Jewish Democracy? A Thought Experiment

What does it mean to be a Jewish state?

This question has haunted Israel since its establishment.

Both the extreme Israeli  left and the extreme Israeli right speak of two types of Jewish power: 1. Political/cultural hegemony 2. Economic power – better healthcare, education, and employment.

They equate the two types of power, claiming that both are essential for a Jewish state. For the left, this is the reason that Zionism is evil. For the right, it is the reason the government should not better the lot of its Arab citizens.

In fact, however, the two types of power are extremely different:

The issue of political and cultural hegemony plagues all Western democracies.  In a political system in which every vote counts, the largest population group, by casting the largest number of votes, can ensure control of the political system. The Founding Fathers of the United States called this a ‘tyranny of the majority”, and it was one of their greatest fears. To prevent this, adequate safeguards must be put in place, including protections for minority groups and for individual liberties. The exact balance between the rights of the majority and the rights of minorities (in a European formulation) or individuals (in an American formulation), is a crucial debate that’s been felt in the 2016 presidential election, the Brexit vote, and the Marine Le Pen phenomenon.

This is not a debate related to Israel’s Jewish-ness, but rather, to its nature as a modern, democratic nation state. One might oppose Jewish political-cultural hegemony in Israel, but that hegemony is a natural product of the fact that the majority of the population is Jewish. In order to get rid of it, one would not have to abolish Israel’s Jewish character, but rather, its democratic system.

To give an example: The United Kingdom’s official religion is the Church of England. Christmas, New Year’s and Easter are national holidays. There are public schools that have Christmas pageants and write letters to Santa.

However, although there are voices speaking of how to better respect Britain’s minority communities, there is pretty much no movement to stop the United Kingdom from having an official religion or official religious holidays. The hegemony is taken as a given.

Why?

In the United Kingdom, there is a clear cultural hegemony, but that hegemony does not automatically incur economic power. Like all Western (and many non-Western) countries, Britain struggles with economic inequality and various forms of discrimination. However, in the United Kingdom, in general, the government strives for equality of opportunity. There isn’t a sense that if your family was in the country for 500 years and goes to Church, you will automatically have better healthcare, employment, and education than someone whose family came over twenty years ago who goes to a mosque, temple, or synagogue.

In Israel, however, there is a sense that if you are Jewish, you automatically have better opportunities, better government services, and better economic outcomes. In other words, the political-cultural hegemony of the majority is combined with economic power.

That’s not to say you can’t make it if you’re an Arab citizen – the number of Arab citizens in the Knesset,  proportional to their size of the Israeli population, is much better than the number of African-Americans in Congress.

Political theorist Michael Walzer, in his book “Spheres of Justice”, distinguishes between monopoly and dominance:

Monopoly over an object, whether that object is money, political power, education, etc., is when one group controls that object.

Dominance is when controlling one object allows me to control other objects as well. For example: If money gets me political power and education, then money is dominant. If education gets me money and political power, then education is dominant.

For Walzer, injustice occurs when one group monopolizes a dominant good. So if a group of oligarchs monopolizes money, which is a dominant good, since it provides education and political power, the system is unjust. However, if a group of strawberry-lovers monopolizes strawberries, that is not unjust, because strawberries are not a dominant good; they don’t automatically provide the strawberry-owners with money, political power, and education – they provide them with nothing more than the delicious taste of strawberries.

Plugging these concepts back into the examples of the United Kingdom and Israel, the difference becomes clear:

In the United Kingdom, one group monopolizes the culture, but the culture is not a dominant good, thus, their monopoly does not automatically grant them better outcomes in spheres other than culture.

In Israel, one group monopolizes the culture, but the culture is a dominant good, imbuing better economic and education outcomes.

Those who advocate for greater equality in Israel should focus on separating political power from economic power -i.e., breaking the dominance of culture –  instead of targeting the Jewish monopoly on the political-cultural sphere.

Why?

Breaking up the Jewish political hegemony, given Israel’s Jewish majority, would be difficult without severely impeding the country’s democratic character 2. Given that most countries have some sort of hegemony, the most likely outcome is the emergence of a new hegemonic group, so all you’ve done is trade one type of inequality for a new type of inequality 3. Breaking up cultural hegemony may not affect minorities’ economic and education outcomes, but equalizing economic and educational opportunities is likely to work its way upward and cause a dent in the political-cultural hegemony.

As to the larger question, of whether Israel can be both a Jewish and a democratic state, the answer has already been answered for us:

If we define Jewishness as a type of all-encompassing power granted to one group over another, we risk turning Israel into the “tyranny of the majority” that gave James Madison nightmares.

However, if we define Jewish-ness as a type of political-cultural hegemony, no other benefits attached, then the answer is of course! Many other democratic nations have the same type of setup, only their hegemony happens to be Christian or Western Secular, instead of Jewish.

Since many Western democracies that already have the type of hegemonic state I’m describing, we can look to them as examples – both of what to do, and of what not to do. I’m not saying we have to emulate them completely, but simply that there are some things we could learn – even in a post-Trump, post-Brexit era, when Marine Le Pen is running for president.

Some might worry that to do so would make Israel “less Jewish”. But I would argue that equality is quite Jewish, starting from the claim in the first chapter of Genesis that all of humanity was created in God’s image, and continuing with the commandment to institute one day off a week for all workers, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations.

Of course, I could be wrong. I called this a “thought experiment” for a reason, and I invite you to reply with thought experiments of your own – because what could be more Jewish, or democratic, than arguing about what a Jewish democracy should be?

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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