Shalem College
January 20, 2020

Esteemed Legal Scholar and New Shalem Lecturer Prof. Yedidia Stern on Democracy, Division, and the Jewish State

Esteemed Legal Scholar and New Shalem Lecturer Prof. Yedidia Stern on Democracy, Division, and the Jewish State
Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is former chairman of the National Committee for Civic Studies, former chairman-elect of the Coalition Committee to Enact an Israeli Constitution, and new addition to the Shalem College faculty.

“Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state. Both adjectives are equally essential to its future.” And with that, Prof. Yedidia Stern, former chairman of the National Committee for Civic Studies, former chairman-elect of the Coalition Committee to Enact an Israeli Constitution, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, and new addition to the Shalem College faculty, says what for many are fighting words—literally.

“Without the Jewish character of the state, there is simply no reason for us to be here. But without our adherence to democratic values, the state will not survive the differences of opinion between the various Jewish and non-Jewish groups within it. So you have two value systems, seemingly in contradiction to the other, that need to complement each other instead. There’s inevitable tension, but we have no choice but to make this duality work. How to do so, and what role Israel’s future leaders need to play in the challenge,” he concludes, “will make for many interesting class discussions.”

Those interesting class discussions will take place during his Core Curriculum course, “Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,” whose syllabus was specially designed for Shalem students—that is, the future leaders to which Prof. Stern was referring. Indeed, while Prof. Stern notes that he teaches a course on similar themes at one of Israel’s leading universities, where he is also a professor and former dean of its faculty of law, he insists that the issues raised around the Shalem seminar table make for a very different experience, one that demonstrate how deeply invested Shalem students are in the subject.

“The course at Shalem is more intellectual, and more focused on the sociological aspects of the issues than on the technical ones. The students here care deeply about the future of the state. They come up to me after class and ask for further reading material. They really want to understand the ideas behind all sides of a given argument,” Prof. Stern explains.

“All sides” is an apt description for a course that, as Prof. Stern explains, delves fearlessly into the legal and cultural dualities that characterize the State of Israel, as well as examines the sometimes astoundingly different interpretations of a democratic nation-state put forward by the various sectors in its society. Significantly, the course also offers students a chance to see these dualities and interpretations at work—to “get their hands dirty,” smiles Prof. Stern, describing his use of key case studies.

“We’ll delve into thorny issues like the Law of Return and conversion. We’ll also talk about the test of equality: equality in enlistment for the IDF, for land allocation, with regard to citizenship. And each time, we’ll look at the issue from the perspective of a different segment of society. Nothing,” he insists, “is off-limits. A national day of rest, a national language, national symbols—we’ll talk about them all, and hopefully begin to understand why these are issues of such contentiousness, and why civil discourse about them is so important.”

If the first step in achieving civil discourse is open-mindedness, Prof. Stern expresses optimism that Shalem students are ripe for the task. “Unfortunately, we in Israel have come to expect a kind of arm-wrestling between different sectors—the secular population, the Haredim, the National Religious, Arab Israelis. Too often, one sector tries to force a solution onto the others instead of attempting to reach agreements based on mutual respect. But from the conversations we’ve had in class thus far, it’s clear that Shalem students appreciate the value of respecting the other side, and even reevaluating one’s own opinions.”

Indeed, despite students’ varied backgrounds and their differing religious or political views, Prof. Stern insists that “they’re willing to put everything on the table in order to understand both their own position and that of people on the other side better. No one insists that anyone else’s opinion is invalid. They come as they are, but they were open to reexamining their assumptions at the same time.

“It was,” says Prof. Stern, “a model of exactly what Israel needs from its leading citizens. And as we gear up for our third round of elections in a single year,” he concludes, “it was a source of much-need optimism too.”