Member Alan Feld on "Self-Ghettoization" in Israel


JFN Member Alan Feld writes in the Jerusalem post that democracy means far more than majority rule.


In Zionism, there is an interesting dichotomy. In The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl wrote that the purpose of a Jewish state was to “live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.”

At the same time, he presented a universal vision: “The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”

All this is reflected in the Declaration of Independence. On the one hand, it cites the particularity of the State of Israel’s formation as the culmination of the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” There is also a universal message that “The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”

But the Declaration of Independence did not just set out a vision for the state’s “integration” into the family of nations; more importantly and in fact primarily it set out a vision of how we were to conduct ourselves internally. “[The State] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Not only was Israel to be a Jewish state, it was to be a liberal and democratic one.

There is a tendency to define democracy very narrowly, as majority rule. Democracy is far more than that. It entails among other things freedom of press, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary arrest and most importantly in my view, full minority rights. In fact, some of the most undemocratic governments in history started and ended with majority rule, such as Nazi Germany.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a fierce critic of the majority-rule interpretation of democracy: “It is an incorrect view which states that government supported by the majority is democracy. The democratic concept is the result of a historical process, of struggles against governments of rule by the minority. This is not yet, however, true democracy.

Democracy means freedom.

Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy... The Jewish State will have to be such, ensuring that the minority will not be rendered defenseless. The aim of democracy is to guarantee that the minority too has influence on matters of state policy. After all, that minority comprises individuals who were also created ‘in the image of God.’”

Ghettoization and democracy – what does Shmita (the sabbatical year) have to do with Mount Sinai, as Rashi asks in his famous commentary on Parshat Behar? Having now returned to Eretz Israel and having realized the Zionist dream of a sovereign people in its own homeland, the defense mechanism of voluntary separation should no longer be necessary. And yet, Israel is experiencing an accelerating self-imposed ghettoization, an exclusion of the “other” and a very narrow definition of “we.” Internally, that self-ghettoization is threatening our democracy and externally it is threatening our relationships with the rest of the world. In other words, what anti-Semitic regimes imposed on us since the days of the Venetian ghetto of the 16th century, we are imposing ourselves...

Feld cites onerous barriers to conversion facing Russian olim with Jewish parentage; a high-tech sector insufficiently representative of the Haredi, Druze, and Arab communities; and an increasingly insular mentality among the Religious Zionist community.

...The best explanation for this tendency toward self-imposed ghettoization came from Rav Sharon Shalom, who I had the honor of hearing speak at our synagogue in Jerusalem on Tisha Be’av this year. His topic was sinat hinam, baseless hatred (the reason given by the sages for the destruction of the Second Temple), and the failure of the integration of the Ethiopian community in the broader Israeli society. Rav Shalom was born in Tigris, Ethiopia, made aliya in 1981, spent many of his formative years in an absorption center in Afula and then received his rabbinical ordination from Rav Amital, then rosh yeshiva at the Gush, the pre-eminent yeshiva of the Religious Zionism. Rav Shalom is not just a rabbi, he is also a genuine scholar and thinker and now spiritual leader of a leading Ashkenazi synagogue.

Despite all his accomplishments, Rav Shalom described being ignored by the rabbinic establishment and others every day.

Among the many stories he told were two glaring ones.

First, he related how a prominent rabbi, a relative of the bride at a wedding ceremony Rav Shalom was to perform, was not prepared to let him officiate despite the fact that he was invited to do so by the groom’s family with the bride’s acquiescence. This rabbi replaced Rav Shalom in the middle of the ceremony.

The second incident occurred as he stood in line for a flight to Israel; he was continuously passed by other Israeli passengers, who just assumed that he worked for the airport (despite having no uniform).

Rav Shalom attributes this conduct to fear. In Israel, we are afraid of the other, of those that are different than us.

In order for us to get out of the self-ghettoization, we have to move away from fear of the other, to the acceptance and inclusion of the other. Instead of seeing the varied cultures and backgrounds in Israel as a risk, we have to see our varied cultures and backgrounds as an opportunity. Being different should not be viewed as something to fear but something to desire. It will make our home lives richer, our work lives richer and most importantly, it will bring us back from the slippery slope of being the “state of hatzibur shelanu” to being the Jewish and democratic state that Jabotinsky and the Declaration of Independence contemplated.

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