Israel's public education is not secular, but Jewish. David King.

In October of last year, the Israeli Supreme Court finally rejected the adjective “Israeli” as an official civil designation in Israel. According to the judges, the contenders did not “sufficiently prove” the existence of an “Israeli nation”; hence, unless legislation will change, the civil designation of the Israeli majority remains “Jewish.” (Arab citizens are often designated “Arab,” or sometimes, “Minority.”) Putting aside for the moment the irony involved in the fact that an Israeli court would make such a decision, the ruling certainly expressed an overlapping consensus in Israeli society: the country is, and ought to remain, Jewish. But then, can a state be both Jewish and a liberal democracy?

One of the clearest articulations of current liberal-Zionist thinking is that of the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal. In an influential Haaretz article, he dismisses the question as irrelevant: there is no “big question,” he writes, as to “whether a state can be both Jewish and a liberal-democracy.” A serious political intellectual debate should turn rather on the question of “what kind of a Jewish state we want to have [in Israel]” (my emphasis). This position draws, albeit implicitly, on an earlier and controversial piece, “Liberalism and the Right to Culture,” which Halbertal published together with Avishai Margalit in Social Research. Especially these days, as the question of Zionism’s compatibility with liberal-democratic values has made a comeback, it would be worthwhile to revisit what Halbertal has to say.

In order to examine whether there is a contradiction in the notion of a Jewish liberal democracy, Halbertal writes, one must first “find out what a Jewish state is”:

It is possible, of course, to ascribe the adjective "Jewish" a nationalistic or a religious-fundamentalist meaning, and then to argue that a [Jewish-democratic] combination is impossible, but this would be a circular argument, and not very fruitful.

The charge of circularity is correct, but somewhat misleading. The question at stake is rather whether any definition of the adjective “Jewish,” and any definition of who’s Jewish and who’s not, would allow for a Jewish state that’s also a liberal democracy. This question isn’t posed in the essay quite so clearly, but a general answer to it does emerge from the text: Judaism need not be understood as a fundamentalist religion or as nationalist ideology; it can also be interpreted as a pluralistic cultural identity. Therefore, given that cultural neutrality is not, in Halbertal’s view, necessary for democratic liberalism—he believes in the existence of a “right to culture”—there is no inherent contradiction in the notion of a Jewish liberal democracy.

In “Liberalism and the Right to Culture,” Halbertal and Margalit argue that “human beings have a right to culture—not just any culture, but their own” (my emphasis). On their analysis, because one’s personality is determined, among other things, by one’s particular culture, one has the right to preserve this culture and ensure that it will flourish. Moreover, given this right, it is the sovereign’s duty not only to protect culture in some cosmopolitan sense of that term, but also to take off the gloves of cultural neutrality that sometimes characterize liberal democracies and actively defend its citizens’ right to their particular cultures. According to Halbertal and Margalit, “the right to culture in a liberal state permits the state to be [culturally] neutral, if at all, only with respect to the dominant culture of the majority,” and only “on the assumption that the dominant culture can take care of itself.” In his Haaretz article, then, Halbertal applies this same logic to the question of Zionism: while it is Israel’s obligation to defend the right of its minorities to their own cultures, it is also its right—in fact, its duty—to defend the majority’s right to Judaism. From this perspective, Halbertal argues, there is no difference between Israel and other culturally non-neutral European democracies, such as “Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany, the Czech Republic and more.”

Even if cultural neutrality is not necessary for democratic liberalism, ethnic neutrality certainly is.

But despite the fact that Judaism is no doubt a culture, belonging to it still requires what philosophers often regard as the opposite of culture: nature, or blood. Religious Jews commonly subscribe to this ethnic condition, as do secular Jews, including those to whom religious Judaism is completely passé. Therefore, the comparison between a Jewish and, say, a Finnish state is idle. Even if there is no contradiction in the notion of a Finnish or German democracy, there is one in the notion of a Jewish democracy; for even if cultural neutrality is not necessary for democratic liberalism, ethnic neutrality certainly is. Quite simply, it is possible to be a Finnish or a Norwegian Jew, just as it is possible to be a German Jew or a Palestinian Christian. But for logical rather than political reasons it is not possible to become a Christian or a Muslim Jew. (It is true that one could also convert to Judaism. But even if Israel had recognized the progressive conversion practices of Reform Judaism, religious conversion would hardly be an acceptable civil bypass of the ethnicity condition imposed by the Jewish State.)

Neither is it possible to be a Muslim or an Israeli Christian, and not merely because the Israeli Supreme Court has rejected Israeli as a civil identification. As long as Israel is essentially a Jewish state, being Jewish is essential to being Israeli. A non-Jew can be an Israeli citizen, of course, and carry a blue identification card and passport, but she or he would not for all that be Israeli. Therefore, there is no telling analogy between the political-cultural standing of (say) an Italian Jewish minority and a Muslim minority in Israel. Whereas Jews in Italy can be inherently included in the political identity of that state, Muslims in Israel, because of their ethnic belonging, are excluded from Israel’s political identity. Hence, if there is no contradiction in the notion of a Jewish liberal democracy, there is no contradiction in the notion of a liberal-democratic ethnocracy. It makes little sense to attempt to use a philosophical argument to square this political circle.

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Can a state that is officially Jewish discourage ethnic separations in its political institutions? In “Secular Anarchism in the Knesset,” Dov Halbertal, former top official in Israel’s rabbinical authority and Moshe Halbertal’s brother, writes, “In a recent media confrontation I had with one of the Members of Knesset . . . she told me that if she loved a gentile man, she would see nothing wrong in marrying him. I was shocked by the nonchalance with which she made this statement, as if such an intermarriage would be the logical application of universal and humanist principles.” What the MK “essentially said,” Dov Halbertal writes, is that “the Knesset is not at all concerned about the possibility of the Jewish people’s eventual disappearance. We will all assimilate and the Jewish nation will simply vanish from the face of the earth.”

Unfortunately, Dov Halbertal’s concern about the Knesset is unfounded. The Israeli Parliament certainly does care about preventing the ethnic assimilation of the Jews, and ensures through legislation their official separation. As we have seen, thesame is sometimes true also of the Israeli Supreme Court. Now it goes without saying that Moshe Halbertal rejects Dov Halbertal’s politics, and of course he is not responsible for anything that his brother happens to write. (Among other things, Moshe Halbertal publicly supports the institution of civil marriage in Israel.) But we must ask whether Israel can, as a Jewish state, reject Dov Halbertal’s awkward interpretation of “universal and humanist principles.” The worry is that, in the Jewish state that Moshe Halbertal envisages, institutionalized ethnic separations would follow from what he’d like to view as the majority’s “right” to its “own culture.”

Moshe Halbertal offers two criteria for judging whether a nation state is “liberal-democratic” rather than “fascist-nationalist.” The first is whether the state’s character as a nation state “harms the political, economical or cultural rights” of minorities. The second is whether the state “will support and grant the right of self definition and determination of other national groups living inside it.”

However, while these criteria are no doubt necessary and important, these shouldn’t be presented as if they were sufficient for democratic liberalism. Several problems arise here, perhaps most significant of which is overlooking the rights of the majority. One can certainly imagine a state of affairs in which the state’s non-neutral institutions harm the majority no less (and possibly more) than they harm the minority. Precisely because one’s personality is determined, as Halbertal and Margalit argue, by one’s culture, state neutrality is important for protecting one’s ability to relate critically and autonomously to culture and state. At its best, state neutrality is able to protect individuals from the culture into which they happen to be born; indeed a liberal state must at least provide a genuine possibility to leave one’s culture. A Jewish state would not be able to do that: as we have seen, giving up one’s Judaism, in a Jewish state, is giving up one’s equality as a citizen.  

A state is deemed nationalist, then, not only by the way in which it treats the cultures of its minorities, but also and perhaps especially by the way it treats the culture of its own majority. Especially where the majority’s cultural identity is determined first and foremost by blood, insisting on the state’s right—in fact, duty—to protect the majority’s right to its own culture is in sharp contradiction with liberal politics.

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Israel’s public Jewish education system exposes most clearly the inconsistencies involved in the notion of a Jewish liberal democracy. Moshe Halbertal correctly points out that a state’s education system is its most significant political institution, and insists that there is no inherent problem with a public education system that is officially Jewish. The situation, he writes, “is not different from those of many other modern countries; their public education systems diffuse their own unique cultural identity . . . a Jew who is a German citizen, American citizen, or French, will have to finance from his own pocket private Jewish education for his children. In Israel as a Jewish state, such education will be financed by the state.” This proposition is misleading. While it is true that Jews who are interested in Jewish education for their children in the United States or France finance it out of their own pockets, one should have also mentioned that so does these countries’ Christian majority. The public education systems in Germany, France, and the United States are German, French, and American—not Christian.There is no reason why Jewish children shouldn’t study in a public American, French or German school, because they are (or can be) American, French, or German. Clearly, however, parents can hardly send children who are not Jewish to Israel’s Jewish education system.

Giving up one’s Judaism, in a Jewish state, is giving up one’s equality as a citizen.

Several years ago, Israel’s current Minister of Education, Shai Piron, was asked the following question on the Jewish blog Kippa: “I live in [the neighborhood] ‘Hadar’ in Haifa, where there are hardly any Jews [left], and I’d like to move because there are many Arabs there; what should I do about selling the apartment, for a Jew will not buy from me in this neighborhood?” Piron, a rabbi currently living in a West Bank settlement, answered: “Selling the house to an Arab, especially that this violates Lo Techunem [sic], is forbidden, and selling to Arabs a house especially in light of the current struggle is really strictly forbidden.” Lo Techanem is a Jewish Halacha, generally forbidding the intermingling of Jews with non-Jews for fear of cultural assimilation. Specifically, it forbids the selling of land to non-Jews in Eretz Israel. Piron has in the meantime retracted his words, but he did so rather mildly, and too late—only after running for Parliament as a top candidate of the center-left party Yesh Atid ("There’s a Future"). One does not have to think too hard, then,to know that Israel’s current Minister of Education has similar sentiments to those of Dov Halbertal about an Israeli Jew marrying a gentile. Of course, like the ultra-orthodox Dov Halbertal, the orthodox-Zionist Piron is entitled to hold his private views about Jewish ethnic separation. No liberal democracy, however, can afford such a fuzzy interpretation of universal humanism as its actual political reality.

Israel will not replace its Jewish education system with an Israeli one, and Moshe Halbertal doesn’t suggest that it should. The main obstacle has little if anything to do with course curricula: finding a healthy balance between Homer, Bible and Quran, between Bialik and Darwish, would have been feasible in Israel, and anyone interested could have privately financed further Jewish, Muslim, or Christian education for their kids. This will not happen, however, because what is at stake is not a person’s or a people’s right to their culture. As my Bildung-German Jewish grandmother and my traditional Iranian Jewish grandfather have by now realized, Israel’s Jewish education system doesn’t protect their Jewish culture, but their Jewish ethnicity. The fear is that a humanist Israeli public school system would not be able to protect this so-called right because, if they studied together, Jewish and Arab children would quickly fall in love. We Israelis typically think of assimilation as a “problem” of diaspora Jews, or of Israelis living abroad, as if non-Jews did not constitute a significant portion of Israel’s population. Assimilation is not as common a concern in Israel as it could be because its education system ensures ethnic separation. And indeed, how could a Jewish state handle the mixed sons and daughters of a humanistic education system? Would the Supreme Court approve their designation as Israeli rather than Jewish or Arab? Would they be drafted for obligatory military service? Perhaps enroll in the expedited ‘conversion-to-Judaism’ program, which the Israeli Defense Force takes pride in offering to soldiers whose Judaism, as state and military rabbis determine, is in question?

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Does it follow from these considerations that Zionism should be given up? This is certainly one plausible conclusion, very painful to many, including myself. But this is not the only possible conclusion. Another alternative would be to give up democratic liberalism. And yet another is to give up logic. Reality perhaps permits us, for a limited amount of time, to live in a Jewish democratic contradiction. The latter two alternatives are problematic, but they would at least allow Israelis to become conscious of what Halbertal’s essay attempts to obliterate: the existence of a “big question.” This question—an urgent crisis, really—consists in the fact that the main challenge to Judaism nowadays isn’t posed by nationalist anti-Semitic regimes. On the contrary, it is posed by liberal democracies that inhibit ethnic separations. It is one thing for, say, American Jews to decide privately on Jewish education for or separation of their children, quite another for such decisions to be made as quasi-constitutional state policy. Israelis must find the courage to think of this crisis seriously—confront the contradiction that is inherent to their lives as modern Jewish-Israeli citizens. Only if they allow themselves the mindset of such thinking and confrontation will Israeli Jews realize their right to culture in a genuine sense of that term. Unless this project will be taken up, neither Israel nor Jewish culture will flourish.

A version of this article appeared in German in Die Zeit.