Our presidential primaries over the course of the past few months have been unseemly, vicious and at times undignified. The truth is that during election years, candidates on all sides often show sides of themselves which are rather disconcerting for the voting populous, but as our democratic system has proven again and again over the course of our history as a nation, this is all part of the process.
A democracy can be (and usually is) a messy process, especially when there are a lot of voices in the mix. This is, in part, because no society is homogeneous. There are countless issues and innumerable interests that need to find an advocate. Thus, one of the greatest challenges in any democratic system concerns ensuring pathways to inclusion.
During my recent trip to Israel, concerns regarding inclusion in Israel’s democracy were evident throughout the country, but before I share some observations, it is important to point out that Israel is the only democracy in the entire Middle East. For over sixty years, power has changed hands with a vote in a voting booth and not through bloody revolutions in the streets. This is something that we, as a Jewish people, should take great pride in, and it is something that is grossly overlooked by those who are critical of Israel’s politics and policies. In many ways, one of Israel’s greatest attributes as a nation is its democracy.
It might be argued that a strong democracy goes hand in hand with a strong sense of security as a viable, stable state demands the peaceful coexistence of all its citizens. It is here that Israeli society at large and the Israeli democratic system in particular face some profound challenges.
On the one hand, Israel’s democratic process strives to address the needs of all of its citizens. On the other hand, Israel is a Jewish State – which by definition is particularistic and exclusive. The newest poll by the PEW Research Center reflects this internal tension in the statistics it published in March of 2016.
In response to a question regarding Jews receiving preferential status in a Jewish State, virtually all Israeli Jews (98%) believe that all Jews around the world have the right to move to Israel if they wish. Furthermore, most Israeli Jews (79%) also say Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel. (It is important to note that this survey question asked about preferential treatment in general and did not specify what kind of preference Jews should receive). These statistics point to a very challenging reality for non-Jewish minorities living as citizens of a Jewish State. Arab-Israeli Christians, Muslims and Druze are part of the voting population as well, and as Israel continues to evolve as a nation, it must be able to address these ever increasing voices of diversity.
During my weeklong conference in Israel last month, I chose to spend time exploring the needs and issues concerning a number of these underrepresented voices. I met with two Arab-Israeli Christian college students who were attending Hebrew University. I met with a young Arab Muslim chef and a Muslim businessman, who devotes his spare time to building bridges for interfaith cooperation and understanding among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Each of these individuals was an Israeli citizen; each was a voting member of Israeli society; and while each had a very different story to share, they were unanimous in feeling extremely marginalized in society.
These marginalized minorities pose a major challenge to the ability to balance the values of a democracy in the context of a Jewish State. As these and other minority voices continue to grow, Israel must find a way to respond. Hopefully, the response will lean toward inclusion, openness and mutual respect, for as messy as a democracy can be, it is far better than blood in the streets.