Synthesizing the Jewish and Democratic Character of the State of Israel

The messages of peace, tolerance, equality, and honor that we associate with the Free World all have a place in the great world religions. Yet, in the State of Israel today, one of the severest societal conflicts is playing itself out between proponents of Israel’s liberal- democratic character and advocates of the Jewish identity of the State.

For example, all Israeli citizens have the right of unobstructed movement. Strictly speaking, this means that anyone has the right to drive where and when he or she wants. Torah observant communities, however, close off roads passing through their neighborhoods on Shabbat. While there are legal restrictions concerning  public transportation on the Sabbath and the public sale of leavened bread during Passover, Israel’s secular Jews flout these laws in many parts of the country. Despite the rhetoric appearing in the media, the great majority of Israel’s citizens are sympathetic to both ideals. They want a state that is both Jewish and democratic.

Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, outgoing Dean of Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law founded the Center for Jewish and Democratic Law in December 2015 in order to promote the synthesis of the Jewish and Democratic identity of Israel and give the silent majority a voice in the future of the State of Israel’s character.

“Personally, I am committed to my Jewish identity and Jewish law on the one hand, yet a large part of my cultural and moral milieu is anchored in liberal Western democratic ideals,” says Prof. Lifshitz. “For me, the struggle between Judaism and democracy is not only a political-intellectual one. It is a necessity for people who want to live in both worlds.”

The Center’s goals are threefold: to create a new language for dialogue that bridges the gap between the Jewish and democratic worldviews, to promote public awareness of issues, and to formulate legal solutions to specific challenges.

A Shared Lexicon

Creating a shared lexicon involves finding ways to reframe sticky issues using words that all sides can relate to. For instance, the liberal vocabulary speaks of “rights,” while Jewish sources speak of “obligations.” It is possible that both systems can meet by talking of “responsibility.” This was the topic of the Center’s International Conference on Jewish and Democratic Law, in June 2017. Public Awareness

The Public Forum for Jewish and Democratic Dialogue creates greater public awareness of the issues in Israeli society. “Public awareness is extremely important, because it creates grassroots pressure on the establishment to change that way things are done,” Prof. Lifshitz notes.

The May 2016 Public Forum on“Shabbat in the Public Sphere” featured a panel discussion with MKs Bezalel Smotrich (of the right-wing religious Zionist Jewish Home party), Tamar Zandberg (of left-wing Meretz), and Rachel Azaria (of the centrist Kulanu). Political rivals representing vastly different agendas were sitting at the same table finding that there were many things they agreed upon. MK Zandberg sees Shabbat as the national day of leisure, as opposed to MK Smotrich’s religious day of rest. However, even Zandberg said that, “Commerce can be ruled out because.... a day of rest is an important  social value.”

Supreme Court Judges, Scholars & Religious Leaders Convene at Conference Public awareness is enhanced by high-profile events, such as last year’s inaugural International Conference on Jewish and Democratic Law, funded by US philanthropist Moshael J. Straus.

Nine Supreme Court judges, seven international scholars, prominent Israeli scholars, rabbis from various streams, and Christian and Muslim leaders participated in the conference. In one panel discussion, on “Religion and the Human Rights Challenge,” Prof. Silvio Ferrari (University of Milan) argued that, practically speaking, governments can only reduce the infringement on freedom of religion by a case-by-case approach. National security might require the removal of a head-covering for identification purposes, which infringes on the rights of Muslim women to cover their face. Prof. Ferrari suggested that the government ought to discuss this with the religious group in question and agree on a minimal amount of exposure absolutely required for security. Prof. Yuksel Sezgin (Maxwell School, Syracuse University) argued that the only way to true freedom of religion is total separation of Church and State — that there should be no legislation or state opinion regarding religious practice at all.

Agent of Change

We train 1,500 law students each year to think “Jewish and democratic,” relays Lifshitz. “We offer courses that address the legal and practical implications of legislation based on shared democratic and Jewish values, and these students eventually become agents of change by bringing a fresh perspective into Israel’s legal and legislative system.

We are an agent of change,” stresses Lifshitz. “As part of a research university widely seen as centrist by the overall population, the Center for Jewish and Democratic Law is well positioned to bridge the gap between these two elements. The aim is to integrate, not to force compromise, and to develop a new shared language.”

 Do the Center’s activities have any relevance for Diaspora Jewry? Prof. Lifshitz’s response: “The unfolding drama of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is a reflection of the dilemma of Jewish identity in the Diaspora.” The conflicts between the needs and values of a Jewish community in the Diaspora and those of its host country cannot be ignored if they are to be overcome. The Center is designing tools for dialogue.

An example is the guided textual study format. Imagine inviting local jurists or politicians to a morning study session reminiscent of the Beit Midrash. Two or three related texts from different points of view are presented, followed by a lively discussion of the similarities, differences, and implications. There is nothing like shared learning to bring us to mutual understanding and — ultimately — to agreement.