Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit
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Demos kratos or democracy?

Separation of powers, which became the default system for modern democracy, is also a principle anchored in Judaism

Years ago, when I taught the course “Introduction to Political Philosophy” at Bar-Ilan University, my biggest challenge was to convince the students that this was not merely an “academic exercise” but one that had actual practical, contemporary implications. I may have succeeded back then (see later below), but certainly now they should understand its relevance to their life, as the Judicial Reform/ Revolution brings the matter to the fore.

As is well known, the first blooms of democracy started in Athens with the idea of demos kratos – loosely translated as “power to the people.” To be sure, that was very flawed: women, slaves, and foreigners had no share in such “power,” but it was a start – even if eventually authoritarianism made a comeback (Roman Caesars etc.).

Jump forward to 1215: the Magna Carta. Although we tend to think of this as the (re)start of modern democracy, its underlying idea was different from Athens. Whereas the Athenians believed in the untrammeled and unrestricted power of the (white male) populace, the English Lords had a different concept: there had to exist some checks and balances between royal authority and their own rights.

It took another 500 years until Montesquieu expressed this idea in “philosophical” form: democracy can only work if power is divided among different branches of government (a century later, the British jurist Lord Acton would express this pithily: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”). Separation of powers became the default system for any modern democracy – along with checks and balances. This was taken to its extreme manifestation in the American system, with the three branches of the federal government checking each other, and the states given powers that are usually part of the central government.

How is this playing out today in Israel? Justice Minister Levin is pushing for a return to demos kratos – unfettered power for the people’s representatives (the Knesset and Government). In a sense, this is almost a “strict constructionist” interpretation i.e., moving from modern “democracy” back to Athenian “demos kratos” (parenthetically, one can add that given the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on the governing coalition, women too might be “returned” to some Athenian state of “outsiderness”; perhaps the Arab sector too).

The opposition to Levin’s proposal is fighting for “democracy” in its modern incarnation: one in which no branch of government has too much power – and each branch can “check” the other when one goes too far.

In this whole debate, almost no one refers to the Jewish Political Tradition – somewhat surprising, given how the present government keeps on claiming that the State of Israel needs more Jewishness. But then again, perhaps their ignoring the Jewish past is “understandable,” given that the Jewish tradition clearly comes down on the side of Separation of Powers (as such scholarly luminaries as Prof. Daniel Elazar and Prof. Stuart Cohen [“Three Crowns”] have shown so lucidly). We had Prophets forcing kings to repent, the King required to get permission from the High Priest to declare a non-defensive “war of choice,” and even the Rabbis proscribed from declaring edicts that “the public cannot abide by.” In short, the Jewish heritage is replete with the same underlying theme in many variations: no one power can do it all (as Jethro told Moses, in last week’s Torah portion).

A final note: a student of mine in that Political Philosophy course back in the early 1980s was an army colonel named Eli Geva. I recall leading a heated class discussion on the topic of “Civil Disobedience.” Several months later, Israel’s (First) Lebanon War broke out – and Colonel Geva was the first ever high ranking officer in Israel’s history to refuse an order from higher up: attack Beirut. After trying to convince the IDF’s Chief of Staff (Eitan), Defense Minister (Sharon), and even the Prime Minister (Begin) of the folly of such an urban invasion, Col. Geva quit/was dismissed from the army. I certainly do not claim that my course underlay his decision, but it definitely was a concrete expression of “civil disobedience” (even if within the army).

Forty years later, we are now witnessing a “folly” of a different order: the Judicial Revolution. People will not be killed this time, but Democracy might suffer a mortal blow. Perhaps only the “Power of the People,” aka civil disobedience, will be able to stop this spiral of democratic demise to maintain Israel’s political system as one of necessary separation of powers, as well critical checks & balances.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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