The encounter between our ideals and our politics need not inevitability result
in the desecration of our ideals – it can be an opportunity to make them
It’s election season in Israel.
And with it come the usual
expressions of despondency about the state of our politics and the quality of
There are still some enthusiasts out there, but it seems
that Israelis are becoming increasingly cynical about the system, and many who
do vote define their choice in terms of the least-bad option.
newspapers and political pundits continue to be stunned, and occasionally
outraged, by the twists and turns of Israeli political life.
But for much
of the public the governing sentiment seems to be a kind of quiet resignation –
a sense of inevitability that politics is an arena where mediocrity reigns, and
excellence and integrity are in short supply.
Granted, for some the
political arena remains a source of curiosity – an occasionally engaging soap
opera – but it is difficult to remember the last time the public saw it as a
source of inspiration.
Politicians have become an easy target for our
anger and our criticism, and some may well deserve it. Israel is certainly not a
special case in that regard. But what we tend to forget when we disdain them is
that our politicians are a product of the society that elects them.
sometimes act as if they were an arbitrary punishment inflicted upon us, as if
they came from some other planet.
But the nature of our politics is in no
small measure a reflection of the values we cultivate in our society, the way we
educate our children, and the culture of public debate and decision-making we
Our Jewish sources have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward
The Book of Deuteronomy establishes what is generally
understood to be an obligation to appoint a king upon entry into the land
(Dvarim 17:15 – “You shall set a king over you...”).
And yet, at numerous
points during the period of the Judges (Shoftim), when the children of Israel
actually ask for a king, the request is regarded with contempt.
noteworthy is the story retold in the Book of Samuel, where the people ask for a
king so that “we can be like all the nations, that our king will judge us, and
go out before us, and fight our battles” (Shmuel I, 8:20).
The request –
though ultimately fulfilled – is presented in the text as a rejection of Gd’s
rule rather than as a fulfillment of a biblical commandment.
way to understand this tension is by distinguishing between the installation of
a monarch as part of a common effort by the Jewish people to create a just and
righteous society, on the one hand, and the delegation of the peoples’ own
responsibility for society in the hands of a political ruler, on the
When Samuel is asked to appoint a king to fight the people’s
battles, “to go out before us,” he understands that the people seek a king not
to meet their responsibilities as a community but to abdicate them.
similar spirit, too many Israelis today have left it to the politicians to
“solve” their problems and left themselves the luxury of complaining about it.
Too many deride politics as a “values free zone,” an irredeemably debased
profession. But the message of this reading of the text of Samuel is that
politics is too important to be left solely to politicians.
precisely the rejection of political life as hopelessly tarnished – as the
domain of others – that can fuel the very politics we have come to scorn. We
cannot blame our politicians for our political culture without taking collective
responsibility for the kind of society that produces it.
As citizens we
need to see our politics as an extension of ourselves, and work to ensure it
reflects the aspirations we have for our society as a whole.
sovereignty has meant that our values get to collide headfirst with all that is
muddy, distasteful and dispiriting about politics. This collision can be a
recipe for dismay, as we watch high principles become compromised if not
abandoned. But the encounter between our ideals and our politics need not
inevitability result in the desecration of our ideals; it can also be an
opportunity to make them real.
It is often said that power corrupts, but
recoiling from power, abdicating it to others, is its own form of
We cannot be serious about our values without taking our
politics seriously. If we come to see the union of Jewish values with politics
as a privilege and a responsibility – rather than as an impossibility – we can
begin to cultivate a political culture that reflects the kind of society a
Jewish state should aspire to achieve.Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow
of the iEngage Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Learn more about
iENGAGE at iengage.org.il
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