Is Judaism a Democracy?

        May 2014    
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Democracy vs. Judaism

By Saul Goldman

Among the arguments of the pro-Palestine movement is the allegation that the demographics of the Palestinian territories will de-construct Israels democracy. And if Israel should cease being a democracy then it would be racist and apartheid.

This argument pits Israel against demography and implies that if Israel wants to be both Jewish and democratic it must surrender to Palestinian demands. No one would deny that the purpose of democracy is to allow the greatest number of people a voice in assuring their own liberty.

The issue before the Jewish state, however, is not a choice between democracy and Judaism. The choice is between the conditions, which would eventually threaten the freedom of Israels citizens, and the conditions that defend the liberty of Israels citizens. Our understanding of democracy or the democratic character of the state deserves further examination.

The stated objective of any democratic society is freedom. But, many democracies have capitulated to fascism because human freedom is only tangentially a political problem. It is primarily an existential issue. Hence a theological perspective is relevant.

The Hebrew rebellion in Egypt was not solely against a political regime; it was against a political ideology. While the Hebrews sought a different manner of governance, the rebellion was essentially theological in nature. Thus, the highlight of the saga was what occurred in Sinai. It was there that the Hebrew rebellion was consummated in a new paradigm.

Moses saw, while in Egypt, the correlation between paganism and the human use of human beings in the form of slavery. The essential threat to freedom was not a political one. Surpassing the dramatic events of the escape and the battle at the Red Sea was the destruction of the Molten Calf. This iconoclastic event defined the relationship between monotheism and iconoclasm as the dynamic counter-part of monotheism.

We stand before the mystery of ultimate reality and realize that can never know the nature of God. All we can understand is what God isnt. It is this iconoclastic nature that enabled Judaism to reject the fallacy of multiple deities and of all other forms of intellectual bondage. While the Greeks sought freedom in political theory, the Jews found freedom in their covenant with God.

Aristotle described theology as the queen of the sciences because he realized that theology is the study of mans ultimate concern. This concern was asserted in the prohibition against idolatry. There is only one God whose essence is being itself. (Exodus 3:14) Thus, the prohibition against idolatry required a parallel iconoclasm.

True iconoclasts challenge each thesis, believing that a becoming God is not tied to the illusion of a static reality. In a theological sense we must consider whether or not the way we view democracy represents an old idolatrous impulse.

The Hebrew escape from Egypt was fraught with ambivalence and anxiety in the face of an unknown future. The people attempted to ease that anxiety by demanding that Aaron build a god that they could serve reminiscent of their servitude in Egypt.

Freedom was new to them and they suffered from the anxiety of freedom; of being responsible rather than obliged. They tried to escape their own freedom.

Paradoxically, we are born free and this freedom is the source of our anxiety. Idolatry is not only about concrete images; it is more pertinently about the ideas that those images reflect.

The pantheon which hosted a god of rain, a goddess of fertility, one for war and one for love was actually a projection of human need and desire. Paganism or idolatry constitutes an anthropocentric view of the cosmos. Idolatry is a theology of self; a narcissistic approach to our world. And this magical view of reality, having the properties of a sedative, has the potential to enslave rather than to liberate.

All political systems eventually succumb to the corrosive effects of narcissism. Whenever freedom is linked to the opportunity to fulfill our desires it quickly becomes license and human dignity is replaced by utility. We see a growing socio-economic gap because democracy has no conscience. There is a dangerous blurring of good and evil, until good is called evil and evil becomes good.

As we see in the vicissitudes of the Zionist endeavor, it is harder to liberate oneself from cultural assimilation than from political bondage. That is why so many revolutions have failed or mutated into counter-revolutions.

For example, the early 20th century Zionists established their settlements upon communistic or socialistic principles. While they claimed to re-establish the Jewish commonwealth, they imported central European political and economic principles.

Religious Jews, on the other hand, brought the customs and symbols of a theology fashioned by our ghetto experience. Religious Jews prayed for the restoration of Zion. Yet, they carried with them to that land the artifacts of their exile.

Even today Israeli law reveals its Ottoman and British foundation. The predicament of our homecoming is seen in the fact that while in the Diaspora our religion kept us together, in the Land the religion of the Diaspora keeps us apart.

The Jewish state, it is alleged, must decide between its democratic character and its Jewishness. If it wants to remain a Jewish state, Israel must surrender its own territory to a Palestinian state.

The juxtaposition of Judaism and democracy appears to be of deep concern to many Jews who fail to see the unreason of such a ludicrous alternative. This transmutation of values appears among some Jews as the potentially great sin of Israel. Should Israel decide to hold the line in Judea and Samaria, many Jews as well as our enemies are ready to accuse her of apartheid and racism.

On the other hand if she allows a Palestinian state then Israel can maintain her democracy. This is a part of the effort to demonize Israel by inferring that if she chooses to secure for her citizens the present freedoms they enjoy Israel would become undemocratic.

Would Israel be less democratic than America or Canada who also must confront threats from those demanding freedom without obligation? We might answer those who believe that democracy is a higher order value than Judaism with reference to all those democracies that have failed and have been corrupted into tyrannies.

The Founding Fathers of the United States were as troubled as Plato over the weaknesses of democracy because it eventually allows ignorant masses to over-rule the more thoughtful people, allowing the intellectuals and criminals to govern decent people. We saw this in Germany and we see it now in the Arab Spring where the masses brought the Muslim brotherhood to power.

As the historian Charles Beard pointed out, not all men are actually equal. Constitutional and democratic government is impossible unless the significance of ideas is recognized. A democratic form of government must rest upon men and women whose ideals support equality and tolerance. This can be complicated because people do confuse good and evil.

It is not democracy which guarantees that Muslims and Christians will live freely and be treated fairly under the law. It is Judaism that defends their rights. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

On the contrary, a greater threat to freedom reposes in the essential narcissistic character of democracy. The danger to everyones freedom derives from a self-centered world rather than a world in which one loves his neighbor as one loves himself.

It is this understanding (or misunderstanding) of love that constitutes one of the major differences between Judaism and paganism. The bondage of the Israelites in Egypt was the logical extension of a theory of persons as things. In an ego-centric world one seeks power in order to control. This is the simple meaning of slavery and the reason why Torah mandated automatic manumission and insisted upon the humanity of the slave.

Democracy by encouraging competition and free enterprise facilitates, in Bubers dialogic language, the "I-It" relationships. Management views labor as it views any other utility or resource. The first commandment strenuously prohibited such a social matrix.

The prohibition against idols was not only against images of stone. That was not the only reason why Moses had the molten calf destroyed. The prohibition against idolatry is actually a positive commandment. It means that inasmuch as the nature of Gods essence is becoming (Exodus 3:14) any image that would suggest permanence is spiritually dangerous.

Being (becoming) is essential freedom. It is the structure of the universe. It is the preeminence of energy over matter. The iconoclastic impetus of the first commandment asserts the sanctity of change and the inner sense of evolution.

Throughout our history Jews confronted, at times accepted and ultimately rejected the various false gods of paganism: Baal, Zeus, Christ and Communism. Jews practiced each of these religions which were no more than dangerous illusions resulting in catastrophe.

But, idolatry as Isaiah emphasized, is not only the worship of an alien god. Idolatry can also be the way we worship our God. When man treats God as if God is in mans image or as way to satisfy our needs and desires, we practice idolatry.

Idolatry maintains that God is an instrumentality of our wishes rather than the object of our lives. This is what Isaiah meant when he castigated the delusional idea that through animal sacrifices alone we could redeem ourselves.

The difference between paganism and Judaism is that pagan ideology elevates the means or the instrumentality to the end or the ideal. We debate whether the ends justify the means. The Biblical teaching is that the end must define the means. That is if holiness assumes liberty, then we must distinguish between the essence and its accidents; between holiness/freedom and the various sociopolitical means for achieving it.

Throughout our history we were forced to bow before the cultural and intellectual icons of the people who reluctantly hosted us. The Midrash describes how Abram rejected and destroyed the idols of his fathers generation. It also explains why Abram had to leave Ur Casdim. The complexity of our spiritual journey could only evolve in our own safe haven.

Jews have rebelled and endured the censure of their peers because they challenged the authenticity of their cultural icons (political, social, economic and scientific). Jews must assess democracy with the same iconoclastic fervor as Abram.

While democracy has served to free many people from political bondage, it has also surrendered people to tyranny and moral chaos. One present challenge to our freedom and our holiness is presented in the form of a false argument that unless Israel abandons its historic lands it will lose its democratic character.

Only a two- state solution can keep Israel Jewish and democratic. The Arab demographic threat will eventually turn Israel into an apartheid country. This threat sounds fearsome if we accept democracy as our ultimate concern; our religious and spiritual ideal. Indeed, many Jews have adopted this political religion and believe that democracy is more than a fallible political system; it is holy. Precisely, because many Jews have elevated democracy to an ultimate concern (or a divinity) we must call to mind the prohibition against false gods.

In our theological syntax, the way we govern must be consistent with our ultimate concern. But, our ultimate concern is not who votes or how many times one votes, it is liberty. We must not rely upon people to vote as an assurance of their rights, we must acknowledge that their rights derive from a natural law that transcends congress and parliament. (Sanhedrin 4:5) Elections are merely one pathway to freedom; they are not identical with freedom.

In a free country people can be manipulated to buy what they cannot afford and to elect those they cannot trust to defend their essential interests. Plato warned us about those politicians who promise to protect us.

As Jews were are confronted with a false alternative: either give away our land and help create a Palestinian state upon an injustice or defend what is ours and become racist and apartheid. Of course, this is the argument of those who seek a Palestinian state and those who would destroy the Jewish state. The counter-argument is made by a brief look at the way in which Muslims, Christians and everyone else is treated in the Jewish state.

The problem here is not what will happen to Israel if she does not acquiesce to a Palestinian state. The real issue is what does it mean if Israel does acquiesce? Can Israel be a nation of laws and tolerance even if the burdensome occupation continues? Can Israelis be free and can the human rights of the Palestinians be guarded if they do not become citizens of Israel? Of course they can.

Are illegals (undocumented) and even enemy aliens, in America rounded up without due process? But, if Israel does acquiesce to this falsehood what will happen? It means that the central pillar of Judaism has fallen.

Civilization, Hegel argued, was built upon dialectic (iconoclasm). And the Jews excelled as iconoclasts. They rejected the false gods of history and must continue to reject the false gods of popular culture.


from the May 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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