Last week, I spoke at Park Avenue Synagogue (PAS) in New York City on the complexities of being a Zionist activist. I shared my own experiences of feeling ostracized from the progressive movement, confused by the rhetoric that surrounds the issue of Israel and the Palestinians on college campuses and the implications of the BDS movement on contemporary anti-Semitism. In the audience, a cluster of teenage Hebrew school students from PAS listened intensely, as they no doubt internalized how they were meant to process this information ahead of their college careers. When the panel was over, one of these students asked me: “What do you mean when you say Zionism is the goal of a Jewish and democratic state? Because when I hear that definition, it’s like, you cannot have one and another at the same time.”
One of the reasons I loved this question was because it was a notable departure from most audience queries at congregations or Jewish community centers. Rather than give advice on how Jewish students can combat anti-Zionism on campus or how they can organize pro-Israel advocacy in their communities, I was asked to address the root of a problem that many Jews struggle with, an issue that I myself struggled with when I first began to think about the contradictions of a Jewish state. I remember that I pondered, at the height of my left-wing college days, how I could fight for the separation of church and state in my own country while I fought for a homeland that defined itself as Jewish overseas. How could I oppose the appearance of “In God We Trust” on American money or prayer in public schools, and overlook the blend of faith and politics when it comes to my own people’s civilization?
If a Jewish student cannot answer this question in a sincere fashion and with enough conviction, it is pointless to expect them to stand up for Zionism. Therefore, I was sure to craft my answer with as much care as possible, highlighting simple truths that all in the public square can understand.
I first explained the fundamental difference between the Jewish people and adherents of Christianity, Buddhism or Islam. The Jewish people are an ethno-religion and a people bound together by, yes, religion, but also by national aspirations, common history, shared languages and culture. The idea to build a Jewish state is in part a secular idea to grant a nation the universal right to self-determination, in particular when one considers that the absence of this self-determination gave birth to the greatest human rights calamities our modern world has seen. But let’s say one points to clear religious influences in Israel, such as the growth of religious parties’ political power in the Knesset. First, it is important to note that religion has a place in many of the world’s liberal countries, as seen by crosses on the flags of European nations or the connection of various royal families to the Church. This is not to say the presence of the Church is completely compatible with democracy, but we still consider such nations democracies. And then, there is the example of the Arab Spring.
In the Arab Spring, multiple Middle Eastern countries rebelled against theocracy, authoritarianism or both. The world cheered them on, as many in the West correctly assumed that liberalism was possible in even the most illiberal of circumstances. Even if the Arab Spring failed to a great degree and plunged the region deeper into war, it did so because of anti-democratic forces such as fundamentalist militias and despotic tyrants. And the Arab Spring did not fail everywhere. Tunisia, a majority Muslim country and part of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, now boasts a democratic republic with a president as head of state and a prime minister. To support the valiant campaign to bend Islamic countries towards democracy, while rejecting the idea of a Jewish democracy as an automatic impossibility, is hypocritical and indeed reveals contempt for Jewish society in any form.
Next, like all the world’s democracies, a Jewish democracy is an aspiration, not a final status reality. A Jewish democracy is a place we need to get to, not a place in which we can already revel. One can argue that the United States was not a true democracy until the 1960s, for democracy is inchoate when Black Americans are prohibited from the ballot box by the millions and women—half the population—are banned from political participation. Yet the foundations of our nation are that of a republic, and within the words of the Constitution are the seeds to weed out tyranny, even if its writers were in part tyrannical. Or consider Great Britain and France, which have been considered democracies even while they enslaved, plundered and pillaged much of the planet. Germany was still considered a democracy when it started to abandon democracy itself at the start of the 1930s. As with many nations, democracy is a verb in Israel, a push and pull between conservative and liberal impulses that propel a nation, albeit in a nonlinear fashion.
When we continued the conversation after the panel was over, I explained to the student that part of the foundation of Jewish democracy is the argument over how much religious law should be heeded. If arguments are essential to represent a pluralist country, then the advancement of one Israeli ideal over the other and vice versa represents a struggle over power, not one-party hegemonic rule. We discussed the implications of the Star of David on the flag, the lyrics to “Hatikvah” and the Law of Return for Jews, conversations I am sure she didn’t feel welcome to initiate in more establishment pro-Israel circles. I then told her that we, right now in the moment, were contributing to Jewish democracy by proposing ways we would like to see Israel better reflect our own political visions.
I informed this student that I would be making aliyah in the autumn, as I feel so strongly about the principle of Jewish democracy that I cannot help but participate. “Every Jew, everywhere, has this right,” I told her. In truth, I hope more American Jews make aliyah because there is no point for us to complain when Israel disappoints us if we don’t have a direct stake in how the Jewish people form and reform our country and our destiny. A Jewish democracy is an aspiration, a dream, and as the founder of the modern idea of a Jewish democracy once promised, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Blake Flayton is new media director and a columnist at the Jewish Journal.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.