Defining a Jewish democracy

Just because there is coercion doesn't mean there is no consensus for it.

haredi democracy 88 (photo credit: )
haredi democracy 88
(photo credit: )
The Basic Laws of the State of Israel declare that Israel is to be Jewish and democratic. Like all high-sounding phrases, this one lacks practical definition. What does "Jewish" really mean? Who defines what is "Jewish?" What does "democratic" mean? How are we to rule when the two concepts clash? In short, what type of Judaism and what type of democracy is envisioned in this statement? This question has plagued Israeli society and its court system for decades. We Orthodox Jews define "Jewish" in terms of traditional Jewish life, its customs and observances. It is obvious that we also believe that when this definition of "Jewish" clashes with "democratic," then out of respect to Judaism and its past, "democratic" should give way. There has been a status quo arrangement regarding public observances of Judaism - Shabbat, kashrut, etc. - in place for 60 years. It is an arrangement that satisfies no particular interest group fully but generally speaking has been found acceptable to most of Israeli society - a live-and-let-live arrangement. However, both the extreme secularists and the extreme religious have always attempted to alter this status quo, each one in its own perceived favor, so that there is always present in Israeli public life an underlying tension that is gnawing and divisive. Those tensions usually end up in the Israeli public court system, where the prevailing mood is that "democratic" trumps "Jewish," causing the large religious section of the population to distrust the court system and to feel embittered toward legal authorities. TWO INCIDENTS that were in the news last week highlight the problem. A supermarket chain plans to be open on a 24/7 basis, apparently violating the status-quo arrangements regarding the public observance of Shabbat. This company also owns a chain of supermarkets that caters to the haredi religious community. To pressure the company to rescind its new 24/7 policy, some of the haredi leaders (mostly self-proclaimed) have proclaimed a boycott of the chain that sells to the haredi public. Boycotts and bans are the usual weapons employed by these leaders even though experience should have shown them that by the end of the day these tactics are woefully ineffective and usually counterproductive. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the company's breach of the status quo, of defining "democratic" in terms of its perceived economic benefit, allowed it to ignore completely the "Jewish" aspect of Israel. It was irresponsible on its part to succumb to greed at the expense of community comity. It was also terribly insensitive to the Jewish nature of the state and continues a pattern of wider and wider public Shabbat desecration in all areas of Israeli life. To somehow believe that the "Jewish" character of the state can successfully be preserved, let alone enhanced, by destroying the public Shabbat in Israel is malicious folly. I doubt if the boycott tactic will work - perversely, I hope it does - but this is a battle that religious Jews have to join and wage, not only for our sake but for the future of the State of Israel itself. THE SECOND incident was the ruling by an Israeli court that hametz may be sold on Pessah by Jewish stores and restaurants. Again this is a clear breach of the status quo and even of local laws that forbid this practice. The group that brought the suit is against religious coercion. But they do not understand that every society features coercion in one form or another. Otherwise pure anarchy reigns. Laws that coerce form the consensus basis of society. Pessah and hametz have a long history among Jews - longer than the existence of the State of Israel and modern progressivism. Disregarding this history and the sensitivity of the vast majority of Israelis in this matter only confirms that as far as Israeli courts are concerned, "Jewish" really doesn't exist in the face of perceived "democratic." The prophet Ezekiel records that long ago Jews proclaimed that they were just like other nations -"democratic" to the core. God's response was that He would not allow that to happen - that anti-Semitism and the hostility of nations would coerce (there is that word again) the Jewish nation to remain "Jewish." Perhaps we are seeing a replay of this scenario again in our state. God apparently prefers "Jewish" to "democratic" when the two clash. A little common sense, sensitivity to others, altruism and good will - all of which are unfortunately in short supply in many sectors of our society - would go a long way in making the State of Israel a truly Jewish democratic state The writer is a rabbi, author, essayist and popular historian.