Fathom | Debating Israel’s Identity

Ruth Gavison is Professor Emerita, holding the Haim H. Cohn Chair of Human Rights, in the Faculty of Law of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Academy of Science and the Humanities. She was speaking in London at the 5th Annual Conference of European Association of Israel Studies (EAIS) on 4 September 2016. This is an edited version of her remarks, first published in Fathom. You can watch the full speech here.


Israel is in the middle of a long debate about its identity. This debate moves between specific issues (religion, occupation, and the rights of the Arab minority in Israel) and the most basic presuppositions of the existence of Israel – its Jewish and democratic character, and the way they fit in with its commitment to human rights.

Some people want to emphasise the role of Israel as a nation state for Jews in legislation. The other political camp is trying to stop them. Each camp has its own vision of Israel: what it is and what it should be – a description of reality and an ideal.

Both claim they are repairing the country, invoking an old ideal of Israel, of what Israel was founded for. The canonical text both groups refer to is the Declaration of Independence (the Declaration).

Yet, if we study the Declaration we find three elements. First, there is a very strong affirmation of the right of Jews to have political independence in part of their ancient homeland – the Jewish state. Second, there is a very long, detailed section about the commitment to grant full civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights to everyone in Israel. Third, there is also the commitment to run Israel as a democracy, on the basis of equal and adequate representation of the Arabs within Israel.

So, the key points of the Declaration are Jewish self-determination, human rights and democracy.

Read the full article in Fathom.

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