Is “Jewish Democracy” an Oxymoron?Thursday 30/11/2017

By Nikki Golomb.

There’s a phrase I have heard over and over again throughout my life: “Put two Jews in a room and you’ll get three opinions.” Once, however, I heard an amended version: “Put two Israelis in a room and you’ll get three opinions, a new political party, and probably an invitation to Shabbat dinner.” The more I’m learning about Israeli politics, however, the more I’m realizing it is less of a joke and more of a commentary on the complexity of Israeli politics and social life.

Israel prides itself as being both the only true democracy in the Middle East, as well as the only Jewish state in the world. Some people, however, do not believe that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic; they say that mixing religion with politics inherently makes it undemocratic. However, this argument ignores the many other democracies with a state religion; for example, nobody questions the democratic integrity of Christian states such as the UK, Greece, Costa Rica, or Denmark (among others). Other countries additionally have religiously-affiliated political parties, even though the country itself does not have a national religion. Despite the mixing of religion and politics, these countries remain internationally recognized democratic states.

Taking this into consideration, the question thus becomes whether Judaism in particular is incompatible with democracy. In order to answer this, one must look at the Torah and Jewish values. The Torah states that an acceptable political system must be “rooted in popular consent and involving the people in governance,” a significant characteristic of democracy. It additionally documents the creation of a modern justice system under Moses, who established a multi-tiered court system after the Exodus from Egypt. Although there are no direct references to democracy in the Torah, values such as equality, justice, and rule of the people which are vital to democratic institutions are emphasized, meaning Judaism and the nature of democracy are not inherently incompatible. Jewish values additionally tell us that all people are created b’tzelem Elokim – in the image of G-d. This belief equalizes all people, regardless of religion, ethnicity, nationality, etc. and demands that everyone is treated with the same respect and dignity. The value of tzedek, or justice, also has clear implications on democratic life by further emphasizing the importance of establishing a just society.

Others argue that while Judaism and democracy are not inherently contradictory, the ways they manifest themselves in Israel do not represent true democracy. According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, there are two vital aspects of democracy: 1) self-governance, or the meaningful participation of citizens in the political system, and 2) plurality, or the ability of everybody to live according to their own beliefs and coexist in society. Both of these features are represented in the Israeli political system. Israel has a parliamentary system of government, called the Knesset; Members of Knesset are voted upon by the people, and all citizens have the right to vote regardless of religion, ethnicity, or any other identity. All citizens are also eligible to run for government, or create their own political party; both Arabs and Haredi Jews, for instance, have their own political parties and are also represented in other parties. In terms of pluralism, it is no question that various ethnic and religious groups coexist in Israel. Jews and Arabs alike have the right to vote; receive state-funded education; and are represented as Members of Knesset, judges, and other high-power positions. Many organizations exist, including JIJ, which work to promote pluralism in Israeli society. This would not be possible in a nondemocratic country or exclusively ethnic nation-state.

It is true that Israel, like every other country, is not perfect. Discrimination exists, representation can and should be improved, and conflict between religion and government remain a hot political topic. The “perfect” balance has not yet been found. However, this does not take away from the Jewishness or democracy of the state. Christian democracies exist with little to no questioning of whether they can be both religious and democratic. Those who claim that a “Jewish democracy,” on the other hand, is an oxymoron either do not have a complete understanding of Jewish and/or democratic values, or do not know how Israel’s political system works. Jewish values influence the political environment, yet Israel meets every requirement of a democratic nation. Once we accept that Israel is both Jewish and democratic, we can better understand the political nature of the government and work within the system to create positive political and social change.

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