If Israel were not a democracy, would American Jews still support it?

American Jews have flourished in America because it is a democracy providing equal rights for all its citizens by law. True, this has often been more of an ideal than a reality, but that is not because our democratic system is inherently flawed. Since that is so, it has been possible for Jews to demand their rights when these were illegally denied and to establish themselves as fully equal citizens in the United States. It is for this reason that American Jews not only value democracy, but it is why they generally view Jewish values as equivalent to democratic ones.

Jewish values are not as straightforwardly democratic as American Jews of most stripes tend to think. There are certainly democratic trends, even major ones, in the Jewish tradition, but there are authoritarian ones as well. On one hand the Talmud in terms of its general features reflects a democratic ethos. As is well known it records many views on any given subject and respectfully records and analyzes them. On the other hand in traditional Jewish thought the perfect government at the end of days is a monarchy.

It is interesting to note that the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel does not mention democracy. It was not until 1985 that the Knesset passed the Basic Law that declared Israel a “Jewish and democratic” state. The Basic Law has become the yardstick used by the Supreme Court of Israel to measure the validity of a Knesset legislation. The Basic Law, however, has not quite resolved a knotty question, “Is Israel more a Jewish state or more a democratic one?”

For American Jews this appears to be a straw man. After all, as noted above, in the American Jewish mind Jewish and democracy subscribe to the same values. In Israel, however, this is not as clear. For example, there are Jewish religious factions that hold that if the democratically decided law of the State conflicts with what these groups consider to be the law of God, then the State’s law is not to be obeyed.

Certainly non- or anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews accept this view. So, for example, many of their schools do not teach the basic curriculum which includes a civics section. Similarly, some rabbis in the religious Zionist camp have ordered their students who serve as soldiers in the IDF to refuse to dismantle settlements that are declared illegal by the Israeli government. According to them such an act is a violation of Jewish law which supersedes the law of the Knesset and the Supreme Court.

It is not, however, the religious sector alone that has challenged the equation between “Jewish” and “democratic.” There are laws presently proposed by secular members of Knesset to prevent NGO’s critical of Israel’s policies from receiving donations from outside the country. In many if not most instances this would greatly curtail freedom of speech and the right to criticize government policy in Israel.

Lest anyone think that this is about to be a condemnation of the Israeli right alone, I want to make it clear that the left and the Supreme Court have been complicit in some of the curtailments of democracy in Israel that I will describe below. Indeed, the history of Israel before the ascendency of the right wing Likud-Bayit Yehudi-Yisrael Beitenu confederation is replete with suppression of freedom of expression of political views, especially under David Ben Gurion.

Ben Gurion heavy-handedly suppressed Revisionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s form of Zionism. Jabotinsky envisioned a Jewish state with borders on both banks of the Jordan and a Jewish majority populating it. Well aware of the Arab presence in this future state, Jabotinsky’s platform proposed that Arabs would be completely equal citizens serving in all the state’s institutions, it government, and its army. They would also serve as vice-premier when the Prime Minister was Jewish, as would a Jew when an Arab was Prime Minister (Ephraim Karsh, Middle East Quarterly [2005], XXI, 31-42).

In response to Beitar, a Revisionist youth movement, Ben Gurion organized Hapoel, which was basically a militia. Its members physically and violently attacked members of Beitar, often sending its members to the hospital.

There was also the infamous “hunting season” in which Begin’s Revisionist followers were pursued by the Haganah from 1944-1945. When they were captured they were jailed, tortured, and turned over to the British authorities by Ben Gurion’s orders. AFollowers of the Revisionists were denied aliyah visas even during the World War II when Jewish lives were in danger. Those who made aliyah were denied jobs by the left wing Mapai party. And there are still left wing political figures who have served as MK’s who call virtually every expression of a right wing position “incitement.” Indeed, one of these left wing MK’s, Yael”Yuli” Tamir, sought to silence a right wing teacher when she held the Ministry of Education portfolio. Now that the right is in the political driver’s seat it seems to be paying the left back for its sins.

Thus, for example, the Prime Minister has consistently tried to win the right for Israel Hayom (Israel Today), a daily newspaper, to circulate free of charge giving it a competitive edge in the marketplace against newspapers which are for sale. Israel Hayom, underwritten by American billionaire Sheldon Adelman, is basically a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, the Likud, and its policies. The last Knesset tried to pass a law prohibiting the paper’s free of charge circulation as a “danger to democracy,” but it disbanded before it could do so. No doubt if this government manages to endure the Prime Minister and his supporters will try again to pass legislation to allow foreign monetary support and free circulation for right wing Israel Hayom. Despite the incogruency, they will also continue their attempts to curtail foreign financial support for left wing NGO’s.

Despite the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel declaring, “it [Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” there has been an attempt to introduce the “National Law.” The law, if passed, would state the obvious, namely, that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Less obviously it would grant Jews citizenship as a collective; others in Israel would have citizenship as individuals. There is also the danger that the official status the Hebrew language would gain would mean the end of the use of Arabic in things as basic as road directions. Fortunately, the bill did not passed. But it would be surprising if its proponents did not bring it up again at what they consider a propitious moment for its passage.

One of the important bulwarks for maintaining democracy in Israel had been the Supreme Court. Its judges are for the most part fairly conservative. Indeed, their decisions have often been controversial from the point of view of the Israeli left: They have approved of political assassinations and indefinite incarceration of prisoners, notably Palestinians, without the government stating the charges against them. It has, however, also declared certain settlements illegal and ruled in favor of Palestinian claims of rights violations when the Israel security fence separated their homes from their fields.

In light of the above it is a matter of concern that the prime minister saw fit to appoint Ayelet Shaked, who is neither a lawyer nor a jurist, to head the Ministry of Justice. This gives her considerable say about what the powers of the Supreme Court are and what they will be in the future. One bill proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Jewish Home would make it easier for the Knesset to override judicial quashing of Knesset legislation. Another seeks to limit the court’s ability to invalidate Knesset legislation by requiring such decisions to be considered by its full 15-justice bench (Forward, May 17, 2015). Ms. Shaked is in favor of these laws and has publicly stated that she thinks it is appropriate to rein in the Supreme Court, which she has set as a major goal. She considers this “restoring the rule of law to Israel.”

If passed the Prime Minister’s and Ms. Shaked’s legislation would render the Supreme Court essentially powerless. Thus, for example, if the Knesset passed a law in conflict with the Basic Law that protects human rights and dignity and the Supreme Court declared the legislation invalid, the Knesset could reverse the Court’s decision if the Prime Minister and Ms. Shaked to have their way.

None of this bodes well for Israel as a democracy. So, I cannot help but wonder whether the majority of American Jews would support an Israel that was no longer the only democracy in the Middle East. Let us hope that the American Jewish community won’t ever have to make that choice. And let us use all the available means of communicating our concerns about Israel and its policies to its leaders along with reiterations of our support for it as a Jewish but clearly democratic state.

You can contact Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, with your thoughts, concerns, and comments by using your search engine to find “Contact the Prime Minister of Israel” and following the directions on the Prime Minister’s home page.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."