportunity to make of sovereignty what they could.
Like the founding fathers of the U.S., who agreed to skate around slavery in the Constitution because they knew the issue could kill the Union, Israel’s leaders  have always understood that on the question of how Israel could stay both Jewish and democratic in the long run, ambiguity was safer than clarity.
At the moment, Israel’s prime minister seems not to understand that. The delicate, unspoken balance that has long made Israel possible may hinge on whether that changes. 

Is Zionism really a conversation? And, who is right, Gordis or Rettig Gur, about the prudence of this bill right now?

More about: Religion and State in Israel  • Zionism  

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