For a few days now I have been struggling to work out what I really want to say about the commotion surrounding the interrogation of the supporters of the supposedly Halachic work, ‘Torat HaMelech’ (‘Laws of Sovereignty’). One of the excerpts I have heard quoted (though I have not and do not intend to read the work myself) suggests that killing Palestinian babies is justified, because they will grow up to become enemies of the Jewish people and active in the fight against Israel. It surely must be obvious even to the evil people who support this appalling conclusion that were the same to be said by Muslim or Christians about Jews, they would immediately quite rightly be called anti-Semites, and in any civilized country, negative consequences would follow. In fact, this idea sounds remarkably similar to the reasoning of extremist Palestinian terrorists as to why killing Jewish babies is allowed in a time of war – because they will group up to become Israeli soldiers. Both despicable attitudes are rabidly racist, and it is difficult to find the words strong enough to condemn them.
But beyond the obvious condemnation, and beyond expressing support for the authorities who quite justifiably arrested the men who refused to come in for questioning, is there not something deeper that is going on here? Quite apart from the extreme racism growing in the heart of Israeli society, it is time to face up to the fundamental question of what being a Jewish and democratic state means, and in the case of a conflict, which wins out?
Those of us who try to balance the best of all worlds need to grapple with the contradiction that lies at the very essence of Israel. Can Israel be both a Jewish and a democratic state? I still believe that it can – but only if we prioritize the democratic over the Jewish. Though I refuse to regard the opinions of people like Dov Lior and Ya’akov Yosef (and I intentionally do not honor them with the title rabbi) as a true reflection of Judaism, the fact remains that the conflict between those who wish to put Judaism over and above the rule of law, and those who understand that the only hope for Israel is to be a true democracy, is coming to a head.
Now, it is still probably true that the majority of Israeli society would not support the conclusions in Torat HaMelech. It is easy to draw the line when the example is so extreme. The problem, however, is that Israel continually blurs the line and gives the Jewish nature of the state preference over the democratic nature of the state in a million and one small (and sometimes not so small) ways. The current government is certainly making Jewish a much stronger priority than democratic, and its actions threaten the future of Israel both as a democracy and indeed as a Jewish state.
It is time to sharpen our understanding of what it means to be a Jewish and democratic state. We cannot afford to be vague about this any longer. We can only be Jewish and democratic if democratic is our first priority. If Jewish takes precedence, we will no longer be a democracy.