On Religion and Violence in a Jewish and Democratic State
So much of public, political and academic attention and discussions continues to be focused on the conflictive dimensions of religion, the constructive resources of religion for conflict resolution and reconciliation continue to be less recognized and understood in public and academic discourses. The relationship between religion and violence is complex and contested, raising a range of theological and interdisciplinary questions. How are the terms and concepts of religion and violence defined, related, and deployed across disciplines? How is the violence in religious texts, histories, or practices to be interpreted? Does the involvement of religion in the political sphere represent an inevitable source of violence, discord, and instability? What resources do religions offer for preventing or ending violent conflict? How can the peace-making qualities be accentuated according to context? These are among the many questions which are being explored in the Fall and Spring Resident Scholars Research Seminar on Religion & Violence during the Fall and Spring semesters in 2018-19 at the Centre for Theological Inquiry (CTI), Princeton, USA.
The scholars involved in the research team have been selected from various countries, academic disciplines and religious perspectives, with each one working on a specific area of research, but also working together to share their findings and insights. Pauline Kollontai, one of York St John University’s Professors in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies is one of these scholars at (CTI). Pauline’s research project will focus on minority rights in contemporary Israel through a critique of the praxis of the Jewish values of Ve’ahabhath le-Re’akha (love of neighbour) and Va’ahavtem et ha-Ger (love of stranger) in relation to Israel’s minority communities. A key issue of this research is looking at Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and the complexities that this presents in reality with regard to the rights of its non-Jewish Israeli citizens.
The political character of the Israeli state is representative of a parliamentary democracy, consisting of legislative, executive and judicial branches. Certainly, the structure and system of the Israeli state reflects that which is found in democracies across the globe. The opinion that Israel is a liberal democracy has been very much the dominant one in much of the political, academic and media spheres of Europe and North America. But since the 1980s and the increased global coverage and public awareness particularly of the plight of the Palestinian people this opinion has become challenged by some politicians, academics and journalists, occasionally by some religious figures. For example, in October 2018 Antonio Delgado, the Democratic nominee running in New York’s 19th district Congressional elections stated during a public debate, ‘Israel is not a “Jewish democracy” unless it reaches a peace settlement with the Palestinians’ (Kombluh, 2018: 1). The incumbent Republican Congressman John Faso criticised Delgado in an email, ‘For Mr. Delgado
to claim that Israel is not a Jewish democracy is insulting to its citizens and to our relationship with that nation. Antonio Delgado doesn’t seem to understand that Israel is both a democracy and a Jewish State’ (Kombluh, 2018:1).
This example is not intended to suggest that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to be critical of Israel and question its status as a democracy as this criticism or support for Israel has been present on both sides of the American political spectrum. This can be illustrated with a recent example in 2019 of support for Israel from a Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer’s who believes that Israel should maintain control of the Golan Heights (Editorial, 2019: 1).
In 2012 The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) a key Israel advocacy group in the UK published a series of essays on ‘Israel’s Democratic Futures’ written by four leading academics drawn from Israel and the USA. BICOM’s worry, is that, ‘a notion is spreading in the West that Israel is fast becoming an illiberal ethno-democracy’ (White, 2012: 5). The scholars provide a views and arguments which range from absolute certainty that Israel is a democracy to more cautious views about the stability of democracy in Israel, but certainly not challenging that democracy does not exist there. The overwhelming view from these four academics is that overall Israel is a democracy, it has and continues to face challenges from those with illiberal views, but despite these challenges there is embedded in the fabric of Israel’s society the ability, desire and resources to ensure that democracy is sustained and renewed. Such views and arguments appear to fail to recognise that it is not just various sectors of Israeli society that are promoting illiberal views but that the current government is continuing to promote and enshrine into the fabric of the state and judiciary an illiberal ethos. The realities of the experience of the Palestinians and minority groups in Israel vis a vi many of Israel’s policies and actions represents a mixture of indifference and a distorted understanding of the ethical values which the democratic idea represents, and certainly would seem to distort and minimalize the values of freedom, justice and peace as found in the teaching of the Hebrew prophets and which are identified as the basis of Israeli society in its Founding Declaration in 1948.
Within Israel there are those Jews who criticise and challenge the notion of Israel as a democracy. One example is of a Human Rights Lawyer, Michael Sfard, writing for Haaretz in which he states, ‘A democracy doesn’t deny millions their civil rights, plunder their land and resources and deprive them of independence and of a say in their future’ (Sfard, 2017: 4). The focus of his article is a criticism of so-called Israeli democracy regarding Israel’s ongoing treatment of Palestinians and the refusal to recognise Palestine as a sovereign and independent state:
A regime that allows only some of its subjects to take part in politics is not a democracy. True, Israel has an elected legislative branch, separation of powers and freedom of the press (all three of which, it should be said, are currently in danger). But for the past five decades, Israel has ruled millions of people who do not have the right to vote or to be elected to the systems that govern them. Israel not only denies them their civil rights, it plunders their land and resources, and transfers them to the most privileged of its citizens, and deprives them brutally and cruelly of independence and of a say in deciding their future (Sfard, 2017: 4).
Views like that of Sfrad are also expressed by such groups as The Israeli organisation Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), founded in 1988 RHR’s with a specific focus on Israel’s policy and it’s impact on human rights of the Palestinian and Israeli minorities populations. In January 2019 RHR released a press statement providing a summary of a research study it had commissioned on institutional discrimination and political marginalisation in nine countries, including Israel. 1 The findings revealed that, ‘Israel’s rule over the West Bank is a unique and severely discriminatory regime, which conditions citizenship and basic political rights including the right of freedom of movement, and access to land allocation on ethno-national grounds’ (Rabbis for Human Rights, 2019:1) Overall the situation is described as showing that Israel’s West Bank rule is shown to be the most severe case of institutional discrimination in the democratic and quasi-democratic world’ (Rabbis for Human Rights, 2019: 1). Regarding the rights of Israel’s minorities and particularly the Bedouin of the Negev and the government’s on-going approach to land rights is an issue which has attracted more and more criticism since 2011 within Israel both in public and media discourses. Commenting on the Knessett’s new proposed plan and legislation, the Prawer-Begin Plan intended in part to address the land rights of Negev Bedouin, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel stated:
If it becomes law, it will cause the displacement and forced eviction of dozens of villages and tens of thousands of Bedouin residents, dispossessing them of their property and historical rights to the lands, destroying the social fabric of their communities. The law and the Begin Plan seeks to restrict the Bedouin to a specific area and to forcibly apply this policy, implying that no Bedouin settlements will be established beyond this predefined area – compounding concerns of ethnic discrimination (Editorial Staff, 2013: 2).
Certainly the issues raised in these examples raise crucial questions about the actual interpretation and practice of values of justice, freedom and peace as stated in the Founding Declaration of the State of Israel. The up-holding of these biblical values towards all Israel’s citizens appears to be presented as an essential part of being a Jewish State and would be considered an essential characteristic of a democracy. Further questions must be asked. What does it mean to be a Jewish state, how is it understood amongst the Israeli Jewish population? To what extent is Judaism and democracy compatible? Is Israel an ethno-democracy? What does a political discourse which promotes a security and defensive democracy in Israel mean in terms of the rights of all its citizens?
Since 1948 the main response of the majority of Israel’s political and religious establishment to land rights of Arabs, Bedouins and Palestinians has been to use political, legal or military means to control and often avoid the resolution of the injustices. Certainly there is hope as Israeli government policy over the past decade has demonstrated a commitment to improvement of the economic, educational, social and welfare of Bedouin, through the large financial investment in the Negev, but its policy towards Palestinian rights in the occupied territories, or the fact that Israel continues to have a presence in these territories does not reflect the same moral imagination. These developments demonstrate that Jewish teachings concerning just and fair treatment of non-Jews remains a complex and hotly contested issue within the fabric of Israeli society, but to continue to disregard an diminish the rights of Palestinians and Israel’s minorities would seem to be a violation of what is means to be a democratic state and the ethical teachings of Judaism concerning love of neighbour and stranger.
Pauline Kollontai is Professor of Higher Education in Theology and Religious Studies at York St John University, UK. Her research interests focus on: religion in social context; religion, peace and reconciliation; women of faith as peacebuilders; and minority rights in Israel. Pauline is at the Centre of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, as a member of the Resident Research Interdisciplinary Seminar Programme Team on ‘Religion and Violence’ from January – May 2019.
Editorial Staff, (2013) ‘Government Bill Aims to Regulate Bedouin Settlement’, The Times of Israel, 6 May 2013, http://www.timesofisrael.com/government-bill-aims-to-regulate-bedouin-settlement/
Editorial, (2019) ‘Top US Democrat Indicates Support for Ongoing Israeli Rule Over Golan Heights,’ The Times of Israel, 28 January 2019, accessed on 30/1/19 at https://www.timesofisrael.com/top-us-democrat-said-to-support-israeli-control-over-golan-heights/
Kombluh, Jacob (2018) ‘Congressional Candidate: Israel is Not a Jewish Democracy,’ Jewish Insider, 23 October 2018, accessed on 29/1/19 at http://jewishinsider.com/14630/congressional-candidate-israel-not-jewish-democracy/
Rabbis for Human Rights (Israel) (1988) ‘About Rabbis for Human Rights,’ accessed on 4/1/19 at https://rhr.org.il/eng/about/.
Sfard, Michael (2017) ‘Israel is Not a Democracy,’ Haaretz, 3 June 2017, accessed on 30/1/19 at https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-is-not-a-democracy-1.5478982
White Ben, (2012) ‘Is Israel a Democracy or Ethnocracy?’ The New Statesman, 5 February 2012, accessed on 30/1/19 at https://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2012/02/jewish-state-citizens-israel