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Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

March 27, 2015

People have been asking me about my month in Israel and particularly about the Israeli Elections which were certainly a major focus of everyone’s attention for much of the time I was there. The big issues in the election were:

  1. First, at least for many of the parties other than Likud, was the Economy, helping people to secure adequate income and housing, the growing gap between rich and poor, the  concentration of wealth among a very few families and the distortions this creates in the Israeli economy. Parties both on the left and on the right felt compelled to respond to these issues.

  2. Benjamin Netanyanu – there those who loved him and those who hated him and his wife Sarah. About ten days before the election, Netanyahu called a group of strikers, terrorists. This was a big kerfuffle in Israel, that I don’t think made the American papers- these were his base and until he wooed them back this may have affected the polls

  3. Third major Issue was Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State- and that’s what I’d like to talk about tonight

Israel, within its borders,  is a flourishing democracy – not just from the perspective of elections, but also from the perspective of rule of law, separation of powers, and protection of individual and minority rights.

There is an activist Supreme Court to which every member of Israeli society has the right of appeal, and protections for freedom of religion, speech and assembly.

Though there is no constitution there is a basic law which with the declaration of independence plays the role of the American Bill of Rights.

20% of Israelis are not Jewish- they are mostly Arab Muslims, including significant minority groups of Beduin, Druze and Ahmadiayya but also Arab and Western Christians along with some foreign workers who have stayed in Israel and gained citizenship. These non-Jewish Israelis vote and are well represented in the Knesset, as illustrated by the recent success of the Arab list. They have increasingly progressed in education and income, though still lagging behind the Jewish majority, and issues of integration are more pronounced today than they were when the Arab community lagged further behind the Jewish minority. Some Arab Israelis are competing for jobs and housing and spots at University in a way that wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

The case for Israel as a democracy is more problematic if you include the West Bank where Jewish residents are citizens, vote in Israeli elections, and have all the guarantees of a western society in terms of due process of law but where non-Jewish residents are not citizens of the State of Israel, do not vote in Israeli elections, are prosecuted in military courts and do not have the protections of a democratic state. These 2 million + Arab residents of the West Bank, along with the almost 2 million residents of the Gaza Strip, are the demographic challenge that creates the continued focus on a two state solution. The total population of the State of Israel today is about 8 million, 6 million of whom are Jewish.

The question of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state was at the heart of much of the conversation around the election.

I thought it would be helpful to talk a little bit about this issue, separating it from the question of the Palestinians.

I created a little grid that I thought would be helpful- showing the different positions that people take.

On the left- the position that Democracy is a Jewish value—and on the right that it is not.

On the top- that Democracy is important to Israel- and on the bottom that it is not.

No one takes the position that Democracy is a Jewish value but isn’t important to Israel- so we can eliminate one block right off the bat.

Let’s look at the others for a moment.

Everyone agrees that Democracy-was originally a Greek invention, which was then reinvented in post Enlightenment Europe.

Everyone also agrees that the Bible doesn’t promote a democratic state. Biblical Judaism envisioned a theocracy- In Deuteronomy it takes the form of monarchy.

But here’s where it divides. Because the king was subject to the law of the Torah, was limited in his power, did not serve by divine right, there are those who see this limited monarchy as something proto-democratic. They stress that the people play a role in the election and authority of the king, and that the king is bound by a sort of social contract, limiting his ability to make himself into a deity. They point to the special ceremony to be held every 7th year ceremony to affirm the rule of law and which emphasizes the status of the king as a representative of the people. They note the story of King Ahab, a very wicked king  yet when he wants Naboth’s vineyard, he recognizes the limitations on his right as king to take that vineyard for himself.

It isn’t just contemporary thinkers who divide on this issue. Philo, the great Hellenist philosopher,  describes the polity of Judaism as a democracy. He wasn’t talking about an elected government but about a system that honors equality, law and justice. These as we have seen are as necessary to true democracy as elections and without rule of law, protection of individual and minority rights, checks and balances in government, elections are pretty meaningless.

Judaism also has some history of democracy in the post Biblical period.

Democratic features in Judaism predominated in the world of the scholars where court cases were decided by majority votes and in legal disputes among scholars similarly, the majority opinion was followed. Further the stress on the value of every individual, and the equality of every individual under the law had a democratic flavor.

Finally, we note that the Zionist movement built on representative principles.

From that first Zionist Congress in Basle, through the formation in the 1920’s of the Assembly of Jews in Eretz Yisrael,  officials have been elected in multi-party contested elections.

 

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