Two questions have long intrigued me as a student of politics. One has occupied us on several occasions; it concerns the explanation of Israel's democracy. Another concerns the working of another democracy, and the failure of America's largest religious group to do better than it has in presidential politics.
Neither is a matter of life or death. There are other issues under the label of critical which cause me to ponder and write. Those considered here are more purely intellectual.
Israel's development as a democracy is worthy of explanation, insofar as few of its founders had any background in democratic societies. Moreover, the country passed through the trauma of wars, poverty, and mass immigration from non-democratic sources that would have been good reasons for moving in non-democratic directions.
The best answers for this puzzle appear in the cultures that Jews have carried with them since ancient times, during most of which they had no opportunity to manage their own country. A capacity to contend with different perspectives, recognizing flaws in their heroes, and self-criticism are well entrenched in various books of the Hebrew Bible, and even more apparent in the pages of Talmud. Revered rabbis took contrasting positions on the interpretation of religious law, and occasionally insulted one another, but did not lose their status as sages.
Political dispute in the pre-state era and early statehood could be bitter and occasionally bloody, and we cannot overlook the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. However, extremism in Israel has been no greater than in other western democracies. The severity of dispute and the failure to ever provide a party with a majority in the Knesset are hallmarks of Israeli politics.
The country's almost seven decades of independence without a political coup makes it unusual among the hundred or so countries created after World War II. On several occasions Israel has passed the test for democracy which appears in political science texts, i.e., transferring governmental leadership routinely from one party to another as the result of an election.
Israel's democracy has its own characteristics traits, as do other democracies. Not all operate the same.
Prominent in the criticisms of Israeli democracy is the alleged condition of the country's Arab minority. Yet the reality is that on important social indicators their situation is better than that of minorities in other western democracies, especially African Americans. And at least some of their disadvantages result from a poor use of political opportunities. Notable is their tendency to vote for parties that refuse to trade political support for constituent benefits. In the case of Jerusalem Arabs, their refusal to vote in municipal elections gives up the opportunity to benefit by giving support to either ultra-Orthodox or secular Jews, who compete for control of the municipality.
Those who object to Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza, or focus on the issue of settlement, tend to overlook the violence of Palestinians toward Israel, and their leaders' rejections of proposals to deal with the dispute.
The second puzzle worthy of our time is the failure of US voters to elect a Catholic President since John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy had to struggle in 1960, and might have won only due to Richard Daley fudging the results in Illinois. Prominent in the campaign were suspicions about his greater loyalty to the Church, the influence of the Church or the control by the Church of the United States, the capacity of national secrets to survive confession, and the strangeness of prayers likely in the White House. Charges like that also explained Al Smith's defeat in 1928.
Since Kennedy, the weight of animosity to Catholics has not been anything like that. Overt and intense anti-Catholicism seemed to disappear along with progress in civil rights for African Americans. Yet over the course of more than half a century, there has only been one Catholic Vice President (Joe Biden) and one Catholic who made it through the primaries and conventions to become a major party presidential candidate (John Kerry). Four other Catholics were nominated as major party Vice Presidential candidates (William Miller in 1964; Edmund Muskie in 1968; Sargent Shriver in 1972; and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984), but that's the extent of Catholic accomplishments in presidential politics.
What makes this a puzzle is the size of the Catholic population, and Catholics' record of success outside of presidential politics. At 65 million, Catholics are the largest of American religious groups, and are noted for their achievements in local, state, and Congressional politics. They are the one large immigrant group who came with the English language, and they took early advantage of their numbers. John Kennedy's family roots were in one of the Irish Catholic machines that dominated at various times nearly all major American cities. Barack Obama came from one of those places, although by his time the leadership of the Chicago machine was not entirely Irish or White.
Catholics do well in running for Congress. Currently they are nearly 31 percent of those serving, compared to 22 percent in the population. Catholics are prominent among the leaders of both parties in Congress. Jews have also done well in Congress. Compared to their two percent of the population, they were more than six percent of the previous Congress; despite a drop of 5 members, they remain more than 5 percent of the current Congress.
Since the 1960s, the incidence of Protestants in Congress has declined by 18 percent.
Bad luck appears to be the best explanation for the failure of any Catholic to repeat JFK's success, and the failure of all but a few to come close to the presidency.
The United States has changed a great deal in the period since Kennedy. It's no longer a bastion of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Barack Obama is the prime example, with the complexions, family backgrounds, and genders of prominent contenders for a major party nomination in 2016 providing all that is necessary to say that America is no longer securely in WASP hands. While no one with an Asian background has made it into the top tier, Hispanic, African American, Catholic, Jewish, and women contenders are prominent. While it's too early for a prediction, it is not possible to rule out a final choice between two women, or a woman and an African American. It will add to our puzzle if none of the several Catholics gets to be one of the major party candidates for President or Vice President. Catholicism, per se, is not likely to be an issue.
Again, both of these puzzles are not life- or regime-threatening. How Israel came to be a democracy may be debated in families and classrooms, but it's not one of the issues that makes Jews worry about their lives. Ideologues and anti-Semites may remain unhappy, and intense, about what Israelis do or fail to do, but they needn't bother us.
American Catholics appear to be as free as members of any other religious community. They express themselves, run for office, and reach the heights of science, business, academia, and almost the top of government. None since Kennedy has reached the White House, Kennedy's election may not have been kosher, and he did not finish his first term. These observations may become outmoded 14 months from now. If not, we may have to ponder something other than bad luck.