The establishment of Israel’s democratic system of governance is notable, given our history: The majority of Israel’s Jewish population hails from countries without a democratic political culture. Roughly half originates in the Arab Muslim countries of the Middle East; the other half, including the country’s founders, in the non-democratic countries of Eastern Europe (including Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union). How incredible, then, that Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character has been officially enshrined in two of its Basic Laws (1992, 1994).

Israel has always occupied much of my consciousness. I love it for its Jewishness, am proud of its democratic character, and long took both for granted.

Actually, wrapping one’s mind around this intersection of values is complicated, for the two terms mean different things to different people. Does “Jewish” refer to a people? a culture? a particular form of a religion? And what of “democratic”?

According to The Economist’s Democracy Index:

There is no consensus on how to measure democracy, definitions of democracy are contested and there is an ongoing lively debate on the subject… The fundamental features of a democracy include government based on majority rule and the consent of the governed, the existence of free and fair elections, the protection of minority rights and respect for basic human rights.

All citizens’ votes count equally in Israeli national elections, unlike the constitutional republic of the USA. On the other hand, Israelis don’t vote directly for their national representatives in the Knesset — we only vote for political parties, and many Members of Knesset are actually selected by and beholden to party leaders or certain small groups of individuals, rather than to the public. So how would one determine which system is more “democratic”? Can one do so?

The Jewish People Policy Institute’s report Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry makes an interesting point about the ambiguity of the formulation “Jewish and democratic”:

The ambiguity inherent in the precise definition of “Jewish and democratic” is perceived by many as an advantage… For many Jews, some of the appeal of the formulation Jewish and democratic is in its vagueness. The more they delve into attempts to exact its meaning, the more some feel the need to opt-out in disagreement.

In other words, let us agree to disagree — for the sake of national unity. It’s fragile, but apparently it works.

As somebody who works for an advocacy group, I certainly feel Israel to be democratic, but I know that not all would agree with me. Not everyone gets to witness the levers and gears of democracy in motion, even from afar. In fact, according to the most recent Israel Democracy Index:

In the total sample [of Israelis], over three-quarters (75.5%) felt that they and their friends could influence policy “not so much” or “not at all.” Though the findings are not new, they certainly do not bode well for Israeli democracy, since such feelings of impotence can lead to apathy among citizens and even delegitimization of the Government.

This leaps out at me from the report. Regardless of exactly how we define our terms, an apathetic citizenry bodes poorly for democracy. Why don’t we believe that our votes matter? Tellingly, only 36.7% of citizens trust Israel’s political parties to any extent. According to the Index, the parties are the least trusted institution in Israel, and with all of their corruption scandals this can come as no surprise.

If “Jewish and democratic” is our unifying national vision, then “Jewish and corrupt” is but an ugly, ironic perversion of our People’s centuries-old hope. Dishearteningly, this corruption has perpetuated the perversion of Judaism itself. Self-inflicted and state-supported unemployment, ignorance and poverty were never the pillars our heritage, but they are the price that the Haredi parties have consistently exacted from many subsequent governments — and from their own society.

I think of this now because election season is in full swing, bringing too many cockroaches out of the woodwork. I am disappointed in those politicians who have wantonly broken laws and those who continue to do so. I am disappointed in those who are embroiled in corruption scandals. And — out of profound love for Judaism, I am most deeply disappointed in those who shamelessly manipulate the state’s religious infrastructure, play upon people’s religious sensibilities, and break Israeli law in the process, for political ends:

  • It is illegal for the Shas party to attempt to mobilize the heads of the publicly funded religious schools it established for the election campaign.
  • It is illegal for the state salaried Chief Rabbi of Tzfat to publish an article promoting the union between the right-wing Yachad and Otzma L’Yisrael parties in order to minimize the left-wing parties’ mandates in the coming Knesset.
  • It is illegal for former MK Rabbi Benizri to speak out on his publicly funded radio show against the The Jewish Home national religious party, the Bezchutan ultra-Orthodox women’s party, and ultra-Orthodox supporters of Haredi employment.
  • It is illegal for private individuals such as Rabbi Meir Mazuz to have posters displayed in the city of Kiryat Gat, promising the blessing of a double portion in the World to Come for all who vote for the Yachad party.

These are examples, which we at Hiddush have tracked and brought to the attention of the Attorney General, Ministry of Religious Services, and other authorities. The increasing breadth of political scandals and allegations of corruption in Israel could gradually undo democracy, as apathy born of cynicism flowers throughout our country. Beyond that, the corruption of Israel’s democracy has been complicit in the corrosion of its Jewish character for many years, and it only continues.

The ultra-Orthodox parties will undoubtedly become the next coalition’s kingmakers once again, at great cost; and they are aiming for nothing less. In December, at a public rabbinical assembly at the Jerusalem Convention Center, Chief Rabbi Yosef proclaimed:

As Chief Rabbi, it is forbidden for me to talk politics, but hinting is permitted to me… There is need to join forces so that the next government will not be able to make a move without the force of ‘God fearing Jews’.

“Power tends to corrupt,” mused Sir John Dalberg-Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”