Jewish democracy and its incommensurables

Israel is dedicated to two principles—Judaism and democracy—that cannot be judged by a universal standard; yet this may be its greatest strength.

Ballot slips for competing parties are seen at a polling station in Jerusalem as Israelis vote in the March 23, 2021, election. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Ballot slips for competing parties are seen at a polling station in Jerusalem as Israelis vote in the March 23, 2021, election. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

An excellent column by Zionist activist Blake Flayton on how to explain and defend Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” recently caught my eye. Flayton defends Israel as a democracy on several counts, especially its guarantee of equal rights for minorities of all kinds, and defends it as a Jewish state on the ground of the Jewish people’s absolute right to self-determination in their homeland. His thesis is eloquent and convincing, but it also made me think—in particular, about incommensurables.

“Incommensurable” is an intimidating word but describes a very simple thing. It is a philosophical concept that holds there are ideas and principles that exist in contradiction to each other, especially in a political entity, but cannot cancel each other out. This is because, by definition, they cannot be measured according to a universal metric.

The most famous of these are the principles of “liberty” and “equality,” to which all modern democracies have dedicated themselves. The contradiction between the two is self-evident: the more liberty exists, the more unequal a society becomes; while the more equal people are made to be, the less liberty they enjoy. But one cannot reach any conclusion via a universal metric that one is better than the other or supersedes the other. They exist each on their own terms, representing variant but equally legitimate concepts of what is good and just.

The British philosopher John Gray has posited in his work that the contention between these principles and numerous other incommensurables can never be resolved. As a result, all societies are essentially jury-rigged structures of various incommensurable principles and values, and the contention between them is constantly shifting and often conflicted.

Today, one can see this at work in the United States, which often seems little more than a web of incommensurables that can barely coexist. Republicans tend to passionately believe that liberty is the superior principle, while Democrats tend to pursue equality with a similar passion. On a smaller scale, communities and voting blocs are often representative of wholly incommensurable principles. For evangelical Christians, the supreme principle is to live a life that glorifies Christ. For secular progressives, the supreme principle is liberation from all forms of imposed oppression—religious, sexual, racial or economic. Despite the fact that these groups believe they are correct according to a universal standard, they clearly are not. Their principles are legitimate in and of themselves, according to their own lights, and the means of assessing them are completely different and cannot be reconciled.

As a result, especially in light of the recent fracas over abortion rights, incommensurability has become something like the prevailing zeitgeist in the United States. These groups will never and can never agree, but America will nonetheless struggle to find some way to jury-rig an uneasy coexistence between them in order to retain social stability.

In the case of a “Jewish democracy,” the issue of incommensurability is fairly self-evident. For a Jewish state, the destiny of the Jewish people is the supreme value. It judges itself according to the degree to which it realizes the Jewish people’s right to liberation and self-determination, and with them national identity, self-defense, cultural development and numerous other aspects of political and social life. A democracy, on the other hand, judges itself by the degree to which it realizes liberty, equality and fraternity—all, ironically, incommensurable in themselves—for all its citizens.

These two principles cannot be judged according to any universal standard, mainly because both of them are clearly good and right. The Jewish state constitutes the expression of a people’s singular identity; provides them a refuge and a home; gives them a space, a carve-out, in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish world; and provides them the capacity to defend and preserve nothing less than the integrity of their own bodies against violence and oppression. These are all extremely good and just things.

At the same time, democracy provides for the flourishing of human freedom, a sense of unified solidarity and brotherhood, the right of every individual to choose his own destiny and realize his potential, and the right of both that individual and his society to govern themselves without fear of tyranny. All of this is equally good and just.

Both these principles, in other words, have their own singular integrity. They are both expressions of liberation and human freedom, justice and right, yet they are wholly incommensurable. Throughout its history, Israel has pursued what is perhaps the only viable solution to this problem—if it is indeed a problem—which is the aforementioned practice of jury-rigging a constantly shifting arrangement of incommensurables in hopes that they will reach some kind of harmonic coexistence. This means—and it may be more a gift than a curse—that Israel is an immensely dynamic society, because the process requires constant maneuvering, maintenance, change and compromise. Israel can never fully embody one incommensurable or the other without flying apart.

This may be, in the end, why liberals and progressives in the West often find Israel incomprehensible or even offensive: They do not believe in incommensurables. More precisely, they are in denial that incommensurables exist, even though their own societies are riddled with them. They believe with perfect faith that there is a universal metric by which all principles can be judged; and thus, eventually, all contradictions can be resolved, resulting in a homeostatic world of perfect justice and harmony.

This is a messianic delusion, of course, and the source of many of the West’s most egregious mistakes over the last few decades. Moreover, it wholly contradicts one of the most important aspects of Judaism and the Jewish lived experience. The Jews are and always have been a dynamic people; we are not afraid of incommensurables; and our centuries of debate and commentary reflect an acceptance of the fact that any society is a process in which one can never step into the same river twice. And Israel’s other incommensurable—that of democracy—is as essential to Israel as its identity as a Jewish state, since only democracy allows for this kind of ever-shifting struggle between incommensurable principles.

In the end, perhaps, the most important thing is that the Jews have the same right to our incommensurables as anybody else. And this may be to our advantage. It is possible that, due to its insistence on a universal metric, the destiny of the West will ultimately be stagnation. In its embrace of its incommensurables, the destiny of the Jewish and democratic state is likely to be very different.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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