Israel: What does a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state actually mean in 2023?

Since its inception, Israel has been viewed by many as a ‘Jewish and democratic‘ state, a notion, already reflected in part in the 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which has been guiding Israeli society and policy makers, and aspects of which have found their way into state legislature, actions of the executive branch, and decisions of the judiciary.

Probably as old as the notion of a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state is the debate over to what extent these two characteristics are conflicting principles and how to reconcile contradictions between the two. Some would say there’s no contradiction whatsoever, as there is nothing undemocratic about a ‘Jewish’ state. Others would qualify that statement by an added condition, seeing no paradox in an Israel which is both ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’ – just as long as the majority of its citizens are Jewish. Some would go further and stipulate a ‘decisive’ majority.

Among those who concede that, at least under some circumstances, the ‘Jewish’ and the ‘democratic’ natures of the state might be at odds with each other, various approaches have arisen to deal with the conflict, one being the interpretation of ‘Jewish and democratic’ as first of all ‘Jewish’, and only secondly and secondarily ‘democratic’, that is the ‘Jewish’ nature of the state takes precedence over its ‘democratic’ nature – if and when the two happen to be contradictory.

Many have jokingly noted that the meaning of a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state is that it behaves in a democratic manner towards its Jewish population. This joke contains more than a grain of truth and it describes – not too inaccurately – the reality in Israel since its very beginning. And it’s important in order to understand the magnitude of the prospective changes Israeli society is currently facing – and the backlash against them.


A more fundamental question than that of the reconciliation of ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’, answering which is a logical prerequisite thereof, is what it at all means for Israel to be a ‘Jewish’ state. For some it means a state a majority – or maybe a ‘decisive’ majority – of whose population is Jewish. Some expect a ‘Jewish’ state to serve as a ‘national home’ for all Jews in the world – and in particular to allow each and everyone of them to immigrate and become its citizen. Some want public life in the state to be shaped by Jewish culture. And for some a true ‘Jewish’ state is one ruled by religious Jewish law – the Halakha.

Any one of the notions above are not well-defined and their proponents might disagree on some – possibly not insignificant – details. And, of course, those notions are very different to one another. This amounts to lots of different groups within Israeli society with very different – and contradictory – ideas and visions for Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state (let alone how that works in combination with ‘democratic’).

Over generations, many Jews – and later Israelis – have thought it would make sense for there to be a ‘Jewish’ state. Many find this notion not only to make sense, but to be imperative. Many Israelis have literally fought to the death first to make, and later to keep, this dream a reality. But does the idea of a ‘Jewish’ state really constitute a fundament solid enough based on which a country can be established and maintained – especially when one Israeli’s fellow countrymen’s vision of a ‘Jewish’ state is so different to their own?


While some might think that, unlike the question of what it means for a state to be ‘Jewish’, what it means for a state to be ‘democratic’ is utterly clear, in practice it seems not to be the case. For many, for a state to be ‘democratic’ it needs to follow some well-established democratic principles, including (but not limited to): sovereignty of the people (citizenship, consent of the governed), equality before the law, commitment to human rights (right to life and liberty, minority rights, freedom of religion), structured restraints (separation of powers, checks and balances). But it seems that for many Israelis ‘democracy’ simply means ‘the rule of the majority’.

Since it was founded, Israel has been a ‘democracy’ in this latter sense. In the former sense – not so much. Most notably towards its Arab subjects, be it Israeli Arabs, who were living under martial law until 1966 and who, although their situation has improved since, have never enjoyed real equality, or Arabs living in territories conquered by Israel in 1967, who for decades have been subjects of Israel – but not citizens.

But, as mentioned above, the State of Israel has acted much more as a real democracy towards its Jewish population. Not completely, for sure, one example of which being how freedom of religion has been interpreted in Israel, whereby anyone is free to ‘live in accordance with’ ‘their’ religion, with the caveat that one’s religion is chosen for them, and living in accordance with it means subjecting some aspects of one’s life to the treatment of state-recognised official religious institutions and to established norms known as ‘the status quo’.

That means, for example, that a Jewish Rabbi marrying Jewish couples according to Jewish religious law in the ‘Jewish and democratic’ State risks imprisonment if not acting on behalf of the Rabbinate. It also means public transport in Jewish towns is forbidden by law to operate during the Sabbath – even in towns where most Jews do not observe the Sabbath. And secular Jews too can only marry through the Rabbinate – which also poses some restrictions on some couples’ eligibility for marriage. And (with the exception of a Muslim marriage between a Jewish woman and a Muslim man) Jews cannot marry non-Jews (which, while having a different official justification, bears striking similarity to the Nuremberg Laws). Not an ideal situation, but somehow, perhaps facilitated by the fact that they perceive other issues which have surrounded their country and their existence as more critical, most Israelis have been bearing it.

And so, the vast majority of the Jewish Israeli public has throughout the years largely accepted Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens and subjects, whether out of support, whether out of ignorance or indifference, whether out of a sense of helplessness. Similarly, the vast majority of the secular Jewish Israeli public has throughout the years largely accepted Israel’s lacking freedom of religion (or freedom from religion), in large part due to a sense of this being a necessary evil that one has to accept in order to maintain a ‘Jewish’ state and avoid greater evils. After all, for many Israeli Jews life in an Israel largely democratic towards its Jewish population hasn’t been so bad.

Prospective changes and protests

But in early 2023, the newly formed Government of Israel, consisting of a coalition of several parties and politicians with different motivations that somehow go hand in hand with each other – some want to expand the settlements and deepen Israel’s control over occupied Palestinian territories, some want to fulfil a Messianic vision and promote their idea of a ‘Jewish’ state which is more halakhic, and some facing criminal charges and possibly driven to save their own hide – set out to execute a plan, presented as a ‘judicial reform’, comprising various legislative changes aimed at ‘strengthening democracy’, in the sense that it will weaken the judiciary and allow the executive more control over it. Basically strengthening ‘democracy’ in the sense of the rule of the majority, at the expense of that other ‘democracy’, the one with separation of powers and with checks and balances. The one where the government’s power to violate human and minority rights is restrained. Which is why objectors to the plan see it as nothing less than an attempted coup from the top.

The Israeli public immediately reacted with an outburst of multi-faceted protests. It seems that the threat to the status quo of an (almost) democracy for the Jewish population made people take to the streets. There also seems to be a larger group of Israelis than before who oppose what Israel does in the Palestinian territories, maybe because they connect the occupation and the political powers which have stemmed from it to the impending change to Israel’s nature. And discourse concerning the incompatibility of the various Jewish groups and their inability to live together in one country – including ideas of civil war and/or separating into two states – is also on the rise. And maybe it’s about time.

About the author

Tom Yuval is a non-nationalist atheist Israeli-German (born and raised in Israel, German by birthright and having been living in Germany for over a decade) Jewish (only by ethnicity) mathematician and software engineer, and a former political activist.


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