Israel: A State of Confusion

By Prof. Paul Eidelberg


Public discourse in the so-called democratic, Jewish State of Israel is steeped in confusion.  How so?


Take the word “democracy,” the mantra of Israel’s political, judicial, and intellectual elites.  Israel, they boast, is the “only democracy in the Middle East.”  That’s almost equivalent to saying Israel is the only Jewish state in the Middle East!  It may well be argued, however, that Israel is neither democratic nor Jewish, or that it can’t be both Jewish and democratic.  Some may even argue that Israel is not even a “state”!  After all, Israel has no clear or recognized borders, and it seems to be governed not from Jerusalem but from Washington.


As far as a political scientist like myself is concerned, if Israel is a state, it cannot be a Jewish state!  Why not?  Because the concept of the “state” in modern times derives from Machiavelli. The state is wholly a human product, based on the autonomy of human will.  The laws of the state depend solely on the will of the sovereign, be it the One, the Few, or the Many.  This idea of the sovereign state obviously conflicts with the Torah which proclaims the sovereignty of God.


This is more than academic.  What should an observant Jewish soldier do if the government, consistent with a law enacted by the Knesset, orders him to expel Jews from Gaza when his rabbi has ruled that such action violates Jewish law?  If you say the laws of the State are supreme, you are flirting with fascist doctrine.


In any event, both those who oppose and support the transfer of Jews from Gaza do so in the name of “democracy”!  Perhaps we ought to define this shibboleth?


“Democracy” literally means the “rule of the people” or popular sovereignty.  But as previously implied, the notion of popular sovereignty is foreign to the Torah.  Moreover, the rule of the people reduces to the rule of the majority.  Although majority rule is an important Torah principle—see Exodus 23:2—its operation is limited by higher principles, such as the Ten Commandments.  But since when must the majority adhere to any or all of the Ten Commandments?  Why should the majority submit to the “religious coercion” of a minority?


Actually, Exodus 23:2 refers to judicial proceedings in criminal cases.  The plain meaning of the verse is, “Do not go with the [bare] majority [rov] to do evil [that is, to convict, but otherwise] incline toward the majority.”


Consider the Hebrew word rov. Although it may be translated literally as “majority,” the term “probability” most often conveys its operational meaning.  What is decisive is not the will but the judgment of the majority, for it is more likely to accord with truth.  Moreover, the majority principle in Torah jurisprudence applies only in cases of doubt and only among equals in scholarship.  (See Yevamot 14a.)  To clinch the point, there are many cases in Jewish law when the court would accept the conclusion of an outstanding individual jurist or scholar over and against his colleagues!  (See Berachot 37a, Kiddushin 59b, Yevamot 108b, Gittin 15a, 47a.)


A democracy would cease to be a democracy if the majority were to recognize and defer to the wisdom of some outstanding individual.  Deference to wisdom is distinctive of a Torah community.  This cannot be said of any democracy, where mediocrities put themselves forward as candidates for public office.


The decency and civility still visible in democracy have nothing to do with democracy itself.  They derive ultimately from the ethical precepts and judicial principles of the Torah.  Consider the two basic principles of democracy, equality and freedom. Neither one nor the other provides any moral standards as to how man should live.  What is there about democratic equality that would prompt a person to show respect for teachers or parents?  What is there about democratic freedom that would prompt him to restrain his passions, to be kind, honest, or just?


On the other hand, if freedom and equality are derived from the Torah's conception of man's creation in the image of God, these two principles will then have ethical and rational constraints.  Otherwise, freedom will lead to license, while equality will lead to a leveling of all moral and intellectual distinctions.   Is not this evident on college campuses throughout the democratic world?


Can Israel long endure in its present state of confusion?

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