Professors Debate Democracy in Israel
“It’s only possible in a meaningful sense to be ‘blank’ and democratic—where the blank can be fit by some ethnicity, or religion—if it respects fully the equality of citizens of the state who don’t fit into the blank,” said Harvard Law School professor Noah R. Feldman ’92.
Feldman was faced with the question of whether Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democratic one during the fourth annual faculty debate at the Law School on Thursday.
Feldman and Law School professor Duncan Kennedy took on the topic of religion and democracy in Israel in response to philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who recently argued that Israel is a flawed democracy because only secular states can be democracies.
In contrast to Dworkin, both Feldman and Kennedy agreed that democracy in Israel is indeed compatible with the nation’s Jewish character, as long as Israel takes care to monitor how its religious values influence its democratic process.
“I think there is [a] strong, reasonable argument to be made that the...experience of feeling excluded by religious symbols adopted by the majority derogates importantly from one’s equal citizenship,” Feldman said. “But I think that, on the whole, we could satisfy a robust definition of democracy even in the presence of those symbols.”
Feldman and Kennedy also responded to Dworkin’s claim that Israel’s Jewish character leads to an unequal status for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the nation.
“Almost everything you could say about what is problematic from the political point of view of the Israeli political regime could be said about the United States at one point or another as well,” Kennedy said, mentioning the United States’ historical struggles with race relations and with the influence of religious values on policy.
But Kennedy said that Israel’s current political situation does not resemble America today.
“If you are American and you just read the description of...policies that are used to get Arabs out of Jerusalem and prevent them from coming back, you would be horrified,” Kennedy said.
Responding to activists who have likened Israeli policy to that of apartheid-era South Africa, Kennedy said, “The Israeli system looks like Jim Crow, not apartheid.”
Sadaf Jaffer, a teaching fellow in South Asian studies, said that although the evening’s discussion did not conclude with suggestions for concrete solutions, she found value in the debate.
“I think it was a very respectful discussion about an important and significant philosophical and political issue,” she said.