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Israel: Trading one demographic time-bomb for another (or two)? – Part 5

The concept of Democracy: The basic national democratic pact

The pact                                                                                                                                        The national pact in a democratic society is based on the notion to which Canadian constitution refers to as “peace, order and good government”. Within this framework, the primary duties of the State and of the citizenry are to insure, and promote respect for human dignity; the free non-discriminatory exercise of personal rights and freedoms.                            In turn, these duties underlie, to borrow Vivian Bercovici’s terminology, the citizenry’s “shared state values” and “democratic commitments”.                                                                  Clearly, the haredi subscribe to these duties insofar as they are owed to them.

The nature of personal rights and freedoms

In a democratic country, citizens have the right and the freedom to choose the way they intend to and do lead their lives, subject to the laws of the land. However, as a matter of law and of generalised social, cultural, economic expectations of a democratic society, the rights and freedoms in issue are not absolute.

Indeed, for the sake of social peace and other national interests, the rights and freedoms of an individual must be reconciled with the opposing or conflicting rights and freedoms of others, as well as with the fundamental social, cultural, economic values and expectations of the country at large.

Last but not least, by any means, the individual rights and freedoms must also be reconciled with the duty of the State to take such lawful measures as are deemed necessary to deal with the external and internal threats to the security of the country and its citizens, to its economy, culture, peace and order.

In such circumstances, subject to the authority of the courts, the State can abridge the exercise of certain rights and freedoms to the extent this is strictly necessary and in keeping  with the notion of democracy, to address such threats to prevent, and failing that, to remedy their actualisation.

The haredi clearly reject the foregoing propositions on religious grounds. They assert that their values, rights and freedoms and sets thereof are absolute and immutable against any and every other set of values, rights and freedoms and that therefore they are entitled to act accordingly.

In the result, the haredi society rejects the  basic national democratic  pact by rejecting, as Bercovici aptly puts it, “the shared state values and democratic  commitments of the ordinary citizenry”  by refusing  “to  assume fully  the responsibilities and privileges of living in a democracy” and I would add, the sacred duty  to enlist in the defence and security of the country, in the unqualified belief that Torah learning  and knowledge takes precedence over such things.(added and edited)

Israel’s democracy                                                                                                                      As the second of the recent series of elections was in progress, a number of authors shared the view of Haviv Retig Gur  who argued that “the electoral system, despite all its manifest shortcomings, is responsive to that which matters most in a democracy: it forces the competing groups to co-operate” (my free translation from French). Barely a few years later David Horovitz referred to “Israel’s untenable political dysfunctionality” where ‘our government strains to govern. Our opposition is unremittingly hostile-as opposed to pointedly critical. Meantime, external and internal challenges mount up.

At all events surely the term co-operate would hardly apply to the haredi. As David Suissa succinctly put it:” Israeli religious parties’ crave for power because it enables them to fulfill their religious agenda.”

“In their case, the co-operation is purely opportunistic and self-serving. As Victor Rosenthal points out “Israel’s electoral system based on proportional representation, has been and increasingly continues to be an expensive and subversive recipe for democratic deficit.  Governing is increasingly becoming a matter of being a successful practitioner of a “’ coalition racket’… where a small party can exploit its position to gain massive leverage and benefits. The religious parties, and in particular the haredi, are outstanding players of this racket particularly since it has been and continues to be practically impossible for any party to form a government without having them onside. And these parties are quite happy to be onside for any party seeking to form the government at the right price in terms of Cabinet positions, funding for the haredi and their institutions, undertaking to keep them out of the army and enacting Torah friendly legislation.  Nor are they in any way reluctant to cause the fall of any government of which they are members, which fails to act to their liking.”  In this connection one only need to remember the fate of the Rabin government which permitted Saturday flights.”

Surely the term co-operate would hardly apply to the haredi. As David Suissa, succinctly put it, “Israeli religious parties’ crave for power because it enables them to fulfil their religious agenda.”

In their case, the co-operation is purely opportunistic and self-serving. As Victor Rosenthal points out: “Israel’s electoral system based on proportional representation, has been and increasingly continues to be an expensive and subversive recipe for democratic deficit. Governing is increasingly becoming a matter of being a successful practitioner of a “’ coalition racket’… where a small party can exploit its position to gain massive leverage and benefits. The religious parties, and in particular the haredi, are outstanding players of this racket particularly since it has been and continues to be practically impossible for any party to form a government without having them onside. And these parties are quite happy to be onside for any party seeking to form the government at the right price in terms of Cabinet positions, funding for the haredi and their institutions, undertaking to keep them out of the army and enacting Torah friendly legislation.  Nor are they in any way reluctant to cause the fall of any government of which they are members, which fails to act to their liking.”  (Slightly edited without changing the thrust of his argument).  In this connection one only need to remember the fate of the Rabin government which permitted Saturday flights.

In this conjunction it is hard to think of any democratic country with a population below 10 million such as that of Israel (9.44 million in 2021) which is governed by a Hodge podge coalition formed by no less than 7 (or is it 8?) parties whose respective election platforms differ from one another and have to purchase the support of one Arab party in order to survive from day to day, not to mention that of the others when push comes to shove.

David Weinberg, asks his readers “to disregard feral, foul and false talk that slanders Israel. Israeli democracy is not ‘shattering’ nor are we facing ‘the darkest days Israel has known.’’ He then proceeds to make his point in terms of the existence of “a continuum of respectable views of public policy formulated [in the governing of the country] that defy simple categorisation as democratic or anti-democratic…and to abjure accusations that every controversial policy innovation is motivated by hatred, moral insensitivity or authoritarianism”.

Putting aside for a moment, the   performance of the current government, surely, one need not engage in foul, feral and false talk that slanders Israel by pointing out that, contrary to Weinberg’s assertion, this surely has not been the case on the issues concerning the haredi community, and the adverse impact of the way in which these issues have been playing out.

I think Evelyn Gordon got it right when she stated: “The true measure of whether a democracy is functioning properly… it’s whether democracy’s self-correcting mechanisms are working.”

I submit they are not working in the case of the Haredi.

As history clearly demonstrates, the question as to whether democracy is alive and well cannot be determined solely by the current state of affairs. Just as, if not more, importantly, it also demands an answer to the question as to whether carrying on with the current system, this democracy will serve Israel well into the future, say for the next 20-30 years and beyond.

In this regard, I refer to the thinking of following two rabbis and to their respective followers:

Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a former member of the Shas party and a one-time member of its Knesset contingent, expelled from the party for his “modern ideas”, who subsequently founded the Am Shalem movement and became the former no.2 of the now defunct Zehout party, put it this way during an interview:

“A modern state which defines itself as Jewish and democratic must choose a [religious] way-“the Judaism of the just middle”, i.e. the traditional Judaism which is beneficial for the entire population and which the majority of the population is capable of handling and applying.” (Translated from French with minor editing by the writer without changing the intended meaning of the Rabbi.)

This view appears to have been shared by the late Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, called one of the most influential leaders of all times, who advocated “accessible Judaism”; a Judaism that would hardly describe the kind of Judaism practiced by the haredi community.

Compounding the problem-The Chief Rabbinate                                                                Israeli religious establishment is in the grips of the ultra-Orthodox. This establishment reinforces the positions of the haredi community and finds it impossible to deal with the substantial diversity of the Israeli population in a conciliatory and inclusive manner. This in turn, makes it harder to address the haredi situation. By way of illustration:

-We have the heart wrenching case of women and members of other branches of Judaism being denied the right to pray at the Kotel.

– The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Schlomo Amar, formerly one of the two Chief Rabbis of Israel described homosexuality as “an abomination” and in 2016 “as a cult”.

Obviously he did not learn anything from the adverse public reactions to his utterances. As he later put: “Homosexual people cannot be religious [and] should not pretend to be… With their bodies they sin against the Jewish people [“they are irreligious]…God knows that it is wild lust that needs to be overcome and it can be overcome…Everyone can overcome. There is no need for understanding or a psychologist or any nonsense. All they need is to be God fearing [and] just belief in God to overcome.”

Such extremely uncharitable, and highly divisive  pronouncements, not to say more, that in effect  amount to a sort of mass excommunication  of  a  segment of the Israeli population  on the basis  of their sexual orientations. With such guidance, what could  we reasonably expect the haredi to say?

-The Chief Rabbinate’s, not to say more, poor treatment of those married to Jews seeking conversion to Judaism.                                                                                                                   Prime Minister Bennett prior to ascending to his current position described the treatment as arbitrary and abusive. Setting aside the exaggeration, he was  right to point out that this treatment is indeed causing “a severe problem of half a million Israelis who are integrated into the Jewish society, are descendants of Jews, marry Israeli Jews, serve in combat units but are not   [recognised] as Jewish according to Jewish law”. Worst, according to Evelyn Gordon is “the Israeli rabbinate’s growing practice of retroactively invalidating conversions which violates centuries of tradition”.

On this issue, I venture to guess that a lot of Diaspora Jews, particularly those in the U.S. who have a high rate of mixed marriages but who are otherwise highly qualified as individuals and couples that would make ideal immigrants to Israel, would greatly hesitate, and more often than not, decide against making the move.

Finally, in the circumstances, on a somewhat lighter note, by way of comic relief from the foregoing examples, back in 2019, the Chief Rabbi and all the Sephardic rabbis of the City of Elad, mostly populated by the haredi, issued a decree that read “We have heard and seen lately that young boys and children walk around publicly with dogs. This is strictly forbidden…As explained in the Talmud and by the Rambam, anyone rising a dog is accursed and especially in our city where many women and children are afraid of dogs.”

The ultimate question:                                                                                                                   Where does this leave us with   respect the question which I addressed in this series?

Caroline Glick  writing Israel Hayom January 14,2022 , in accord with Yoram Ettinger, takes an optimistic view of the relative current and future size of the Jewish population in Israel. Nevertheless in the article bearing the title  “A Jewish majority is insufficient to protect Israel”  she reaches her conclusion  on domestic political grounds.  In this perspective, she is joined by  Martin Sherman in “The fatal flaw in Israel’s strategic thinking”-“One of the reasons the conflict with Palestinian Arabs has dragged is that Israel has failed to conceptualize the conflict accurately”. JNS, May 29,2022

Are we then looking yet to a third time bomb?

As am octogenarian Diaspora Zionist, I pray that my people will manage to defuse them in a timely manner.

About the Author
Doğan Akman immigrated to Canada with his family. In Canada, he taught university in sociology-criminology and social welfare policy and published articles in criminology journals After a stint as a Judge of the Provincial Court (criminal and family divisions) of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, he joined the Federal Department of Justice as a Crown prosecutor, and then moved over to the to civil litigation branch . Since his retirement he has published articles in Sephardic Horizons and e-Sefarad and in an anthology edited by Rifat Bali titled "This is My New Homeland" published in Istanbul.
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