J.J. Goldberg

Democracy's Creative Tensions? Take That Back!

By J.J. Goldberg

  • Print
  • Share Share
Wikimedia Commons
Ofer Shelah

Our old friend Ofer Shelah, former Maariv military and sports reporter, former Forward Israel correspondent and currently Yesh Atid Knesset caucus whip, has come out against the phenomenon of “nationality laws” that seek to define the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and democratic qualities or assign preferential standing in law to one over the other (usually favoring the Jewish side).

As Shelah wrote on his Facebook page on Friday, the law is superfluous (מיותר), and laws that are superfluous are laws that shouldn’t be enacted.

… I prefer the fascinating duality (שניות) inherent in the term “Jewish and democratic state” over any attempt to define the components in the dry language of law.

The wonderful thing about this concept is that it’s clear to all of us, to anyone who reads those three charged words with open eyes, that there is a certain contradiction (סתירה) implicit in it. But it’s no less clear what it says. In this matter, it seems to me that the brightest light is to be found in the gray area.

To a certain degree it can be said that Israel’s 65 years have been a walk along this narrow line, with the wonderful democratic strength that’s possible precisely because we never stopped to define it precisely. Our legal system, freedom of speech and political vitality, all these are alive and kicking and impressive to anyone who watches us from outside precisely because we live this dialectic every day, without a law that presumes to define exactly what the great mix of identities living here is made of.

Or, as the Jerusalem Post summed it up, in a Saturday news article by Knesset correspondent Lahav Harkov, “Shelah: ‘Jewish and democratic state’ an oxymoron.” Harkov writes:

According to Shelah, the words “Jewish and democratic state” are an oxymoron and any attempt to sharpen and define them only show how self-contradictory they are.

Get it? Harkov takes Ofer’s celebration of the messy, vibrant experiment that is Israeli democracy, with all its creative tensions (its “fascinating duality” and its brightest light shining forth from the gray areas), and turns it into an attack on Israel and Zionism. Apparently notions like living with complexity, walking narrow lines and finding light in the gray interstitial areas are too complicated for some folks.

The nationality law began as an unsuccessful bill submitted in the last Knesset by former Kadima lawmaker Avi Dichter. It would have ended the status of Arabic as Israel’s second official language and, in cases where Israel’s Jewish and democratic qualities came into legal conflict, given primacy to the Jewish element. Shelah writes that it would enshrine in law “the most damaging thing in current Israeli discourse — the feeling of victimhood — which turns our justice from something natural, which anyone can sense without a need for reinforcement or explanation, into a pathetic farce of counterfeit patriotism.”

Two alternative versions were submitted to the current Knesset, one by Yariv Levin of Likud and Ayelet Shaked of Jewish Home, the other by Ruth Calderon of Shelah’s Yesh Atid. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni vetoed both versions as contradicting the guarantees in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Earlier this month Livni appointed liberal constitutional scholar Ruth Gavizon to draft a moderate version that would be in conformity with the declaration.

Shelah writes, “My colleague Ruth Calderon is trying to draft an alternative bill that would be based on the text and spirit of the Declaration of Independence. She’s doing it with wisdom, modesty and openness, as is her habit.” Nonetheless, he sees two problems in the effort: first, that he regards any nationality law as unnecessary, and second, that he thinks the topic is best left in its current creative ambiguity (as described above).

Or, as the Post’s Harkov puts it:

Yesh Atid faction chairman Ofer Shelah continued making public statements in opposition of his party on Friday, coming out against “nationality bills” like the one proposed by MK Ruth Calderon.

Oxymoron? I don’t know about the “oxy” part, but…


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yesh Atid, Tzipi Livni, Ruth Gavizon, Ruth Calderon, Ofer Shelah, Nationality Law, Maariv, Lahav Harkov, Knesset, Kadima, Jerusalem Post, Israeli Declaration of Independence, Avi Dichter, Facebook

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.