The Origins and Challenges of Israeli Democracy

The origins of Israel's democracy are anchored in institutional traditions and behavior that originated in the Diaspora. Now those frameworks and traditions are in danger.

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The Representative Assembly in session in Jerusalem.Credit: Kluger Zoltan

More than 130 new states have been established around the world since World War II. All of them enacted democratic constitutions, generally adopting the traditions of their former colonial rulers. In most cases these national frameworks collapsed under external and domestic pressures – economic hardship, wars, ethnic conflicts – and were supplanted by various types of despotic regimes: military dictatorships, one-party rule, personal tyranny, communist or quasi-fascist forms of governance. However, Israel, which has been buffeted by foreign and domestic pressures perhaps more powerfully than other countries, has preserved a democratic, multiparty framework and a free and open society. Despite all its flaws, it maintains free political discourse. What accounts for this difference?

Two answers are usually given to this question, and both of them are wrong.

The first answer ascribes the sources of democracy in Israel and its resilience to the origins of the country’s founders. According to this argument, they came from Europe and brought with them European traditions of democracy, liberalism, a multi-party system and freedom of speech – much as the Pilgrims on the Mayflower brought to North America the British parliamentary tradition, which became the foundation of American democracy.

The explanation sounds convincing, but ignores the fact that the members of the first aliyot (waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine) did not come from parliamentary Britain or republican France. They came, in fact, from nondemocratic countries – places where Jews were in distress: from czarist or Soviet Russia, from authoritarian Poland or Romania, from Nazi Germany or from Austria and Czechoslovakia after their annexation to the Third Reich. If these new immigrants had actually brought with them the political culture of their countries of origin, communist or semi-fascist regimes would have been established here, not a pluralistic democracy.

The second explanation seeks to anchor Israeli democracy in the Jewish tradition. This is totally lacking in foundation. The Hebrew Bible imparted to Israel – and to the whole world – lofty and sublime values, but democracy is not one of them. Similarly, one finds important legal and moral elements in the Mishna and the Talmud, but no mention of a representative or elected regime. If the first immigrants had tried to establish a polity in the image of that of David or of Solomon, the result would have more closely resembled Saudi Arabia than a free and democratic society (see, for example, Kind David’s bloody testament in 1 Kings 2).

That said, it is not completely wrongheaded to search for the roots of Israeli democracy in the immigrants’ countries of origin – but not in the general political culture of those lands, but in the social and political structures of the Jewish Diaspora. For paradoxically, even though Jewish sovereignty was lost when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the Jews in their lands of dispersion created political structures of their own – different from those of the societies within which they lived – and these became the bedrock of Israeli democracy.

In the absence of a state or a quasi-church institution, the only way Jews could preserve and maintain their identity, their faith and their customs wherever they were – be it Krakow or Casablanca, Prague or Fustat (Old Cairo) – was by voluntary means. The only recourse for Jews anywhere who wished to build a synagogue or to ensure a place of burial for their dead, to give their children an education, to find a mentor to instruct the community in its religious tradition, or to help the poor among them was to organize themselves on a voluntary basis: to choose a few of their own people and entrust them with this mission; to levy taxes on themselves; to appoint a rabbi; and to regularize relations with the ruling authorities.

Lacking an authorized hierarchical institution that would help determine how this was to be done, each group set up its own institutions and leadership. Jewish communal structure thus emerged not according to biblical or Talmudic injunctions (there are none), but on the basis of the practical demands of concrete societal life.

Similar to Greek ‘polis’

As such, the Jewish communal structure that emerged throughout the Diaspora resembles the Greek polis – albeit without sovereignty or military power, but with considerable ability to impose its authority on its members: That is the meaning of the herem – the act of excommunication.

Each community determined its regulations and decided who had the right to take part in decision-making: Would it be all the adult males or only the taxpayers? Would each person’s vote bear the same weight, or would those who paid more taxes get an extra vote? How long would officeholders serve? Could they be reelected, and could members of the same family hold posts in the community’s institutions?

The heads of the community were not the rabbis – whose services were hired – but the parnasim, the officials, and they were always elected in one way or another. Each community laid down its own regulations, and some were more egalitarian and others more oligarchical – again analogous to the Greek polis, inasmuch as the constitution in ancient Athens differed from that in Sparta or Corinth. From this perspective, a Jewish community also resembled the townships of colonial New England.

Clearly, the community was not democratic in the modern sense of the word (women did not have the vote, and in many communities not all men were enfranchised). Nevertheless, it was based on the principles of representation: Jewish community records attest to political struggles, disputes, conspiracies and factionalism – the bread and butter of a representative society. In some cases, when the quarrels and the disputes intensified, communities split, with those in the minority breaking away and forming a separate entity: “Community dispute” (“mahloket hakahal”) was flesh of the flesh of the Jews in their diasporas.

Subsequently, various communities joined forces to create regional or national associations. Thus, from 1520 to 1764, in the largest Jewish area of settlement in Europe – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – the Council of Four Lands united the Jewish communities in the four regions of Poland (Greater Poland, Lesser Poland, Volhynia and Rusyn).

Each community elected representatives to the council, which met once a year in Lublin, during the annual fair there. The body’s deliberations dealt with issues that were of general concern, and the council set norms and rules in regard to education, welfare, dietary laws, charity for brides’ dowries, assistance for distressed communities (particularly after the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-1649). The council also established the nature of relations with the Polish authorities, who for their part recognized it as the representative of the Jewish population (the council was referred to as Congressus Judaicus in official Polish documents). A separate council existed in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, while in neighboring Moravia, the Council of the Lands of Mehrin represented the 39 Jewish communities in that Hapsburg crownland.

When the Jews of Prague faced the threat of expulsion in the mid-18th century, they sent letters to dozens of other Jewish communities across Europe, asking them to intercede with the authorities in their countries and bring pressure to bear on Empress Maria Theresa to revoke that decree – and they were successful. These Jews did not enjoy sovereignty or independence, but even in the absence of a state they practiced politics and diplomacy.

Quarrels and officiousness

The First Zionist Congress convened in Basel in 1897, at the personal invitation of Theodor Herzl and his supporters. At that meeting, however, the participants immediately made arrangements to hold elections for the coming congresses, and chose an executive committee, whose members were assigned specific tasks and were obligated to submit a report to the next congress.

The new immigrants in Palestine also organized on a representational basis. Whether among the moshavot (early agricultural settlements) of the First Aliyah, the founders of the kibbutzim or the group that established Ahuzat Bayit – the forerunner of Tel Aviv – the tradition of the political culture of the Jewish community in Europe was manifested in the local establishment of representative institutions: A general assembly elected a committee or an executive, established regulations and set mechanisms of accountability – which naturally gave rise to conflicts, quarrels and petty officiousness.

This situation was the cause of the deep, and understandable, hostility that the moshavot – which needed the support of Baron Rothschild so as not to collapse – displayed toward the bureaucratic methods he imposed on them. The latter were alien to the tradition of communal representation which had been brought to the Yishuv from Europe.

There is a paradox here: The Jews who arrived in the first waves of immigration to Palestine were for the most part secular, and some of those who came in the second and third waves were militant atheists who had rebelled against rabbinic authority and religious tradition. Yet in setting out to create a new society in Palestine, they were steeped in the well-established tradition of political behavior practices by their ancestors.

Thus, when Kvutzat Degania, the first kibbutz, on Lake Kinneret, split into Degania Aleph and Degania Bet, their members were replicating the behavior of their parents and grandparents, who might have left a particular synagogue and set up a shtiebel – a place for communal Jewish prayer – of their own that was more congenial to their outlook.

The British Mandatory authorities in Palestine allowed Arabs and Jews to establish separate organizations to manage their internal affairs. The Yishuv set up a body called the Representative Assembly of Palestinian Jews (Asefat Hanivharim). No fewer than 20 parties and groups contested the first election to the representative body, held in 1920 – from Ahdut Ha’avodah, to the Association of Sephardim and the Artisans’ Society.

To ensure that small groups would be properly represented, a system of proportional representation was introduced, and no one obtained a majority. The largest faction, Ahdut Ha’avodah, won only 70 of the assembly’s 314 seats. As a result, coalitions had to be formed in order to elect the executive body – the National Council (Va’ad Leumi), which bore responsibility for education, local government, welfare and, to a certain extend, for security and defense as well.

Eighteen parties ran in the elections to the fourth, and final, Representative Assembly, held in 1944, during World War II: Mapai, the Israel Workers Party, a successor to Ahdut Ha’avodah and forerunner of today’s Labor, won 63 of the 171 seats, thus mandating the formation of another coalition. The Jewish Agency was established as a joint body of the Yishuv and the Zionist movement, on a similar representational and coalitional basis.

With this background, no difficulty arose in 1948 in the transition from the “state in the making” framework to the trappings of a sovereign state. The chairman of the Jewish Agency, Ben-Gurion, was elected head of the provisional government, which was based on a coalition of the existing local parties. One of its first decisions was to hold an election for a Constituent Assembly (which would become the First Knesset).

The election took place in January 1949, despite the country’s war footing, and with the participation of the Arab residents who had not fled or been expelled. There was no need to “reinvent the wheel” and hold exhausting constitutional discussions, or to choose from among systems of governance used in distant lands, whose conditions were unsuited to the local situation.

Even the jolting Altalena episode ־ a reference to the weapons-carrying ship of Menachem Begin’s underground Irgun group, which was sunk off the coast of Tel Aviv by order of Ben-Gurion in June 1948) – did not prevent Begin’s Herut party from taking part in the election. On the other hand, the fact that even in the peak periods of Ben-Gurion’s hegemony Mapai never gained an absolute majority but had to fall back on coalitions in order to govern, is – for good or ill – a legacy of the pre-state Yishuv structure of rule.

The parallel Arab body in Palestine during the Mandate period – the Arab Higher Committee under the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini – consisted of local dignitaries and sheikhs, and never held elections. It may be said that the inability of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas to come up with an effective joint normative framework today stems from the absence of a democratic tradition, a situation that is common to other Arab societies.

No democracies out of a vacuum

Historical continuity – from the tradition of the community in Europe via the institutions of the Zionist movement and the Yishuv, down to the democratic political structures of the State of Israel – shows, in a comparative context, that democracies do not spring up in a vacuum, but are rooted in a society’s traditions and political behavior. This explains the difference, for example, in the events in Eastern Europe after 1989 – between, on the one hand, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which established democratic regimes based on free elections and changes of government, and on the other hand, Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has a representative tradition and which developed in very different directions.

The Jewish communal and Yishuv tradition was of course enhanced by the legacy of the British Mandate judicial system, which Israel adopted, and the way in which the Supreme Court extended its powers to ensure the rule of law. But democracy is not only the rule of law – Prussia, too, was a Rechtsstaat. The institutional foundations of democracy – elections, representation, parliamentary responsibility, pluralism, the multiplicity of parties, the need for coalitions – are rooted deeply in the concrete political consciousness and practical behavior of Israel’s citizens.

The fact that Israel preserved the democratic framework even in conditions of a protracted conflict and of far-reaching demographic changes testifies to a powerful resilience anchored in Jewish history. That pluralism also accounts for the wide range of Jewish institutions abroad: Indeed, among the Jewish communities in the United States there are at least 50 member groups under the umbrella of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Other immigrant communities, such as the Irish or the Italians, do not have such richness of pluralistic representation.

That all this is sometimes accompanied by petty officiousness is the price democracy exacts from those who uphold it.

Lately, it cannot be denied, this pluralistic fabric has somewhat unraveled in Israel. The danger lies not only in attempts to pass obnoxious laws – most of which will not succeed, will not overcome the legislative hurdle or will be struck down by the High Court of Justice – or in the militant nationalistic atmosphere. It’s clear that the continued rule of the Palestinian population also heightens antidemocratic tendencies.

The gravest danger can be seen in the shriveling of the structure of the political parties, which are the foundation of democracy. On the one hand, the system of primaries has hollowed out the historic parties (Likud, Labor) of content and transformed them solely into election mechanisms for Knesset candidates. Instead of members there are “registrees” who are rounded up by “vote contractors”; party branches in the towns and cities barely exist any longer. When did these parties last hold conventions to discuss serious policy issues?

On the other hand, parties like Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi and certainly Yesh Atid are managed by authoritarian means at the hands of leaders who are not accountable to the membership, and who in some cases have ensured their own leadership positions for many years to come.

The origins of Israeli democracy are anchored in the tradition of institutions and behavior that was transmitted to this country from the Jewish reality in the Diaspora. Those frameworks and traditions are now in danger. Those who wish to preserve Israeli democracy against ossification must rehabilitate the old political parties – on both the right and the left – as active, vital bodies, and not only as frameworks for pre-election rivalries. The judicial system is helpless in this regard. The answer lies only in public activity by citizens, from the bottom, on a voluntary basis.

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