The Centuries-Old Jewish Roots of Israeli Democracy

June 28 2021

One oft-heard refrain is that there is a tension between Israel’s identity as a Jewish state and its identity as a democratic one. Taking a long view of Jewish history, Shlomo Avineri argues that Israel is a thriving democracy because it is Jewish:

When Jews sought to maintain Jewish life as they understood it in exile, they were forced to do so on the basis of voluntary associations. If they wanted, for instance, to establish a synagogue or to educate their children, they didn’t have their own state or centralized religious institutions that could provide such services. Therefore, the only option was to organize on their own, of their own free will.

To do so, they elected institutions and set rules for elections and community taxes. . . . Some communities were more egalitarian and some were more oligarchic, but in either case, they were based on community decisions and elections. The paradox is that while the surrounding societies were ruled by sultans, kings, and emperors, the Jewish community—despite its lack of statehood and sovereignty—was ruled by its own members.

The Jews entered the modern world with a tradition of representation and electoral processes. These elections obviously weren’t democratic in the sense of everyone having the right to vote, but they instilled the awareness that representation and elections were legitimate needs.

This tradition also accompanied Jewish life in the modern era. . . . One of the first things the First Zionist Congress decided in 1897 was to elect its management and determine electoral procedures. The institutions established by the first immigrants to pre-state Israel for their moshavim, kibbutzim, and towns, and later for the entire Jewish community there, were elected institutions.

As in Britain and the U.S., Avineri concludes, in Israel democracy “stems from a political culture with deep roots in society, rather than the importation of abstract principles from abroad.” And therefore, he argues, it is far more resilient than many of Israel’s friends, and foes, believe. (Free registration may be required.)

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Read more at Haaretz

More about: Democracy, Israeli democracy, Jewish history

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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Read more at 19FortyFive

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship