Today's Jewish Problem in Israel: Democracy vs. Judaism

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Democracy vs. Judaism?

By Saul Goldman

Among the arguments of those who believe that Israel must accept the two state solution is the allegation that Palestinians will force Israel to decide between being a Jewish state or a democratic one. Further, if Israel should choose being a Jewish state it would be racist and apartheid. This argument implies that if Israel wants to be both Jewish and democratic it must surrender to Palestinian demands. 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 Israel's citizens, and the conditions that defend the liberty of Israel's citizens.

Both Judaism and democracy are a means to an end. The Torah is not our icon, it is our formula for establishing a just society. In speculating about democracy neither Socrates nor Jefferson was completely at ease with it. Both warned about its inherent dangers and worried about the possibility that the rights of the minority would be trashed by the will of the majority. For America's Founding Fathers democracy was a tool rather than a goal. The stated objective of any democratic society is liberty. Democracy is vulnerable to manipulation especially when people confuse means with ends. Actually, democracy is not as concerned with freedom as is Judaism.

The Hebrew rebellion 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 the correlation between paganism and the human use of human beings in the form of slavery. He concluded that the essential threat to freedom was not a political one. The real threat to liberty is the pagan tendency to create gods. After the dramatic events of the escape and the battle at the Red Sea the Hebrews encountered their own propensity to fashion a false god and to rely upon it. The incident of the Molten Calf illustrated the relationship between monotheism and iconoclasm as the dynamic counter-part of monotheism. 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 man's 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 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 obligated. They tried to escape their own freedom.

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. 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 France, Belgium, Norway, America or Canada who also must confront threats from those insisting upon their own rights while ignoring the rights of others? Man has a propensity for idolatry. Believing that democracy is a higher order value than Judaism illustrates this impulse for gods that we can see and serve. Yet, we remember all those democracies that have failed and have been corrupted into tyrannies. We saw this in Germany and we see it now in the Arab Spring where the "masses" brought the Muslim brotherhood to power. We see this in America where a conglomeration of minorities, uneducated in the Judeo-Christian ethos that birthed the United States, can defeat the United States from within. America is not merely a country; it is an ideal. As the historian Charles Beard pointed out, not all men are actually equal. And that ideal is tested in the manner in which we treat unequal people. 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) A greater threat to freedom reposes in the essential narcissistic character of democracy. The danger to everyone's 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 Buber's dialogic language, 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 God's 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 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 man's 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 sacrifices and cultic rituals 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 father's 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 critical perspective as Abram. While democracy has served to free many people from political bondage, it has also surrendered people to tyranny and immorality. One present challenge to our freedom 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. Indeed, many Jews have adopted this political religion and believe that democracy is more than a fallible political system. 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. Plato warned us about those politicians who promise to "protect" us. As Jews we are confronted with a false alternative either give away our land and help create a Palestinian state or become racist and apartheid. The problem 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; every thesis was eventually challenged by its anti-thesis. Another way of understanding this is through the paradigm of 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  2015 Editions of the Jewish Magazine

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