Study finds Israel's religious foundation not so unique

Other countries also try to combine ancient tradition with commitment to modern democratic principles.

israelis in shuk 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
israelis in shuk 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"The Jewish-Israeli case is often said to be unique," begins an article by Dr. Alexander Yakobson, a senior lecturer in Roman history at Hebrew University, in the summer 2008 edition of Israel Studies, an academic journal on Israeli society. The country's strangeness comes from the "'extra-territorial' character of the Jewish people, Israel's ties with the Jewish Diaspora and the strong connection between the Jewish religion and the prevalent notion of Jewish peoplehood," explains the author. Some celebrate this uniqueness, "pointing to the uniqueness of Jewish history and culture," and some are critical of it as "inconsistent with modern civic democracy," but rarely is the "underlining premise of uniqueness" questioned, Yakobson believes. Now he's out to change that, with an argument that examines the constitutions of other democracies to show that Israel is neither officially nor in practice alone in its, well, uniqueness. "There are numerous other cases where national identity and religion are officially connected in some way, and where there are official bonds between a nation-state and an ethnocultural Diaspora," he writes. The Greek constitution, for example, makes some surprising provisions. Though it promises, to quote from article 13, that "every known religion is free and the forms of worship thereof shall be practiced without any hindrance by the State and under protection of the law," its preamble nevertheless begins with: "In the name of the Holy and Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity." In the constitution itself, article 3 asserts that "the prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ" and takes pains to note that this church, "acknowledging as its head Our Lord Jesus Christ is indissolubly united in doctrine with the Great Church of Constantinople and every other Church of Christ of the same doctrine." Yakobson's article, titled "Jewish Peoplehood and the Jewish State, How Unique? - A Comparative Survey," summarizes more extensive findings of a book he co-authored with Israeli constitutional thinker Amnon Rubinstein titled Israel Among the Nations. The idea presented in the book, and the newly-published article, is an important contribution to the international discussion surrounding the Jewish state. It isn't merely that an Israeli scholar has located another freakish case - Greece - among contemporary democracies, but that religion-based ethnocultural identity is the social glue of a broad swath of the free West. The preamble to the Irish constitution begins: "In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred." Norway's constitution decrees that "the Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State," that "more than half the number of the Members of the Council of State shall profess the official religion of the State," and even that "the inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children in the same." Poland, Bulgaria, Armenia, Georgia and much of Scandinavia, but also the United States and Britain, all are revealed to be more committed to their cultural uniqueness - through religion - than one might think. But the most fascinating and unexpected example cited in Yakobson's argument is not, in fact, Western: "The Tibetan Constitution adopted by the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies in 1991 begins, 'Whereas His Holiness the Dalai lama has offered a democratic system to Tibetans, in order that the Tibetan People in-Exile be able to preserve their ancient traditions of spiritual and temporal life, unique to the Tibetans…' It states that the '…future Tibetan polity shall uphold the principle of non-violence and shall endeavor to be a Free Social Welfare State with its politics guided by the Dharma, a Federal Democratic Republic…' At the same time, the Dalai Lama is proclaimed as 'chief executive of the Tibetan people' and given considerable powers," Yakobson writes. "'All Tibetan citizens shall be equal before the law…'; 'All religious denominations are equal before the law.' At the same time, the Tibetan Administration 'shall endeavor to establish pure and efficient academic and monastic communities of monks, nuns, and tantric practitioners, and shall encourage them to maintain a correct livelihood,'" he goes on. "'It shall endeavor to disseminate a non-sectarian and wholesome tradition of Buddhist doctrines.'" This example may be the closest to the Jewish model - "an attempt to combine fidelity with ancient culture and tradition (unique and particular, as they must be) with a strong commitment to universally acknowledged modern democratic principles." Of course, these intentions have yet to be tested in a self-governing Tibet. Just how "unique" - or downright strange - would such a Tibetan democracy be? As Yakobson notes, "the mode of selection of this polity's chief executive or head of state certainly promises to be unique in the world of contemporary democracies: neither election nor hereditary succession but reincarnation - attested by a group of monks who pick a child and proclaim him the Dalai Lama. On reflection and judging by actual results, this mode of selecting a leader is not necessarily inferior to other, more usual ones. Can a state be both Tibetan and democratic? The answer should surely be positive in principle, and one feels a measure of optimism that this is quite feasible in practice too." These examples, Yakobson notes, are hardly outmoded anachronisms, but real, resonant questions in the modern politics of living societies. The Greek state doesn't view Orthodox Christianity as an artifact of its past, but as an education program that serves to define national identity. When a Muslim parent in Italy petitioned a court in 2002 against the obligatory crucifixes present in every classroom in the largely secular country, he briefly won the court's agreement. But the decision was quickly overturned, and the episode solicited an outcry from Italy's public figures. In the words of the country's president, "the crucifix has always been considered not only as a distinctive sign of a particular religious credo, but above all as a symbol of the values that are at the base of our Italian identity." What does his study mean for Israel? Yakobson explains: "There is nothing extraordinary about a nation-state of a people whose history and culture strongly connect it to a certain religion. This connection, apart from being a fact of cultural and social life, can also be enshrined in a country's constitution and embodied in its national symbols" - even, he adds, if the people who describe themselves by that identity do not, in fact, follow the religion. He relates the story of a visiting foreign professor who was asked, "Do you think that the Jewish people are unique?" "Of course you are unique," he replied, "but you are not unique in being unique."