The Centuries-Old Jewish Roots of Israeli Democracy

June 28, 2021 | Shlomo Avineri
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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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