Zionism’s unfinished business

Rabbi Tarfon’s oft-quoted adage in the Ethics of our Fathers, “the work [of perfecting the world] is not yours to complete, but neither are you free to desist from it,” holds true for Israel and its supporters.

Earlier generations succeeded in creating a strong, viable and vibrant state. Consider three of their many achievements: first, superior technological and military capabilities that enable Israel to defend itself against virtually any threat; second, an active democracy with effective civil society organizations and an independent judiciary that, for the most part, encourages debate and dissent in the public square, and third, the transformation of Hebrew into a rich language that gives dynamic expression to the country’s boundless creativity and spirit.

But earlier generations didn’t complete the work. Israel continues to confront three contentious challenges that must be resolved for it to prosper into the future. All are intertwined with the overarching, unsettled question of the country’s dual self-definition as a “Jewish and democratic state” – the full meaning of which has yet to be clarified.

The first challenge is the role of religion in public life. For decades, numerous efforts to articulate a model that’s right for Israel have foundered on the shoals of political barriers, although the recent Religion and State Index of the Hiddush Association showed that 61 per cent of Israeli Jews favour greater separation of religion and state and widespread opposition to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on personal-status issues.

The second challenge is Israel’s treatment of its non-Jewish minority. Twenty per cent of the country’s eight million citizens are Arab, and the question of their equality and loyalty remains a festering sore. In a Jewish state, they’re second class. In a democracy, they’re equal. Squaring this circle is a formidable task.

The third challenge is territorial. Ultimately, Israel can’t thrive without defined borders and a two-state resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians. Real security concerns notwithstanding, removing this “elephant from the room”   is essential for the country’s identity, demography, international standing and morality. Last week, Science Minister Yaacov Peri reiterated, “everyone knows that a bi-national state is the end of Zionism.”

This is where the three challenges are joined: ending the occupation will assure Israel a Jewish majority and buttress its democracy, allowing an open discussion of its dual character.

In the current Knesset, some lawmakers prefer to retreat inwardly by introducing proposals for a new Basic Law that will shift the balance to Israel’s Jewish identity over its democratic principles. This could easily become a slippery slope.

Rabbi Dow Marmur’s recent statement, in this paper, that “Canadian Jewry needs a Peter Beinart” and Consul General DJ Schneeweiss’ comment that “Israel must include all Jews” are exhortations to embrace, rather than avoid, the difficult conversations we must have on the unfinished business of Zionism. And they are a call to do so in a big, inclusive and diverse tent that respects differences and values listening.

The task may not be completed in our lifetime, but we cannot desist from it, and we may emerge stronger for it.

Shira Herzog