Is Iran the Only Model for a Jewish State?

By Daniel Polisar

Herzl and Ben-Gurion had something else in mind.

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On February 14 of this year, 250,000 Orthodox Jews gathered in Jerusalem to protest a string of decisions on religion-state issues by Israel’s Supreme Court. It was the most stunning expression to date of the frustration with the court that has been building up in the Haredi community for a number of years, and it triggered a massive counteroffensive on the part of many of the nation’s leading politicians, journalists and academics, of which a counter-demonstration on the same day was only a small part. The purpose of the response, as stated in advertisements, speeches and interviews, was to save democracy itself from the onslaught of the religious. As Ran Kislev of Ha’aretz put it in calling on the secular majority to “rear up on its hind legs” and join the fight: “The truth of the matter is that there is a political struggle between two opposing conceptions of the state’s character: A democratic state of law, like most of the states of the Western world, according to one view; and a theocratic state, a Jewish version of Iran, according to the second conception.”
Statements such as Kislev’s perpetuate one of the most widely held myths of Israeli public debate, the belief that democracy is fundamentally at odds with religion, and that Israelis must ultimately choose between a purely universal “state of its citizens” and an oppressive Khomeini-style regime. The principal beneficiaries of the myth are the leaders of the country’s anti-religious camp, including the main organizers of the counter-demonstration: The left-wing Meretz party, most of whose leaders have long railed against the country’s religious leadership, and the Constitution for Israel Movement, whose last major rally in 1997 bore the title, “Stop the Haredim.” To tilt the debate in their favor—and there can be no doubt that the debate has now tilted dramatically in their favor—they are seeking to win monopoly status for a particular understanding of democracy. This view, which emerged from the French Revolution, has attempted to persuade mankind that great streams of received religious traditions are fundamentally harmful—and that as such they should, in the first instance, be driven from having any influence on government (thereby creating the “secular” state); and, in the second instance, be driven from having any influence on the mind of the individual (thereby creating the “secular” person).
It was this stream of political thought which led Immanuel Kant to declare that the only true religion is “reason,” and which led Thomas Jefferson to propose the creation of a “barrier separating church and state.” According to this model, which rejects not only religion but particularism more generally, there is no justification for Israel’s acting to promote Judaism or the Jewish people; a state must be neutral on such issues, so that it can devote its resources solely to fulfilling the material needs of its citizens. Though this view is not yet dominant in Israel, it is surely ascendant, and it has gained support among the most important promulgators of ideas—academicians, the media and leading figures in the world of arts and letters. The “state of its citizens” model has yet to conquer any branch of the Israeli government, but it has a strong following within the Supreme Court, led by the court’s President, who has argued that the content of the phrase “Jewish state” should be understood at a “level of abstraction… so high that it becomes identical to the democratic nature of the state.” That is, when we say that Israel is a “Jewish state,” what we mean is that it is a democratic state; it’s just that we have a quaint, tribalistic way of saying “democratic.”
But there is an opposing stream of Western thought—and an opposing conception of democracy—which rejects the radical impulse of the French Revolution to uproot all religious traditions and other particular attachments, and to paint them as the enemies of enlightenment and democracy. This stream is associated with thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, and with political leaders such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in the United States, and Benjamin Disraeli in England. They believed that a democracy can flourish over the course of generations only if its people are steeped in religious traditions and values. Without the self-discipline and the commitment to the nation produced by particularist traditions, democratic freedoms will produce corruption and decay—and the destruction of the republic that offered those freedoms in the first place. For this reason, they believed that the state should do what it could to foster religious and national traditions among the people. It was their views which led to the model of the nation-state—a state designed to advance the interests, values and traditions of a people—that served as the basis for the birth of most European democracies, beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
It was also the basis for the vision of a Jewish nation-state. At the first Zionist Congresses, student radicals such as Chaim Weizmann and Martin Buber—at the head of what they called the “Democratic party” at the Congresses—declared war on Theodor Herzl, demanding that Zionism become “a genuinely modern movement” stripped of all its “unattractive petty bourgeois, conservative and clerical overtones.” But Herzl rejected their demands, maintaining a conservative political alliance with R. Yitzhak Ya’akov Reines and the traditionalists from the founding of the Zionist Organization until the end of his life seven years later. After the establishment of the state, David Ben-Gurion adopted Herzl’s approach: While radicals such as Pinhas Lavon demanded that the Labor Party forge a government with the Marxist-leaning Mapam as a measure against the “clerical claws” of the religious parties, Ben-Gurion refused such demands, and instead maintained a conservative political alliance with the religious, almost unbroken throughout his thirteen years as Prime Minister of the Jewish state.
Though neither Herzl nor Ben-Gurion were even remotely observant Jews, they never saw themselves as “secular” in the hard-core French Revolutionary sense this word has been given in Israel today. Both of them were the founding fathers of vast democratic institutions—the Zionist Organization and the State of Israel—and yet neither felt the need to unite all the “secular” parties in order to “defend democracy” against the observant. On the contrary, throughout his political career Herzl tended to side with politically conservative attitudes towards religion, never deviating from the belief that Jewish religious tradition was the cornerstone of Jewish nationalism, and that it would continue to serve a critical function in maintaining the love and affection of the Jewish people once their state had been founded. Ben-Gurion turned dramatically towards an appreciation of the importance of religious tradition in the latter decades of his life, when he was forced actually to build a state—to the point that in 1958 the Ministry of Education, at Ben-Gurion’s urging, issued a syllabus aimed at teaching non-religious students “the light which is hidden in some of the customs that constitute the religious way of life” in the general public school system. To this end, the program sought to disseminate knowledge of “Sabbath and holiday customs ...; the literature which describes the Jewish national and religious way of life; the structure of the prayer book and the High Holiday prayer book; prayers and festival hymns; the framework of the religious way of life (such as the scroll of the Law, procedures in reading of the Tora, prayer shawl and tefilin, mezuza, bar mitzva, and so forth).”
Of course, conservative coalition-builders such as Herzl and Ben-Gurion were attacked for these policies by their radical universalist opponents. There were always those who maintained that they were insufficiently humanistic, or overly romanticist, or cynically manipulating the beliefs of the masses. But the claim that policies such as those pursued by Herzl and Ben-Gurion are opposed to democracy is something new and altogether frightening, because it instantly brands every conservative political leader and idea as anti-democratic and therefore illegitimate. Indeed, far from protecting Israeli democracy, the attempts to rally Israelis against the court’s traditionalist critics in the name of democracy are nothing other than a ploy to entrench one particular model of democracy as uniquely legitimate, and as the only politically correct answer for an intelligent person desiring that the Jewish state be something a bit more appealing than the present regime in Iran.
What Israel needs is to return to the tradition of Herzl and Ben-Gurion, filling the void in the heart of the country by recognizing that we are most of us believers in the idea of Jewish nationalism, and that we want Israel to continue building, refining and improving itself as a conservativedemocracy—and therefore as a Jewish state. This does not mean that Jewish nationalists must side with all the positions that have been adopted by the Haredim. It is possible to oppose the monopoly status given to the Orthodox Jewish rabbinate in Israel, the patronage system encouraged by the religious councils, or the wholesale draft deferments given to yeshiva students, without forming a political alliance meant to exclude religious Jews, and without delegitimizing a political agenda based on advancing the Jewish people and its traditions.
What is needed is a new coalition, in which the leadership and philosophical basis come from a commitment to the conservative model of a democratic state: A constitution that balances the personal and universal with the Jewish and national; a public school system which rejects religious coercion, but aims at deepening the students’ familiarity with the Jewish tradition; and an executive branch whose mandate includes pursuing the well-being of Jews and Jewish interests, not only in Israel but throughout the world. Such a state would give the lie to the current universalist demagoguery, reaffirming the vision of a thriving, democratic Jewish state set forth by Herzl a century ago.

Daniel Polisar is academic director of The Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and senior editor of Azure.

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