Theocracy vs.Democracy: The Israeli Case

Democracy is a vision of hope that has never been well implemented in any mass society. Americans should learn the lessons inherent in the missteps of other societies struggling against internal factions that attempt to use democracy in order to destroy it.
Democracy, if civil liberties are not taken to be an inherent part, is a concept with little meaning and less value. If Stalin’s USSR were “democratic” just because the law required everyone to vote, with 100% happening to vote for him, then “democracy” would be just another political rip-off. Therefore, I take the term “democracy” to incorporate civil liberties. That said, a democracy and a theocracy can only overlap if exactly 100% of the population desires a religious state; should even one person choose another path, then either the democracy will become a dictatorship or the theocracy must be abandoned.

This conflict between democracy and theocracy is increasingly becoming the central issue in Israeli politics and, with the militarists who advocate a garrison state deepening their alliance with the theocrats, threatens to become a fight to the death for the future of Israel. [For a more theoretical discussion of a distinct but closely related perspective on the struggle against authoritarianism—democracy vs. fascism—see “Mideast Peace or Fascism,” Online Journal 3/16/10.]

    One recent piece of evidence that theocratic forces are winning this battle for control of Israel is the bill just approved by a Knesset committee to give the “orthodox rabbinate” [Alana Newhouse, “The Diaspora Need Not Apply,” New York Times, 7/15/10.]
    authority over who is legally considered a Jew in Israel, a fundamental question in a theocracy because the answer defines who is a citizen.
    Going hand-in-hand with the above example of rising Israeli theocracy is the recent Israeli cabinet approval of a law that would require illegal residents aspiring to citizenship to swear allegiance to a “Jewish democratic state.” [“Israeli ‘Loyalty Oath’ Approved” MWC 7/19/10.]
    Israeli legal affairs editor for the newspaper Yediot and retired judge Boaz Okon published on June 22 his own list:
    • A school that began segregating students on ethnic lines with the support of the community;
    • A Knesset member is humiliated by her peers for joining the Gaza flotilla;
    • Apartheid on the streets of Hebron has become institutionalized;
    • Punishment of Arabs is harsher than punishment of Israelis;
    • The extraction of false confessions from minorities by police are not investigated;
    • Illegal wiretapping by the government is not investigated.
    This is only part of the judge’s list, which he summarizes as “growing evidence of the lack of the spirit of freedom and the emergence of apartheid and fascism.” [Didi Remez, “Yediot’s Legal Affairs Editor on ‘the Emergence of Apartheid and Fascism’ in Israel,” Coteret.com 6/23/2010.]
    Writing in Haaretz a few months ago, Carlo Strenger, Chair of the Clinical Graduate Program at Tel Aviv University, put it this way:
    In this time of rising anxiety Israel‘s political echelon has taken a number of steps toward undermining Israel‘s sometimes flawed but always vibrant democracy. The Knesset’s shameful passing of Yisrael Beiteinu’s so-called Nakba Law in a first reading is a dangerous precedent: Once freedom of expression starts to be curtailed, a state enters a slippery slope and nobody can know where it ends. The Israel Defense Forces’ declaring Bil’in a closed military area is an active step against political freedom and a way to undercut decisions taken by Israel‘s Supreme Court. [Muzzling Israel’s Left Only Harms Its Democracy, Haaretz 4/2/10.]
    One can easily imagine where this is headed: in the future, lifelong Jewish Israeli citizens who dare to oppose government policies will find a rabbinate court stripping them of their “Jewishness” and the government stripping them of their citizenship and themselves being fined the cost of a one-way flight to somewhere else.
    When the privilege of enjoying democratic rights is reserved for a subset of the population, say, whites, or males, or the rich, then the society is already set on a slippery slope down to authoritarianism. After all, if “the poor” or those lacking blue eyes can rightfully be excluded, then why not you…or, indeed, everyone except “the leader?” Israel is now clinging to this slippery slope and losing its grip.
    All is of course not lost. The U.S., with its 18th century democracy for rich white men, managed to climb some ways up this slope but at the cost of the Civil War, which cracked open the door not just for blacks but for Indians and white women as well. So the course can be reversed, but slipping down the slope is far easier than crawling back up.
    Those Israelis so fond of talking about existential threats should think about the contradiction between democracy and theocracy before it becomes the real existential threat facing Israel. But that is the business of Israelis. For Americans, the issue is different: having been taught a lesson about the dangers of external violent fundamentalism, it is now time for Americans to learn about the dangers of internal fundamentalists who pursue their anti-democratic goals by democratic means.
    When democracy is reduced to democratic processes without a secure foundation in popular responsibility to defend civil liberties, then democracy becomes a dangerous tool in the hands of extremists subtle enough to conceal their penchant for force. The first lesson for Americans is that this danger exists in the U.S. as well, although for Americans, it may be easier to perceive it by looking overseas. In both Israel and Iran today, the contending forces are particularly clear, but Israel is the country Americans should be watching the most closely, both because it is still a relatively open society and because many Americans pursuing a special agenda are pleased to insist loudly that Israelis “share American values.” If Israel is to be taken as a model for or a reflection of American values, then we owe it to ourselves to make sure we know exactly what values Israelis today believe in.
    The second lesson is that Americans should support those who share its values, doing business cautiously with the rest, but with the clear caveat in mind that this distinction cannot be made by dividing the countries of t world into “good” countries and “bad” countries. After all, if a whole country were to be given a single classification, presumably based on the behavior of its government, then where would we classify the U.S. itself, with its recent history of unprovoked aggression and attacks on civilians? Societies can modify their beliefs very quickly, and different parts of society, as has become crystal clear to both liberals and conservatives in the U.S. over the past decade, can represent fundamentally distinct perspectives. Watching how Israelis or Americans or…Iranians behave, the distinction between those groups in each society that are worthy allies and those that are not becomes clear. It is, to cite just one example, not in the interests of the American people to support political factions that advocate or practice the violent suppression of those exercising civil rights, unless, of course, you really believe it to be in your interest to have a minimally educated but power-hungry politician deciding what you should think. In a word, it is no more in the interests of Americans to be in an alliance with a theocratic Israel than it is to be in an alliance with a theocratic Iran;  conversely, it is very much in the interest of Americans to support those circles in both the Israeli and Iranian societies that share the values that Americans, at their finest, have been struggling to realize for the last two centuries.

    The initial version of this article, entitled “Israeli Theocracy,” was published by Media With Conscience on 7/20/10.
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