The Jewish State and the Meaning of Democracy

February 10, 2015 | Evelyn Gordon
About the author: Evelyn Gordon is a commentator and former legal-affairs reporter who immigrated to Israel in 1987. In addition to Mosaic, she has published in the Jerusalem Post, Azure, Commentary, and elsewhere. She blogs at Evelyn Gordon.

Can Israel continue to be both Jewish and democratic? According to Evelyn Gordon, that depends on your definition of democracy. The answer is emphatically yes, if democracy is understood—correctly—as a system of government that ensures the consent of the governed and such basic rights as freedom of speech. The problems begin with those who disdain “procedural” democracy in favor of “substantive” democracy—by which they mean, writes Gordon, “less a system of government than a religion”:

Like any religion, [substantive democracy] contains both positive and negative commandments that govern not only political but also moral and social, life; the only difference is that these commandments are called “rights” instead. Thus, for instance, legalizing gay marriage is obligatory, because there’s a “right to marry,” but restricting abortion is forbidden, because a woman has a “right to control her own body.” These positions have nothing to do with the mechanisms of government and everything to do with dictating social and moral norms. . . .

The problem with treating democracy as a religion, however, is that no two religions are ever wholly compatible. One cannot, for instance, simultaneously be a practicing Jew and a practicing Muslim, because Jewish and Islamic law sometimes clash. So, too, can the commandments of Judaism and substantive democracy. . . .

[By contrast,] procedural democracy isn’t a competing religion; it’s a system of government. And this particular system of government is essential to the Jewish state’s survival, for one simple reason: any Jewish state . . . must be one where large numbers of Jews with often contradictory opinions and values . . . can somehow live together. And no system of government is better at enabling people with wildly different opinions to coexist than democracy. Judaism is Israel’s soul . . . ; democracy is Israel’s body. . . . Like any living creature, the Jewish state needs both soul and body to survive. On its own, neither is enough.

Read more on Evelyn Gordon: