Jewish tradition is both liberal and democratic. It has detested dictatorial rule for over 2,000 years. The Talmud relates that even when God himself attempted to force a court to rule a particular oven impure, he was soundly overruled by the majority of judges. They cited the Bible itself as proof that Jewish law is not in the heavens but decided by the majority.
The current hysteria over the “end of Israeli democracy” is thus a distortion of reality.
Israel is rapidly approaching its 75th year of existence as the only democratic state in the Middle East. Throughout this period, Israel’s democratic principles have proven resilient and robust.
After years of instability, the Israeli electorate has democratically elected a government that favors Israeli jurisdiction over territory and the preservation of Jewish identity. The opposition has reacted with hysteria, as if “the sky is falling” and Israeli democracy is speedily headed towards fiery destruction. At least one major corporation has disinvested from Israel as a result.
These extreme responses are not grounded in reality. The current government has a clear ideological mandate to promote Jewish values and Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. A historical perspective on Jewish life in general and the Jewish state in particular indicates that these principles support rather than threaten democracy.
It is telling that there is no discussion of the fact that Jews have no rights in Arab countries. The reason for this, of course, is that there are very few Jews in Arab lands. Over 95% of them fled for their lives when Israel was founded. On the other hand, Arabs living in Israel enjoy complete rights as full-fledged citizens.
The protection of minority rights is a clear continuation of Torah law, which established legal equality between the citizen and the “foreigner.” The foreigner is considered equal to the citizen. The sanctity of human life is universal, even under the most trying circumstances, whether someone is a slave or a landowner.
This is not to say that there is no prejudice in Israel. As long as Jews are human beings, we will struggle with the tendency to judge and criticize minority groups. However, the existence of imperfections does not mean the end of democracy. Moreover, the Jews’ 2,000-year experience of living as citizens of the world has reinforced the essential need to protect the rights of all people.
So where is the hysteria coming from? Unfortunately, it appears that some Israeli Jews do not feel comfortable with Jewish law and thousands of years of tradition. Apparently, some feel that if Jews rely upon their traditional and singularly Jewish instincts, they will become ruthless racists and fascists.
This is groundless. Our Torah and traditions protect the democratic underpinnings of our society. No true Jewish leader rooted in tradition and Jewish law could support anything other than democracy.
The authority of the judicial system or any other issue is a legitimate subject of debate. Debate is the essence of the Talmud and the backbone of our tradition.
The existence of a government in Jerusalem rooted in Jewish identity, sovereignty and law signifies the spread of democratic values and the rights of the individual. Hysterical aspersions notwithstanding, a ray of hope shines out of Zion that may illuminate a disordered universe.
Simcha Chesner received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Case Western Reserve University and has lived in Israel for the past 32 years. He is the founder and director of the Jacob’s Ladder schools and clinic for families coping with ADHD and associated disorders and a senior lecturer of psychology and education at Orot Teachers College.