When Israel was founded nearly seven decades ago, its Declaration of Independence clearly defined the new nation as a Jewish state.
But the document also enshrined democracy as a core principle, ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”
Now Israelis and Jews abroad are roiled by debate over whether Israel can continue to be both a Jewish homeland and the lone democracy in a region torn apart by ethnic and religious strife.
Israel’s Parliament was dissolved on Monday in part over legislation proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other ultranationalist politicians that some Israelis fear would elevate the state’s Jewishness above its democratic character, exposing the inherent tension in the nation’s core principles with a law that critics say would subject a fifth of its citizens to permanent second-class status.
After a tumultuous year of failed peace talks with the Palestinians, a grueling war with militants in the Gaza Strip, continuing terrorist attacks and swelling criticism in Europe and the United States, Israel, still an adolescent nation, is going through something of an identity crisis.
“We believe this is the essence of what this state is about — real equality and having Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people — but more and more Israelis are asking themselves whether this combination is really an option,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “We have constitutional principles, but we don’t have a constitution, so the basic character of the state is not really secured.”