Israel: Theocratic republic, ethnic democracy or modern secular nation-state?

Why does the term “Jewish democratic state” evoke such mental distress and emotional discomfort for some?

December 17, 2014 22:10
4 minute read.

knesset . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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For one online dictionary, theocracy is “a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god” – “the commonwealth of Israel from the time of Moses until the election of Saul as king” serving as example. For another, theocracy is “a form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God’s or deity’s laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities.” Whereas such definitions may be found to apply to most all kingdoms and sheikdoms on the Arabian Peninsula; to the Islamic Republic of Iran; arguably, increasingly also to post-Kemalist Turkey; and not least to the Holy See, it should stretch even the most rabid anti-Zionist imagination to purport that Israel is a theocracy, never mind the pivotal role played by, and oft accorded to, religious political parties for tactical political motives of last resort rather than for strategic reasons, when on-and-off critical need arises for building or destroying opportunistic coalitions of temporary convenience, and especially when ploys suggest ethno-religious intents carrying socio-cultural price tags unaffordable in democracies for long.

Why then does the term “Jewish democratic state” evoke such mental distress and emotional discomfort for some? Maybe because a solid response to an unresolved older question [“who is a Jew?”] and a long-in-coming answer to a more recent interrogation [“who is an Israeli?”] remain to be critically positioned against each other, to the benefit of those who prefer to sit on a fence and leave it to others to do the hard thinking. For Jews born or finding refuge in the Jewish homeland, these two queries may seem one and the same, with no great reason or disposition to split hairs over either. Yet for Western-educated, liberally-inclined, barely observant, “humanist” Jews, even the most unlikely potentialities for xenophobia remotely attributable to ethnic – God forbid, religious – democratic regimes can trigger cries of obscurantism and oxymoronic anachronism at a time when “the international political economy is globalizing” – an observation which some (mis)take for a utopian promise of supranational global governance.

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The Near East is home to Sunni and Shi’ite parliamentary autocracies, led by military or civilian dictatorships, as in Egypt and Syria; to kingdoms or sheikdoms that identify with the Prophet (as in Hashemite Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other states on the Peninsula); and to societal aggregates craving to be acknowledged to be a nation state even if their claim to national statehood stands not on formerly shared lands or on a common history, dialect or culture but on studied ambivalence over politicized religiosity – by way of alibis that allow them to convince themselves and the world at large that they are 1) a “nation-state”; 2) “oppressed” by Israel, and 3) “living on their “national land” [Egyptian and Jordanian territories lost and abandoned to Israel, upon defeat in their own war of aggression] – centuries of stifling rule over the West Bank and Gaza [now “occupied Palestinian territories”] by, and voice-stifling, identity-effacing servitude under, “fellow Muslims” somehow all of a sudden miraculously forgotten.

One could argue that it is perfectly legitimate and legal for the Jews of Palestine to view their state to be an ethnic democracy: does not their ethnic (Jewish) homeland (democratically) extend under Israeli law equal rights to one fifth of the Jewish nation’s non-Jewish citizenry? Do not Israelis as a “people” – as nation and nation-state – share an ethnic language, a biblical genesis, an identity-affirming world history and even a territorially denoted religion? Ought not Israeli Jews to view themselves “at home” on the geographic span that constitutes the Jewish homeland – on parts of which they had not been allowed to pray before those parts were lost and left by enemies defeated in a war they started? Had that war been waged against Israel by “Palestinians” or by Egypt, and Syria and Jordan?

The trait of Jewishness characteristic of the State of Israel must be understood to stem from the peoplehood of the Jews – and not exclusively from the Jewish religion. For that hitherto relatively implicit truth henceforth to appear as a self-evident, fully understandable fact by the initiated and the ignorant alike, it should be indispensable for all religions in the State of Israel to be perceived to be practiced in the private realm – inside synagogues, churches and mosques – throughout the land, and for governments to radiate an unmistakably public character in the daily conduct of the affairs of state, starting with the emplacement of legal blocks and socio-economic limits on pivotally crucial political powers commanded by the ultra-Orthodox and the inordinately important political roles still being lavished on Israel’s religious political parties at will, by the state, for its circumstantial political convenience.

If it is thanks to the keepers of the faith that even the most scattered of Jews have continued to remember and to follow the essentials of the Mosaic tenets in the practice of the Judaic religion, under the severest of circumstances inflicted on them on and off over millennia past, it will be thanks to the secular state’s fair practice of enlightened governance to the benefit of all of its citizens, and to its continued enforcement of the tenets of good governance, grounded from the outset on principles of equality under the law for Jews and non-Jews alike, that the Jewish and democratic State of Israel stands to flourish faster and farther – especially if, in turn, all of Israel’s citizens amply benefiting from such magnanimity decide to manifest their outspoken appreciation of, unmitigated loyalty and full allegiance to the ethnic democratic (Jewish) nation-state hence become even more visibly capable of justice for all.

The author is an international political economist and a social systems scientist, conducting research on the State of Israel in varied contexts and from the inside.

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