Civil Fights: Note to politicians: Consult your Bible

The Jewish people's foundational text has plenty to say about politics in the modern Jewish state.

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December 24, 2008 21:22
Civil Fights: Note to politicians: Consult your Bible

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Now that the major parties have chosen their slates, they will presumably be honing their platforms. So here is some advice I never expected to offer: The Bible might be a good place to start. Until recently, I never imagined that the Bible could have anything pertinent to say about the structure of government, or economic policy, in a modern democratic state. What changed my mind was a new book by Joshua Berman, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford University Press, 2008). Berman, a lecturer in Bible at Bar-Ilan University and an associate fellow at the Shalem Center, argues that the Bible introduced what were then radical notions of political and economic equality and promulgated strategies for achieving them. He does not discuss modern applications of these strategies, and might disagree with mine. But I was stunned by their ongoing relevance even millennia later, when equality is no longer a radical idea, but a political sine qua non. On economics, for instance, Berman elucidates various biblical strategies for limiting, though not eradicating, economic inequality. Some, given the differences between modern and biblical economies, are now inapplicable: Debt servitude, for instance, no longer exists. THE THEORY behind them, however, remains highly relevant. The goal, Berman argues, was not merely sustaining the poor (though mandatory tithing was instituted for that purpose), but enabling them to resume an economically productive life. For instance, since land is essential for economic viability in an agricultural society, it had to be restored to its original owners in the jubilee year. Debt servitude not only enabled the servant to learn marketable skills, but when his term ended, his master had to give him either livestock or seed - the agricultural economy's equivalent of seed capital. In modern-day Israel, there is broad consensus that economic inequality is reaching dangerous proportions. But the Bible's strategies remind us that simply raising welfare allotments, as many politicians advocate, is no solution. Welfare merely sustains the poor. It does not help them reenter the economy. One can argue about how best to achieve this biblical goal. The Wisconsin welfare-to-work program is one strategy; another, recently advocated by Omer Moav and Ofer Cohen in the Shalem Center's journal Azure, is Denmark's "flexicurity" system. But any strategy not aimed at this goal will fail. On the judiciary, Berman notes that the Bible assigned the task of appointing judges not to the king or priests, but to the people as a whole (presumably through some unspecified representative mechanism). It thereby transferred a major power center from the ruling classes to the general public. IRONICALLY, ISRAEL is the only democratic state that has yet to adopt this insight. In other democracies, Supreme Court justices are appointed by the people's elected representatives. Our justices, however, are appointed by unelected legal officials, who comprise a majority of the Judicial Appointments Committee. And since certain population groups are underrepresented in the legal profession, the result has been a Supreme Court that these groups view as consistently hostile to their interests, and a consequent worrying decline in public faith in the courts. With regard to leadership, many biblical precepts have obvious resonance in the post-Olmert era. For instance, the king (read prime minister) must not acquire a multitude of horses, wives or money: In other words, he must not view public office as a means of growing rich. Moreover, Berman notes, marriage was traditionally a way to form alliances with powerful families, which could lead the king to prefer these families' interests to the general good. Hence "the injunction against marrying widely may [also] be understood as seeking to prevent the influence of cronyism." Additionally, the king must "observe faithfully every word of this Torah as well as these laws." In short, the king is bound by the law, just like any other citizen. BUT EQUALLY important is a precept Berman derives from the Bible's premier exemplar of leadership: Moses. Given his direct line to God, Moses could easily have ruled by fiat. Instead, Berman argues, he offers a model of consultative leadership: When he wants to delegate authority, he first seeks the people's approval for his plan (Deuteronomy 1:9-18). Later, when the people propose sending spies into Canaan, he acquiesces. In modern democratic Israel, however, consultation is far from the norm. The Winograd Committee's report on the Second Lebanon War highlighted one aspect of this problem: Because Ehud Olmert consulted so few people before making decisions, he wound up lacking vital information. On military matters, for instance, he consulted only then chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, and was thus unaware that many experts questioned Halutz's conviction that air power could suppress Hizbullah's rocket fire - a conviction on which Olmert based his war strategy, and which proved disastrously wrong. Nor was Olmert exceptional: Most Israeli premiers consult only a handful of chosen advisers. Far worse, however, is the consistent refusal to consult the public on major decisions. Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, openly bought Knesset votes to pass Oslo 2 rather than seeking the people's support via new elections. Ariel Sharon refused to call either elections or a national referendum on disengagement and ignored the results of a party referendum. CONSEQUENTLY, INSTEAD of feeling that they lost fairly and must accept the majority's will, many opponents of these decisions feel that they were cheated. This has led to tremendous bitterness, loss of faith in democracy and a growing belief that violence is the only alternative - developments that could have been avoided by a genuine democratic ratification of major decisions. As Berman puts it, "Moses emphasizes that... the right way to rule is by way of discussion and consensus between the ruler and the ruled." The above is the merest sampling of what Berman's book offers, and others might draw different inferences. But one conclusion I consider indisputable: The Jewish people's foundational text has plenty to say about the modern Jewish state. And since no culture can long preserve its uniqueness if it comes to view its canonical texts as irrelevant, that is good news for everyone who wants Israel to remain a Jewish state.

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