Is Israel’s Jewish identity in tension with its democratic character? Critics of Israel claim that the Jewish state sacrifices its democratic aspirations in order to preserve its distinctive Jewish mission. In this article from 2010, Israeli law scholar and former Knesset member Amnon Rubinstein concedes that Israel’s liberal democracy would be enhanced by strengthening its protections of religious freedom. But he stresses that the Jewish State does remarkably well balancing its particularistic and universalistic commitments, especially when compared with similar states that must defend themselves from constant violence.
At a theoretical level, Rubinstein argues that despite present legal and political arrangements, Israel’s Jewish and democratic traits are not inherently in tension. He envisions the possibility of a national-cultural reinterpretation of Jewish identity, made possible by the increasingly pluralistic nature of Israeli society. In this vision of a Jewish identity adapted to the realities of Israeli life, matters like conversion, civil marriage, and the rights of religious minorities can be liberalized through the political process.
Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic? The answer, as I hope this essay has shown, is far from simple. If we have the courage to try and establish some sort of honorable modus vivendi with our Arab neighbors; if we take upon ourselves the responsibility of reinterpreting the Jewish tradition in a liberal, tolerant manner; and, most importantly, if we have the foresight to elevate Jewish nationalism to a concept fully compatible with a true democratic ethos—then the answer, ultimately, is “yes.”