Israel’s seemingly eternal friction between its Jewish identity and its secular, democratic governance is making headlines again, not coincidental to the raging arguments about women’s roles in Israeli society and numerous outrageous acts of religious extremism. A new poll from the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Centre for Surveys and the Avi Chai Foundation confirms what anecdotes have suggested.
The major survey on the religious beliefs of Israeli Jews includes numerous interesting findings – 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe in God, for instance. Asked to choose between democratic values and halachah, Jewish religious law, in the event of a conflict between the two, just 44 per cent said democratic values should trump religious law. Another 20 percent would follow Jewish law, and 36 per cent replied “sometimes one, sometimes the other.” The latter is perhaps the Jewishest answer, but when the issue is the democratic nature of Israeli society, this kind of wishy-washiness is problematic in myriad ways.
This lukewarm (at best) commitment to the core secular values on which the state was founded challenges what were once certainties about the state. (It also assumes that Jewish religious law is easily definable, as though there are not intense debates every day in yeshivot and on buses throughout Israel about the meaning, intent and reach of halachah.) This study also raises very specific challenges for overseas Zionists.
“Israeli democracy should decide; American Jews should support,” is the hands-off view previously expressed by Abraham Foxman, the colorful director of the Anti-Defamation League. But what if Israeli democracy goes silent? What should (North) American Jews do then?
Overseas Zionists have been challenged by Israel before, notably over “who is a Jew.” But this secular-religious schism presents an unprecedented challenge, which goes to the very heart of the Israel most Zionists are supporting. And how Zionists react will depend much on what kind of Zionists they are.
Jewish Zionists are motivated by kinship, history and self-identity. The not-insignificant numbers of Christian Zionists are connected with Israel for a range of theological motives, some simple and some complex. And there are neo-conservatives, drawn to support Israel by a particular geopolitical view.
These are the three most identifiable forms of Zionism in North America. There are others, of course, people across the political spectrum who support Israel because it is the embodiment of Jewish self-determination, a potential model of statecraft amid existential threats, the fountainhead of so much innovation, progress and culture, and for a range of other reasons.
The romanticism that Zionism once held for the left, which saw Israel as a socialist society struggling to make the desert bloom with equality for all, is now almost as romantically seen by some on the right as the heroic bastion of democracy and pluralism struggling to keep alight the flickering flame of Western civilization in that part of the world. Perhaps neither romantic vision was entirely correct, and this synopsis obviously depends much on generalization.
For the neo-cons, who defend Israel as a vital ally, that argument will be weakened if democracy is to take second place to some interpretation of religion. What about Christian Zionists? Their Zionism tends to be founded on biblical precepts, which may seem easily aligned with greater religiosity in Israel, but what if Torah-based values start to interfere with New Testament interpretations, a conflict that secularism has largely prevented to date?
Most importantly, for our purposes, what about Diaspora Jewish Zionists? There may be some religious Jews who will be heartened by this study, while others will be aghast. The fragile balance that Israel has kept as a Jewish, democratic state is a teetering high-wire act Diaspora Jews observe from afar with a mixture of awe and anxiety.
Israel, for decades condemned by outside forces, has by necessity learned to shut out or ignore much of the cacophonic advice of outsiders. As welcome as its friends’ voices may be, Israel has always had to make tough choices in its own interest. However, before the country’s very identity comes into conflict with the underlying reasons the few vocal overseas friends support it, Israel will really need to look both ways – inside at the kind of society it wants to be … and outside to the kinds of friends it risks losing.