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Former Israeli Ashkenazi chief rabbi says Israel’s Jewish identity trumps its democratic component

Rabbi Lau says the Hebrew Bible constituted a valuable blueprint for democratic rule

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, at a Menorah Lighting Ceremony on the fourth night of Hanukkah, at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, Dec. 1, 2021. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

At the Fund for Zionist Leadership conference in Israel on Thursday, former Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Meir Lau said he supports democracy but stressed that Israel was founded as a Jewish state. 

“In the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the word ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’ does not even appear once. And it’s not that anyone is against democracy, but it is not the basis of our nation. The word ‘Jewish’ appears more than 10 times. This is the basis upon which the State of Israel was founded, according to ... David Ben-Gurion. There is no question about that,” said Lau. 

The former chief rabbi said the Hebrew Bible constituted a valuable blueprint for democratic rule. 

“I am for democracy – the people in control. But how? Upon what [basis] does the nation rule? In our Torah, in Exodus, Chapter 23, it is written: ‘[You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong – you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to] pervert it in favor of the mighty [nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute].’ This is democracy. It doesn’t say to listen to the voice of so-and-so, not a random leader, not a professor, not a doctor, not a rabbi and not a Hassidic rebbe,” said Lau. 

The debate concerning Israel’s identity has sharpened in recent months amid the Netanyahu government’s controversial judicial overhaul plans. Many Israelis fear that such reforms could harm Israeli democracy. However, Lau, a respected conservative and religious authority, stressed the importance of Israel remaining a democratic state. 

“What are we debating? There is no debate. We are a democratic state, clearly. [We are in trouble] if we are not [a democracy] because we have experienced its opposite firsthand. We do not want to go back to something like that,” he said.

Lau, who survived Nazi persecution in Poland during the Holocaust, stressed that the Jewish people have experienced the high price of living in repressive authoritarian societies firsthand. 

“What are we arguing about? We are a democracy. We have experienced the opposite, firsthand, in our lifetimes. We will not go back to that,” he vowed. The majority of Israeli Jews are from families who fled persecution in despotic countries in eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. 

Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef added a warning that civil war among Israelis must be avoided and urged peace amid rising clashes over the government’s proposed judicial reforms. 

“We need peace in (this) nation. All the disputes and civil war – this is a worrying thing, it is very painful,” said Yosef, who officially represents Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. 

The chief rabbi stressed that he does not get involved in [political affairs], but "you at least need to convince them, to meet and explain to them.”

At the same time, Yosef blasted Israel’s Supreme Court for getting involved in religious matters. 

“At least in religious matters they will not interfere – what do you have to interfere [with] the religious matters of the Rabbinical Court? You are not above the Rabbinical Court,” Yosef said.

While the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support Israel as a Jewish nation-state, many secular Israelis are increasingly critical of practices involving religious coercion. Religious authorities in Israel have a monopoly on issues such as marriage, divorce and public transportation during the Jewish Sabbath.

Yosef concluded by urging for dialogue and the pursuit of peace. 

“There should be dialogue between [the two sides], so that there will be no – God forbid – civil war. We are all the people of Israel. Love your neighbor as yourself, we are all brothers,” he said.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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