Democracy and Judaism in Israel: Body and soul, or rival religions?

By Evelyn Gordon

That depends on how you define democracy – which is why the ‘Jewish vs. democratic’ debate has become so fraught

In response to my column last month on the false choice between Israel’s Jewish and democratic characters, a reader asked a logical question: You yourself argued that Israel has no raison d’etre if it isn’t a Jewish state; being just another Western democracy isn’t enough. So why do you think “Jewish” and “democratic” deserve equal weight, instead of prioritizing Israel’s Jewish character?

Answering that requires defining “democracy,” because in recent years, two almost antithetical concepts have been sloppily – or perhaps maliciously – subsumed under this term. One of these concepts is frequently at odds with Israel’s Jewish character. But the other is as vital to the Jewish state’s continued existence as the body is to the soul.

Democracy’s original meaning, which today is sometimes called “thin” or “procedural” democracy, was a system of government in which governing requires the consent of the governed (though for practical reasons, such consent is usually granted via elected representatives). Consequently, its requirements are limited to those necessary to achieve this purpose, such as regular elections, checks and balances among different branches of government, and certain rights essential to enabling the democratic process to function, like freedom of expression or the right to due process.

Most democracies also grant rights that go beyond the bare essentials. But these additional rights acquire their validity only through the consent of the governed, granted via legislation or, more commonly, via democratically adopted constitutions. Procedural democracy doesn’t mandate the conferral of nonpolitical rights like, say, a “right to marry”; it mandates only those rights essential for democracy to function.

The newer version of democracy is sometimes called “thick” or “substantive” or “liberal” democracy. But despite that deceptive word “democracy,” this version is in many ways less a system of government than a religion.

Like any religion, it contains both positive and negative commandments that govern not only political, but also moral and social, life; the only difference is that these commandments are called “rights” instead. Thus, for instance, legalizing gay marriage is obligatory, because there’s a “right to marry,” but restricting abortion is forbidden, because a woman has a “right to control her own body.” These positions have nothing to do with the mechanisms of government and everything to do with dictating social and moral norms.

And like any religion, “substantive democracy” derives its commandments (aka “rights”) not from the decisions of the people’s elected representatives, but from a higher authority that trumps such decisions. In traditional religions, this higher authority is God, whose commandments are revealed in holy writ like the Bible or Koran. The origin of substantive democracy’s commandments is less clear: Sometimes, adherents simply assert that these are “fundamental human rights” known to and obligatory on everyone, however hotly contested they are. Other times, they cite the amorphous holy writ known as “international law,” which consists largely of pronouncements by unelected officials in UN agencies or organizations like the Red Cross, whose decisions were never approved by any elected government.

But whatever the source, disciples of substantive democracy clearly believe such a higher law exists. That’s why the High Court of Justice could rule in 2004, for instance, that people have a constitutional “right” to a “minimal dignified existence” guaranteed by welfare payments, with the court being authorized to decide whether existing welfare payments meet this standard. The fact that the only body in Israel actually authorized to enact constitutional legislation – the Knesset – had rejected proposed Basic Laws guaranteeing this and other “social rights” no fewer than 15 times was irrelevant.

The problem with treating democracy as a religion, however, is that no two religions are ever wholly compatible. One cannot, for instance, simultaneously be a practicing Jew and a practicing Muslim, because Jewish and Islamic law sometimes clash. So, too, do the commandments of Judaism and substantive democracy, and when that happens, many Jews will naturally prefer their own religion to the rival one. So if you believe that democracy can only mean “substantive democracy” – i.e., a rival religion – then prioritizing Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic one would make sense.

But procedural democracy isn’t a competing religion; it’s a system of government. And this particular system of government is essential to the Jewish state’s survival, for one simple reason: Any Jewish state, whatever else it is or isn’t, must be one where large numbers of Jews with often contradictory opinions and values – religious and secular, right-wing and left-wing, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, socialists and capitalists – can somehow live together. And no system of government is better at enabling people with wildly different opinions to coexist than democracy.

First, this is because democracy offers everyone the hope of ultimate victory – the possibility of persuading others to enact your ideas into law. In reality, achieving anything usually requires compromising. But the very existence of this hope is enough to keep most people working within the system instead of leaving in despair or turning to violence to impose their views.

Second, democracy excels at finding the kinds of messy compromises which, despite satisfying nobody, give each side enough that neither finds it intolerable. The current state of gay rights is a classic example. Liberal democrats consider gay marriage a fundamental right that the state must grant. Orthodox Jews consider homosexuality a serious religious offense that the state mustn’t endorse. The compromise is that Israel doesn’t permit gay marriage, but effectively grants gay couples the same rights as married couples. And since both sides get something (the de facto benefits of marriage for gays, no official sanctioning of religiously prohibited behavior for Orthodox Jews), both can live with it, even though neither is happy.

This brings us back to the body-and-soul analogy I began with. Judaism is Israel’s soul. As I argued last month, if Israel ever ceased to be a Jewish state, it would soon cease to exist at all. But democracy is Israel’s body – the framework that enables millions of contentious Jews to live together despite their disagreements, and without which the state would soon implode.

Like any living creature, the Jewish state needs both soul and body to survive. On its own, neither is enough.

February 6, 2015 | 6 Comments »

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6 Comments / 6 Comments

  1. @ Ted Belman:

    “In addition, [democracy] is questionable because now that ‘democracy’ denies the freedoms, speech or even religion, we have long associated with it, in favour of the all embracing doctrine of ‘sensitivity‘…”

    That final word is clearly code language for deference to political correctness, whereby ANYTHING may be artificially elevated to the status of a religion.

    “If we are not allowed to express contrary opinions about ideology and people what kind of democracy is that?”

    Clearly it is NO democracy

    — but rather, an ersatz religion masquerading as ‘democracy.’

    I got the impression from the piece that she is thinking the matter thru, just like the rest of us — and that this was only an early installment of what is likely to be a continuing series of explorations of the subject.

    — If this is the case, it will be interesting to see where she goes with the matter. I, for one, always look forward to reading what she has to say.

  2. Israel is not a democratic state but a quasi police state where, under BOTH Labour and Likud, JEWS are discriminated against in the ONLY SACRED PLACE to Judaism, where the police arrest you for PRAYING and where the judges don’t arrest the police who does; where the police and judges allow Mohammedans to hackle and attack Jews while Jews cannot react.

  3. @ Ted Belman:
    She does answer your question directly but it is inferred that the Jewish religion is the soul of Israel and the democracy can not supersede it. Democracy in all countries that practice it is slightly different and evolving.

    Those in the USA who basically practice it as religious are the ones closing Guantanamo and letting out the enemy during a time of war. This is almost a quasi-suicidal practice.

    Israel balances security needs and democracy somewhat (e.g. administrative detention of terror subjects). Naturally as what happens with humans these government powers can be abused (such as happens with far right Jews on occasion).

    Coming up with the correct balance of a Jewish Democratic state is and will continue to a tug and pull.

  4. @ dweller:
    The way I read her is that Israel needs both, (everyone agrees), but she is silent on what should take precedent when they are in conflict.

    It is a separate issue as to whether “democracy” as defined by Jewish sources, should replace democracy as defined by the western elites.

    In addition, the latter is questionable because now that “democracy” denies the freedoms, speech or even religion, we have long associated with it, in favour of the all embracing doctrine of “sensitivity”. If we are not allowed to express contrary opinions about ideology and people what kind of democracy is that?

  5. @ Ted Belman:

    She seems to be saying that as long as democracy is treated as merely an orderly & civilized framework (“procedural”) and not as a virtual religion (“substantive”), that she sees no conflict, no rivalry w/ Judaism; thus no reason for prioritization.