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Diaspora Jews Demand Democracy in Israel

Jerusalem—When Prof. Ruth Gavison was doing research on the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel, the Minister of Justice asked her to investigate the “need to have have a ‘new constitutional arrangement dealing with Israel’s identity as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

This resulted in a special project launched by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem, Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry, a 158-page report “attempting to inject the perspectives of Jewish communities around the world into a principally ‘Israeli’ discussion.

A chief finding of the report is that “a majority of Diaspora Jews expects Israel to uncompromisingly deploy Jewish and universal humanitarian values with respect to the rights of its minority citizens.”

JPPI is an independent professional policy planning think tank incorporated as a private non-profit company in Israel. The mission is to engage in “professional strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry, with Israel at its core,” so that the Jewish people will thrive in the future.

The project was co-chaired by Amb. Stuart Eizenstat, who has served every U.S. administration since President Jimmy Carter, and was a key mover and shaker behind the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, and then the museum in Washington and is involved in Jewish and reparations issues with the current administration. The other chair is Dennis Ross, another career diplomat, who has been deeply involved in Jewish issues and Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians for decades, through successive administrations—and who, with Martin Indyk, founded AIPAC. Together, they led the key seminar held in Glen Cove, NY last March. JPPI’s senior fellow, Shmuel Rosner, is the principle author, who worked with Ambassador Avi Gil of Israel to lead the hands-on aspects of the project.

Among scholars, leaders and funders of the project were Elliot Abrams, Irwin Cotler, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Isaac Molho, Natan Sharansky, Avi Pazner, Jehuda Reinharz, John Ruskay, Alan Solow, Michael Steinhardt, Aharon Yadlin, Charles Ratner, and James Tisch. The President and Founding Director of JPPI is Avinoam Bar-Yosef. The Jewish Agency (JAFI) and a number of Federations in the U.S. helped fund the project, along with a number of family foundations.

The process of gathering information included holding seminars in Jewish communities around the globe, consisting of all denominations, and going through mountains of reading and research materials, which culminated in the Glen Cove forum and the publication of the report last week. The end result is intended to be used by the Knesset as it considers legislation on Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature at a time when, as Bar-Yosef wrote, “there are different ideological groups within Israel holding conflicting views of how these components should be prioritized.”

The report says that Jews around the world “have a vision for Israel that is much more consensual than it is diverse—a view that is in many ways similar to the vision Jewish Israelis themselves have for the state. It also has resulted in an even stronger conviction that deliberate and open-minded consultations of this nature are of critical importance to the future of the Jewish people,” wrote Bar-Yosef in the introduction.

He continued: “The major, essential significance of this unprecedented process is the real, deep, and frank consultation held with Diaspora Jews around an issue that was previously seen as a matter of Israeli prerogative. This kind of dialogue is especially necessary at a time when Israel’s leadership requires its neighbors’ expressed recognition that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and when much debate has developed within Israel over various proposals to enact ‘Jewish Israel’ legislation.

Executive Summary

Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry


The Jewish People Policy Institute’s project exploring the views of Diaspora Jews on the issue of Israel’s identity as a “Jewish and democratic state,” found that these views have characteristics similar to those of the Israeli public. At the same time, the fact that Diaspora Jews live outside Israel adds a distinctive layer to how they approach this issue.

The idea that Israel should be a “Jewish and democratic state” creates a conceptual framework that encompasses the views of the majority of Diaspora Jews (even though they give a wide variety of answers to the question of what precisely a “Jewish and democratic state” is). Assertions that Israel should be “only Jewish” or “only democratic” are outside the consensus view of Diaspora Jews.

The debate on Israel’s character as a “Jewish and democratic state” was found to be extremely significant to many of those who participated in JPPI discussions.

Basic Positions Concerning the Dilemma: “A Jewish and Democratic State”

The project was able to identify views at both ends of the spectrum: those who express an unequivocal preference for the democratic element over the Jewish, and those who express the converse. However, the dominant view was unmistakable: the desire to see an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic, and the assumption that such a combination is certainly possible, despite the tensions involved.

The ambiguity inherent in the precise definition of “Jewish and democratic” is perceived by many as an advantage as it makes it possible to maintain partnership and avoid factionalism and division.

For many Diaspora Jews, democratic values are considered “Jewish values.” Thus, actions that erode Israel’s democratic values are seen as detrimental to Judaism and to the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. If Israel is not a liberal democracy, its attractiveness to many Diaspora Jews will erode.

A sharpening of the concrete tensions between “democracy” and “Judaism” shows that there are two camps among the majority who generally see these values as congruous: those who see Israel’s democratic identity arising from the state’s Jewish foundations, and those who emphasize the opposite arrangement. This finding is expressed in the way in which the two camps examine and develop their opinions with regard to the practical dilemmas that characterize life in a “Jewish and democratic state.”

Expectations of Israel

It is clear that many Diaspora Jews recognize the difficulties and constraints Israel faces given the regional hostility and security threats. At the same time, the majority does not consider this reality, and the fact that Israel’s neighbors do not adhere to principles of democracy and human rights, as justification for lowering the high values bar Israel is expected to maintain. The regional reality also does not grant Israel immunity from criticism.

Criticism heard in the Diaspora on aspects of Israel’s conduct in Jewish matters is often based on arguments rooted in democratic values, just as criticism of aspects of Israel’s conduct in the democratic field are often based on arguments rooted in Jewish values. This shows the high correlation between the two concepts as perceived by the majority of Diaspora Jews (for example, the criticism of the Orthodox monopoly in Israel and the deprivation of other streams is largely rooted in arguments based on democratic values).

The debate over Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state showed that Diaspora Jews have a variety of expectations of Israel:

That Israel be pluralistic;

That Israel strive for a reality in which it does not rule over the Palestinians;

That Israel put an end to the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life and give equal standing to all Jewish streams;

That Israel avoid imposing religious norms on its mostly secular civil society;

That Israel prevent dissipation of its Jewish character by strengthening its citizens’ knowledge of Jewish history, traditions, and values.

Unique Aspects of Diaspora Views on the Issue

Diaspora Jews look at Israel’s identity in their own unique ways:

Israel’s character has significant influence on how “Judaism” is regarded around the world by Jews and non-Jews. For example, it is likely to affect the degree of the young generation’s devotion to its Jewish identity, and at the same time is likely to affect attitudes of non-Jews toward the Diaspora Jews who live among them.

Diaspora Jews are members of a minority group in their home countries; in Israel, Jews are the majority. This distinction is relevant to the great importance that Diaspora Jews attach to minority rights in Israel and to human rights in general.

The Right of Diaspora Jews to be Heard by Israel

The right of Diaspora Jews to express their views on issues being decided in Israel was a central topic of discussion.

Their growing assertiveness in expressing criticism of Israel was conspicuous, particularly on subjects related to Israel’s Jewish identity.

Many participants emphasized that because Israel’s policy and its world image have an impact on Diaspora Jews’ security and wellbeing, they have the right to have a say.

Conspicuous, too, was the wish of most discussants that Israel consult with Diaspora Jews on a regular basis on issues close to their hearts. It was emphasized that this consultation would strengthen solidarity between Israel and the Diaspora.


The project is based on direct study of the views of Jewish groups with a significant connection to Israel. This was accomplished by initiating some 40 discussion groups and seminars with the participation of engaged Jewish community members around the world, through questionnaire responses, and analysis of research on the full spectrum opinions on the subject, including those of Jews who are distanced from Israel and/or organized Jewish life in the Diaspora. The findings arising from this process served as the basis for an integrated summary discussion at a conference held in Glen Cove, New York (March 11-12, 2014) attended by senior representatives of the Jewish leadership in the United States, rabbis, public intellectuals, and academics.

By Jeanette Friedman

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