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May 04, 2006 - Image 11

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2006-05-04

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Front Lines


The Topic:
Is Israel a Western-style Democracy?

Deviations Aside It's Democratic


s Israel a Western-style
democracy? My answer is
yes. Democracy, in the origi-
nal sense, is government by the
majority or by the representatives
of the majority The will of the
majority is determined by free
elections in which every adult is
free to vote. Israel is certainly a
democracy, since there are free
elections in which both Jews and
Arabs are free to vote.
The problem with democracy
is that the majority may choose
to abuse minorities and to abuse
individuals whose opinions and
lifestyle may deviate from the
norm. The tyranny of public opin-
ion can be as awful as the tyranny
- of an autocrat.
Western-style democracy lim
its the power of the majority. It
requires liberalism, a defense of
personal freedom and individual
rights. Majorities are forbidden to
interfere with the individual cit-
izen'sright to choose his spouse,
his work, his residence; his reli-

gion — even his sexual behavior
ber of a nationality, much like the
so long as the public welfare is not English and French in Canada.
harmed. Liberal democra-
In an age of mixed
cies shrink the tyranny of
populations, the national-
the majority.
ity model is gradually
The problem with clas-
intruding on the old clas-
sical liberalism is that it
sical model in Western
ignores nationality. Every
countries. France, with
individual is treated only
its refusal to recognize
as an individual, never as
ethnic minorities, is one
a member of an ethnic
of the last adamant
Sherwin Wine
group. For classical
liberals, there are only
Israel is a Western-
"Americans." There are
style democracy because
no African Americans, Hispanic
there are high levels of personal
Americans or Jewish Americans.
freedoms, even for many of the
In recent years, America has devi- Arabs. But it is imperfect. While
ated from the classic model. We
the law is egalitarian, theimple-•
now make a distinction between
mentation of the law is not. Jews,
citizenship and nationality, pro-
per capita, receive much more
viding protection and privilege to
state aid than the Arabs.
racial and ethnic groups.
Since military service is the
Israel does not conform to the
basis for many benefits, the Arab
classical model. It recognizes
exemption from military service
two major nationalities in Israel:
limits access to government help.
Jewish and Arab. And Arab
Since Arabs are often viewed as
nationality is subdivided into
enemy sympathizers, their lives
Muslim and Christian categories.
are under continuous surveillance
Every Israeli citizen is not only a
and restriction. The same abuses,
citizen; he or she is also a mem-
to a lesser degree, now exist for

Muslims, in both North America
and Western Europe.

A Notable Merger

Israel deviates from Western=
style democracy in one impor-
tant area..It merges religion and
nationality It has turned over
the administration of Jewish
national identity to the Orthodox
rabbinate. That is the equivalent
of turning Irish identity over. to
the Roman Catholic clergy.
In addition, Israel subsidizes
Orthodoxy while it refuses legiti-
macy to the clergy of other Jewish
denominations. When it comes
to marriage and divorce, Jewish
freedom is greatly curtailed. All
Jews must conform to the require-
ments of Orthodoxy, even secular
England features an established
church, which its government
pays for. But it does not force
people of English nationality to
accept its jurisdiction.
Israel is a Jewish state because
its primary nationality is Jewish

and because its primary language
is Hebrew. It is Jewish in the same
way that Italy is Italian or Spain
is Spanish. The fact that Basques
and Catalans live in Spain, and
are registered as Spanish citizens,
does not diminish the reality
that the Spanish are the primary
nationality of Spain.
The "rub" is that in order to join
the Jewish nationality you now
have to choose a religion as well.
The Jews did not invent either
democracy or liberal democ-
racy. They learned it from the
Western Europeans. Israel, with
all it deviations, is a child of that
experiment. i

Sherwin T. Wine is founding rabbi

of the Farmington Hills-based

Birmingham Temple, organized in

1963 as the first congregation of

Humanistic Judaism serving as a

national outreach of the Humanistic

movement. In 1986, he helped cre-

ate the International Federation of

Secular Humanistic Jews. His books
include "Judaism Beyond God" and

"Staying Sane In a Crazy World."

It's Democratic To A Degree



radition identifies
Western-style democ-
racy as any rule by rep-
resentative government. This view
rests on the traditional theory
of sovereignty that deems the
people sovereign, namely, rulers.
Presumably, the people elect del-
egates to act for them.
COU nter-examples to this
theory would be free universal
elections for non-democratic gov-
ernments. The recent elections in
Iraq and in Palestine are such.
Increasingly, tradition gives
way to the view of democracy as
democratic control, as the right of
the people to get rid of their rulers
by elections and by other means,
such as impeachment (Karl
Popper, The Open Society and
Its Enemies, 1945). This is admi-
rable on account of its expression
of a liberal sentiment without the
traditional fiction of government
by the people.
. .-


It takes account of the
possibility of the absence
of proper candidates for
leadership: democracy
may fail, and at times it
As Israel has elections
in a manner acceptable
to Westerners, by the tra- Joseph
ditional view it is clearly
no less democratic than France,
but the same goes for even worse
cases like Iraq.
Israel resembles Iraq in its
refusal to separate church and
state so as to be able to maintain
legally blatant discrimination
against non-Jewish citizens, not
to mention the continued occu-
pation under religious pretexts
that many non-practicing Jews
endorse (which provides a bonus
for any Israeli Jew to join religious
practices of the sect that possess-
es state monopoly over Judaism).

style democracy as the
modern-style liberal
nation-state. Here, Israel
fails just like Iraq and
the Palestinian Authority
(and India and Pakistan
and more), and for the
same reason: they all fail
Agassi to recognize their own
nations, as they prefer
to recognize national minorities
and discriminate against them.
Here, liberal philosophy is
not of much use although it
condemns the discrimination,
traditionally it does not recognize
the nation except as a collection of
citizens, thus ignoring the obsta-
des on the way to amalgamate
the diverse groups into a national
The founding fathers of the
United States paid no attention to
national unity. This came up in
the famous Federalist Papers and
later in the Civil War.
Liberal Nation-State
Today, many American intd-
Tradition also identifies WeStern- . lectuals do not deem themselves

members of a nation. President
Ronald Reagan, not the profound-
est thinker among American
presidents, knew better: address-
ing the people of New York on the
occasion of its 200th birthday, he
appealed to its Jewish and black
Communities to remember that
they belong to the one nation.
Here, there may be some confu-
sion since the West recognizes and
nurtures cultural and religious
and other minorities but not
.national ones;
In 19th century Europe, diverse
Jewish leaders (including scholar
Leopold Zunz and writer-publicist
Peretz Smolenskin) demanded
cultural autonomy for the Jewish
communities. Nationalist philoso-
phy then had turned illiberal and
supportive of homogeneity in the
name of national cohesion. This
proved disastrous for Jews who
stayed in Europe.
Well before that, this was an
incentive for the rise of Jewish
nationalism that culminated with
the rise of the Zionist movement

and the foundation of Israel. The
movement aimed at the noiinal-
ization of the Jewish people, where
normalization as understood to
be following the Western-style lib-
eral democratic way. In this, Israel
has failed.
Normal life requires the
struggle against discrimination.
No country is free of it. And so,
democracy is no longer to be
viewed as black-and-white char-
acterization; it is matter of degree.
Israel will be moredemocratic
if it finds a ivay to reduce its dis-
crimination against its non-Jewish
citizens. 7

Joseph Agassi is professor emeritus
of philosophy at Tel Aviv University
and York University in Toronto. He
has published 20 books and 400
contributions to the learned press.
The Hebrew versions of his book
"Liberal Nationalism for Israel:
Toward an Israeli National Identity"

appeared in 1983 and 1993. The
English version: of the book was
published in 1999.

May 4 • 2006 11

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