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Israel: Democratic and Jewish?

The Democratic Jewish State of Israel

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Democratic concepts were always a part of Jewish thinking and derived directly from the Torah. For instance, the belief that all men are created in the image of God logically leads to the idea of all men being equal. And the idea of the covenant between God and the Israelites, in which both parties accepted upon themselves duties and obligations, shows that power is established through the consent of both sides rather than through tyranny by the more powerful party. One can easily see how the biblical covenant could lead to ideas such as government by consent, constitional law and no absolutism.

Yet a democratic form of government was not part of early Jewish history, tradition or law. In biblical times, the Jewish nation was a monarchy. The first century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius called the priestly-dominated government of the Second Temple era “theocratic." And democratic ideals were not prevalent when the Mishnah and Talmud were being written, between the 2nd and 6th centuries. In all fairness, democratic governments, in which authority resided with the people, did not exist anywhere during those times.

By the late 10th century, however, hundreds of years before Locke and Montesquieu developed their version of modern Western democracy, democratic principles were beginning to be formulated and implemented by Jewish scholars. These scholars were responding to the rise of autonomous Jewish communities.

These autonomous Jewish communities were social units that needed to regulate the activities of its members, provide educational and social services to its members, and even impose and collect taxes for both their own community and often the state. The communities elected their own internal leaders. The communities also had their own courts with authority in civil law and even, to a limited degree, in criminal law.

Existing Jewish law could not handle the legal difficulties emanating from the rise of these new communities. So, from the end of the 10th century onward, over hundreds of years, Jewish law developed to include the legitimacy of the public to enact regulations. These laws contained the ideas of elected representation and majority rule.

The renowned 13th century Spanish talmudist Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret (Rashba) summarized the principle that communities should be governed by majority rule:

As regards the decisions of the people of a specific locality, the law is that whenever the majority agree to enact a law, and accept this law, we pay no attention to individual opinions, since the relation of the majority in each town to the individuals of the community is equivalent to the relationship between the Great Court to the entire Jewish people: Whatever they decree shall stand, and whoever disobeys is to be punished.

Thus, classical democracy actually derives concepts directly from the Torah, and political democracy has deep Jewish roots. In addition, contemporary democracy is alive and well today in the Democratic Jewish State of Israel. Despite all the challenges to the small state, from wars and security threats to immigrant absorption and limited natural resources, Israel has succeeded to maintain a vibrant and stable democracy.

Being both democratic and Jewish, however, isn't always easy. What happens when rabbis tell soldiers not to follow the commands of their officers, which are passed down by the Israeli government? Should a democratic government make it illegal for restaurants to serve bread during Passover or mandatory for a hotel to serve only kosher food? Is it right for a democratic government to give money for the building of orthodox synagogues but not for conservative and reform synagogues?

While the great majority in Israelis believe that the State's civic authority is the ultimate authority of the land, a small group of ultra-orthodox Israelis believe that God's Law (halakha) should reign over civic law.

In addition to this challenge from fundamentalists, a larger group of Israelis are pushing, in the other direction, for the country to become a more liberal democracy, such as the American democracy. This group, for example, is asking the State to allow civil marriages.

While Israel has succeeded against great odds to build and maintain a thriving democracy, challenges, due to the Jewish character of the State, do exist. As the country grows older and the exact lines between democracy and Judaism are negotiated, Israel will find greater harmony between the democratic rule and Jewish character of the State.
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