‘The problem with democracy’

During the recent AIPAC convention, the various presidential candidates repeatedly praised Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East.

Natan Sharansky (photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Natan Sharansky
(photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Natan Sharansky, in his book The case for democracy, makes an effective argument that wars are never fought between two democratic nations.
Therefore, if we could turn the various dictatorships or communist countries into democracies, there would be an end to wars. Sharansky’s ideas became known as “the democratic peace theory.”
During the recent AIPAC convention, the various presidential candidates repeatedly praised Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East. In the Western world, democracy is idolized as the ideal for every nation that wishes to treat its citizens fairly.
The Talmud relates that legislation in ancient Israel was decided by a majority vote. The Mishna speaks of a case where 18 decrees were enacted according to the teachings of the students of Shamai as they outnumbered the students of Hillel.
Cases of capital punishment were decided by a court of 23 and a vote. Similarly, decisions by the highest court of 71 judges, as well as money matters in a court of three were conducted in a democratic fashion.
Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during the Second World War, once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Israel epitomizes the problem with democracy. The constitution of Israel is self-contradictory. How is it possible to be a “Jewish” democratic state? If it is Jewish, it must remain that way despite the demographics of the population. In a democracy, the majority rules. Why couldn’t the majority vote that Israel ceases to be a Jewish state, God forbid? Another problem that Israel faces is a highly hostile domestic population. We are constantly faced with questions of the limits of free speech. This is especially problematic when free speech leads to incitement and threatens the security of Israel’s citizens.
A further dilemma is how far do we carry one’s rights in “pursuit of happiness”? If the majority rules that there be a breakdown in morality, the sanctity of the family, and for a value system where there is no clear definition of right and wrong, democracy must be the decider.
Democracy in some respects has become today’s Golden Calf. When the Pew Report came out with some troubling findings regarding the Israeli population’s solution to solving the current wave of terrorism, the democracy worshipers were up in arms. Israel’s citizens, 48 percent of them according to the report, were acknowledging that democracy wasn’t working.
Religion has taken a beating for quite a while. Many have dismissed the possibility that answers can be found in the Torah. Perhaps matters are cyclical and it’s time to give traditional values a second look. Although much of Judaism is based on democratic principles, there are absolutes that are taught to prevent the problems of democracy.
Jewish law does not tolerate a lack of morality. There are definite guidelines as to how Jews are expected to behave.
And there are clear expectations for the Jewish population and the non-Jewish population living among us. There is a low level of tolerance for those who violate the law.
On an international level, Sharasky’s theories make a lot of sense. Churchill did not have a solution for the weaknesses of democracy. It’s time we realize that there is no system more just and sacred than the Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai. We need to relearn it and find leaders who will show its value by the example that they set. The Jewish people will again be “a light unto the nations,” shining far brighter than any democracy.
The author is the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles, and is currently a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem.