Israeli Elections: what would Milton do?

'Milton writes a person exercises their reason only through the activity of choosing.'

milton 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
milton 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
As the elections in Israel approach, I ask myself the admittedly strange question: what would John Milton do? And though the author of Paradise Lost, lived centuries ago and worlds away, he would, I think, have a clear message for us in Israel today: don’t just affiliate, vote!
In his prose work of 1644 Areopagitica, Milton writes that “a man may be a heretic in truth.”  Yet paradoxically, Milton argues that someone may advocate a position that is true – doctrinally impeccable – and yet still be a heretic. Milton preserves the name of heretic, but not for something a person believes – Milton is a strong advocate of difference – but for how he believes it.  The heretic is the one, Milton writes, who just affiliates, “believing things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines.”  A heresy is any belief, blindly and uncritically held, the party line, accepted without questioning. For Milton, it is not so much the beliefs one espouses, but the exercise of conscience choice in making those beliefs one’s own. Areopagitica, a tract celebrated by, among many others, American Supreme Court Justices for its espousal of freedom of speech, is really more about the responsibility of reasonable choice, of acknowledging the individual freedom to make decisions on one’s own. “Reason is but choosing,” Milton writes in Paradise Lost: a person exercises their reason only through the activity of choosing.
So, Milton comes to mind as Election Day approaches. For Milton feared a nation so enthralled to ideology – whether it be political or theological – that they give up their right, even their ability to choose. Milton understood, long before George Orwell, that giving into totalitarian ways of thinking is most dangerous for robbing individuals of choice. Those, Milton writes, “who are slaves indoors,” accustomed to passivity, will naturally support tyrants, kings and demagogues. Milton writes specifically about England’s King Charles I, but he might well have been referring to any ideology that requires individuals to relinquish their power of choice, rendering them apathetic, making them think that choice is meaningless, inconsequential, or only a matter of the pursuit of interest. Those who assert that I should vote for such-and-such because of the color of his kippa or another candidate because of the length of her skirt, or for their being Ashkenazi or Sephardi, affirm group-affiliation not choice. To those insisting on a principle of voting based upon which “camp” I belong to in Israel society, I might invoke the Miltonic spirit, and say that such advice does not cultivate real choice, in fact, entails relinquishing the responsibilities of the self.
True, some will say, the political process in Israel is all about affiliations, about warring camps, that just pursue their separate and opposing interests. But maybe an electorate that starts to take responsibility for its choices, that doesn’t vote merely out of stereotypical affiliation or interest, may somehow surprise our politicians and begin to change the nature of how Israelis perceive each other. Is it too idealistic to suggest that Israelis will one day look at each other less as opposing camps and more as individuals affirming our differences?
It’s not those differences, Milton writes that makes for heresy. It is rather proclaiming belief, asserting affiliation without going through the process of finding out what one – for oneself – really believes. Of course, many of us want to find ways other than just the political process to show our difference and exercise our consciences and choice. But when I ask myself, on the eve of Israeli Election Day what would Milton do? – I do know, for one thing, that he would vote.  And he would most assuredly advise: choose for yourself – “reason is but choosing” – vote with your conscience! 
The writer is the Chair of the English Department at Bar Ilan, is author of Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism; the first Hebrew translation of Milton’s Areopagitica, with his introduction, is forthcoming from the Shalem Center.