Foreword | Roots of Israeli Democracy | Jewish Tradition | Parliamentary Democracy | Declaration of Independence | Rebirth of Jewish Sovereignty | Freedom of Expression | Gender Equality | Arab Sector | Children’s Rights | Socio-Economic Rights |  Democracy Index | Democracy in Wartime | Democracy in the Middle East

Although theoretical Zionism was expressed by the prayers and yearning of the Jews over the centuries to return to their homeland from which they were exiled, political Zionism originated among the emerging democracies in Europe following the 18th century emancipation. The emancipation granted Jews the rights of citizenship through which they became more involved in their respective countries and enabled them to cultivate an appreciation of the new type of democratic system of governance and the values that came with it.

From its inception, the political Zionist movement – fostered by the ideas of Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism – was based on a democratic system of decision-making. The First Zionist Congress was convened in 1897 by Theodore Herzl in Basel, Switzerland, with 197 delegates representing Zionist organizations from all over the world. The Zionist Congress held the status of a national assembly representing the entire Jewish people.

 A Free People in Our Land: The Roots of Israeli Democracy

Herzl envisaged the establishment of a democratic Jewish state (Photo: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
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Participants in the Congress were elected representatives of the Jewish communities. The Congress provided an open forum for a full range of opinions and functioned on the basis of free elections, already establishing the tradition of a democratic political process and parliamentary debate.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, derives its name from the "Knesset Hagdola" ("Great Assembly") which was the legislative body of the Jews in Israel during the Second Temple period. The traditions of the Knesset and the democratic procedures by which it operates were influenced by the Zionist Congress, by the experience of the Assembly of Representatives ("Assefat Hanivharim"), which was the supreme elected representative body of the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine, and, to a certain extent, by the procedures and customs of the British Parliament.

The roots of Israel’s democratic tendencies, nurtured over two millennia by the Jewish nation, were given a chance to mature with the establishment of the state. These principles have not only led to the acceptance of a democratic culture in a region of authoritarian regimes, but have helped Israel remain a sturdy and healthy democracy amongst the nations of the world.

 A Free People in Our Land: The Roots of Israeli Democracy

Theodor Herzl addressing the Second Zionist Congress, 1898
(Photo: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

 A Free People in Our Land: The Roots of Israeli Democracy

Modern day Israel: the Knesset in session
(Photo: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

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1. Hassidim are adherents of a movement founded in Europe in the 18th century based on an expressive approach to Jewish ritual and thought.
2. Mitnagdim were strict talmudists who were devoted to the pure study of Jewish texts.