On Yom Ha'Atzmaut we must ask:
What does it mean to be a "Jewish" state?
By Rabbi Uri Regev
Israeli Independence Day celebrations are almost upon us, and the divisions over the identity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state are greater than ever before.
Minister of Culture Miri Regev (no relation), who is responsible for the official celebrations, invited the public to sign on to the country’s Declaration of Independence. Are she and her colleagues in the Knesset truly committed to its principles, particularly to the commitment to inclusion and diversity…or is this just another PR stunt?
The deep debate in Israel encompasses both the question of democracy and of Judaism. My focus here is on the critically important question of: what does it mean for the State of Israel to be a “Jewish state”?
The current asylum seekers crisis is a good starting point and yardstick. Miri Regev's opinion is clear: "The Sudanese are cancer in the body of the country." It is hard not to see the similarity between her rhetoric, meant to incite a xenophobic response among the Israeli citizenry and statements directed against Jews in some of the places they sought to settle or find refuge. We are all too familiar with a view that aims at demonizing the weakest segments of society -- the persecuted, the stranger. Using the label "infiltrators," without distinguishing between genuine asylum seekers and those whose goals are to subvert society, aims at delegitimizing everyone who simply does not fit into her construct of what a Jewish State should be. Echoing her sentiments, some of Minister Regev’s colleagues have claimed that Israel cannot allow itself to absorb a significant number of the asylum seekers because this would “undermine the Jewish character of the State of Israel”!
I, on the other hand, believe that the Jewish character of the State of Israel should rather be anchored in our People’s formative experience as a persecuted and enslaved minority that escaped to freedom. This formative experience was translated into a religious and social imperative to be followed by our People as we gain our sovereignty: "The stranger that resides amongst you shall be unto you as one of your own citizens, and you shalt love him as yourself, for you have been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34).
So what is the Jewish essence of the state in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence? The Declaration proclaims the establishment of a "Jewish state in the Land of Israel to be known as the State of Israel." Its Jewish identity is realized by the combination of being "open to Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the exiles" and a selective choice of Jewish core values that will guide it: "The principles of liberty, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." Not a Torah state, not a state that grants Jews preferential rights beyond the right of return, but rather the opposite: "Full equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants, regardless of religion, race or sex ... Freedom of religion and conscience ... Development of the resources of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants."
These are not the values that Minister Regev and her colleagues make an effort to recognize as the essence of the Jewish and democratic character of the state. Ironically, for them, freedom of religion and conscience is an anathema, dismissing the rights of secular and non-Orthodox religious Jews, let alone their valuable contributions to Israeli society... in fact, to Israel’s independence itself. On the contrary. The Jewish identity of the state requires, for instance, according to them, denial of the right-to-family for hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, whom the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate deems ineligible to marry. This is much like Sharia law! There is no other Western democracy in the world that denies its citizens the freedom of marriage! Moreover, this runs contrary to what the overwhelming majority of Israelis want, including Netanyahu’s own Likud party voters.
In addition, by way of example, they purport to make Israel Jewish by granting mass exemption from military service for yeshiva students. This mass draft dodging stands not only in absolute contradiction to the democratic principle of equality in shouldering the civic burden, but also flies in the face of Jewish values, such as what we are commanded in the Mishna (Sotah 8:7): "even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her wedding canopy" go to war.
It is a mitzvah to celebrate the independence of Israel, but as we celebrate - we must be aware of the existential struggle for the soul of the state and lend support to the strengthening of the true and highly necessary vision of the democratic and Jewish Israel, as it was anchored in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, whose full realization is long overdue.
Female soldiers excluded from honor guards
Hiddush appealed to Defense Minister Lieberman, Chief of Staff Eizenkot and Chair of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols - Culture Minister Regev, demanding that female soldiers be fully included in official state ceremonies, including the ceremonies for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day).
On Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, the IDF places honor guards at the official state ceremonies, among which there are no female soldiers. Hiddush appealed to the Minister of Defense, the Chief of Staff, and the Chair of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols (the Minister of Culture), demanding the inclusion of female soldiers in positions of honor. It is precisely during these days, when undermining of the integration of women soldiers in official expressions of Israel's military establishment, even if symbolic, becomes ever more important. It must reflect the proportion of female soldiers as participants in Israel's military and combat efforts. Hiddush hopes that this inequality at state ceremonies would be immediately corrected and that the exclusion of female soldiers from the honor guard would be ceased immediately.
We had hoped that the failure to include women soldiers among the state's honor guard was an unintentional omission, done absentmindedly.
Hiddush had been very satisfied by the Defense Minister's own words on the subject, whereby he wrote that "the service of women in the military and their tremendous contribution to the IDF is very significant. Women have always had an impact on Israel's security, starting with the Prophetess Deborah, through Sarah Aharonsohn and Hannah Szenes, to the IDF and Border Police battalions of today."
However, we received word that the IDF Spokesman's Office explained away this discrimination, rather than addressing it, saying that ceremonial honor guards were consistently assigned to particular IDF batallions, which happen to be all-male. This disappointing response actually makes the matter seem even worse because it indicates that the IDF simply does not care about the issue of women's representation at all.
The Defense Minister's declared policy regarding the integration of women soldiers in Israel's fighting force should absolutely receive its proper public expression in the state ceremonies that are planned for Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, as well as at all other state events at which an IDF honor guard participates.
It is difficult to accept the reality that emerges clearly from the photographs of past ceremonies, which shows that female soldiers were not included at all among the honor guards. At most, some female soldiers were reduced to stewardesses who escorted dignitaries and brought out the torches and the flowers. Examples can be found here:
1) The Yom HaShoah ceremony at Yad Vashem 2017 [LINK]
2) The Yom HaZikaron ceremony at the Kotel plaza 2017 [LINK]
3) The Yom HaZikaron ceremony at Har Herzl 2017 [LINK]