Recently Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert created a controversy by naming Raleb Majadele, an Arab-Israeli Muslim, to his cabinet – the first time a Muslim has held such a high-ranking position in Israel’s government. Predictably, reactions were strong. Many moderate and liberal Israeli leaders praised the move, the right condemned it as undermining the nature of the Jewish state, and Israeli Arab politicians tended to dismiss the appointment as a meaningless token gesture.

Israel’s population is 20 percent Arab–the vast majority of those being Muslim with a significant Christian minority as well–and it is high time that Arabs finally be represented in the Cabinet (there are currently 13 Arab members of the Knesset). It is a standing rebuke that Israel’s Arab citizens, generally speaking, are far worse off than their Jewish counterparts, with higher unemployment, lower income levels, and inadequate access to governmental resources. Perhaps Majadele’s appointment, even if it is just a gesture, can serve to highlight this discrepancy and bring more attention to the needs of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Some bemoan Majadele’s appointment as a blow to Zionism, an undermining of the idea of a Jewish state, and I think it is important to acknowledge the implicit tension that exists between Israel’s commitment to being a modern democracy and to being a Jewish state. Majadele, for instance, will not sing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem that speaks of the Jewish dream of return to our homeland (he does stand respectfully while it is sung). Having a cabinet member who refuses to sing the national anthem brings the issue of Israel’s identity to the fore and calls all of us to grapple with what exactly it means to be a Jewish state. But for me, part of being a Jewish state must certainly be treating all citizens fairly and equally as our highest standards demand: “You shall have one law–for the stranger and citizen alike.” (Lev 24:22).

Jews are called to be “a light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6) and “a holy people” (Ex. 19:6) and, as Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg argues, to do this we must surely set an example in our own state of how to safeguard the rights and dignity of everyone. As Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) approaches, let us affirm our commitment to build a country of which all its citizens can be proud.

Read the Full Debate: What’s the Place of Non-Jews in a Jewish State?

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