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Daily Israel Report

Israel: Jewish, Democratic, or Both?

Justice Minister Tzippy Livni and Professor Ruth Gavison to seek an answer to an age-old Israeli dilemma
By David Lev
First Publish: 10/13/2013, 4:40 PM

Professor Ruth Gavison
Professor Ruth Gavison
Flash90

Is Israel a Jewish state, a democratic state, both, or neither? That question has plagued government officials and social leaders for decades, and Justice Minister Tzippy Livni intends to get to the bottom of that question for once and for all.

To do this, she has appointed Hebrew University Law School Professor Ruth Gavison to form a committee that will examine the issue, with the objective being to define what ought to be a proper balance of Jewish identity and democratic activity in Israel. That definition will be the basis of future legislation on matters of religion and state, as well as on a plethora of social issues, such as civil marriage and divorce, limiting business activity on Shabbat, and other “hot button” issues.

While many Israelis agree that the country is Jewish and democratic, many disputes have developed over the years, as the principles of Judaism and democracy clash. One prime example is the Law of Return, which provides immediate Israeli citizenship for immigrants who are Jewish (or of Jewish origin). Non-Jews can become citizens only after going through a lengthy process that lasts several years.

As a Jewish state, advocates argue, Israel should grant citizenship to Jews who move to the country. The Law of Return is seen as undoing an historical injustice, reversing the forced ethnic-cleansing of much of Israel's Jewish population by successive conquering powers, and resultant nearly 2,000 year exile. But others, particularly on the left, consider the Law of Return as at best a “necessary evil” which violates the principles of democracy.

The Gavison committee will examine the basic principles of both democracy and Judaism as they relate to the state, and will have to make recommendations that could significantly impact the Law of Return and other long-time institutions in Israel.

She will rely on High Court precedents, Knesset legislation, the language and intent of Israel's Declaration of Independence, advisors from both Israel and abroad, and other relevant sources, in order to come up with a definitive position on the question. A web site will chronicle the progress Gavison is making.

Sources in Livni's office said that the minister hopes Gavison will present her initial recommendations within months. They will then be presented to the Knesset for discussion, elaboration, and possibly legislation, her office said.