Sectarian religious values threaten Israel

The growing religiosity of majoritarian democracy in Israel undermines all three pillars of human flourishing: peace, economic development and human rights.

February 18, 2015 21:04
3 minute read.

Haredi protestors at the Bar Ilan junction in Jerusalem. (photo credit: NEWS 24)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948, established a universal regime of human rights restraining state exercise of power, by agreement of the 58 states in the United Nations General Assembly, with none opposing and six Communist states abstaining.

Under this new world order, democracy is not the unbridled rule of the majority within a state but is government by the will of the people restrained by the human rights of the individual.

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Eleanor Roosevelt as an architect of the vision of human rights said: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person... the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.”

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The human rights regime has been disseminated in increasingly powerful international rhetoric and almost uniformly in the secular constitutions of states. But the magnetic vision of human rights democracy is increasingly brought under attack by the charismatic power of political religion.

The impact of institutionalized religion on democracy and human rights is profound. Religious authority is transcendental and not, like democracy, based on the will of the people. Religious dogma delineates boundaries and inevitably gives preference to believers over non-believers, fueling outbreaks of holy war.

The religious obligation to the other is founded in charity to the stranger and to the weak and not in the human rights recognition of the equal entitlement of the other. All the religions draw on sacred texts which long predated human rights and are imbued with patriarchal regulation of society and the family.

The resurgence of traditionalist religious institutionalism as a political force in many parts of the world defines the landscape of the 21st century. Examples are the rising political influence of the Christian churches in Russia and Eastern Europe, after perestroika, and of Islam in the Middle East and Asia, after decolonization.

This trend has been reflected in recent resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council, passed by a majority of state members, requiring the reinterpretation of human rights in accordance with traditional values, the prohibition of defamation of religion and the protection of the family, with no mention of the right of women to equality in the family.

These various religiously inspired resolutions have met solid opposition from the independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council and from the UN’s human rights treaty bodies.

The manifestation of this shift in vision from secular constitutionalism to the dominance of sectarian religious values in political policy is nowhere more apparent than in Israel and its dangers for democracy are nowhere more palpable. The attachment to holy places in the West Bank is claimed as God-given, obstructing determination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of rational public reason.

Some rabbis and politicians use biblical terminology to make xenophobic and racist statements against the Arab minority, with impunity from prosecution. Modern education, with democratic values and scientific knowledge, is rejected by large sectors of the population, whose traditionalist religious education is funded by the state and recluses them from participating in the economy or the defense forces. Religious political parties which exclude women from their lists for the Knesset or municipalities receive public subsidies. The discrimination in family law against all women, Jewish, Muslim, Christian or secular and against LGTB is preserved.

The growing religiosity of majoritarian democracy in Israel undermines all three pillars of human flourishing: peace, economic development and human rights.

The author is a member of New Israel Fund international council, and president of Concord Research Center for Integration of International Law in Israel, The Haim Striks School of Law, COLMAN.

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