On the Resilience of Israeli Democracy

Shlomo Avineri
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Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich heckles Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during his speech ahead of his swearing-in in the Knesset, earlier this month.
Shlomo Avineri

The government recently changed hands, despite serious fears and vain attempts to torpedo it at the last moment. This achievement for the democratic process has been attributed to various causes: the ongoing demonstrations, various types of opposition, an independent justice system, a critical and sometimes aggressive media, repeated elections that produced no clear victor, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial. All this came together in a critical mass.

Yet it’s worth pausing for a moment not just on these proximate causes, but on the deeper foundations of Israel’s political culture. And in this context, it’s worth highlighting several aspects that don’t appear in the standard analyses, which focus on the proximate causes.

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Most Israelis aren’t aware of the fact that even before they had a state and sovereignty, the Jews in exile developed, over the course of centuries, a unique political culture rooted not in normative texts (the Bible, Mishna and Talmud), but in the concrete social reality of Jewish life. This culture included a communal tradition that was essentially voluntary, and the mechanism for operating it was elections.

When Jews sought to maintain Jewish life as they understood it in exile, they were forced to do so on the basis of voluntary associations. If they wanted, for instance, to establish a synagogue or educate their children, they didn’t have their own state or centralized religious institutions that could provide such services. Therefore, the only option was to organize on their own, of their own free wills.

To do so, they elected institutions and set rules for elections and community taxes. Each community set its own rules – who was entitled to vote or run for office, how community taxes to maintain these institutions would be levied and who would represent the community in dealings with the government.

Contrary to what many people think, these communities weren’t led by rabbis, but by elected community leaders. Having lacked any pan-Jewish body with binding authority since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., each community determined its own bylaws and rules.

Some communities were more egalitarian and some were more oligarchic, but in either case, they were based on community decisions and elections. The paradox is that while the surrounding societies were ruled by sultans, kings and emperors, the Jewish community – despite its lack of statehood and sovereignty – was ruled by its own members.

As noted, rabbis weren’t community leaders, but hired officials appointed by the community to serve as halakhic arbiters and teachers. This gave them a degree of status and power, but internal control was in the hands of the community leaders.

The institution of rabbinic leaders in the Hasidic movement, in which the position is inherited, is a wholly modern development that emerged only in the 18th century. And it contradicted the communal tradition based on representation and elections that had lasted for many generations.

Over time, regional institutions also developed, like a council covering the four lands that comprised the Polish kingdom (which existed from the 16th century until the 18th). This council dealt with Jewish issues that affected all the Jews in the kingdom and met once a year at a big fair in Lublin. It’s no accident that in Polish sources, it is called by the Latin name Senatus Iudaicus (Jewish Senate).

Community documents reveal that there were power struggles, sometimes ideological battles of principle and sometimes petty personal ones. That’s the nature of an elected government.

It’s clear that in elections for community institutions, the rich enjoyed an advantage. But members of the British Parliament also didn’t come from the ranks of the poor until the 20th century. Similarly, in the United States, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were wealthy.

In this sense, the Jewish community was analogous to the Greek polis or the self-governing British colonies in North America. To be Jewish was first and foremost to be a member of a community.

The Jews entered the modern world with a tradition of representation and electoral processes. These elections obviously weren’t democratic in the sense of everyone having the right to vote, but they instilled the awareness that representation and elections were legitimate needs.

This tradition also accompanied Jewish life in the modern era, post-emancipation. One of the first things the First Zionist Congress decided in 1897 was to elect its management and determine electoral procedures.

The institutions established by the first immigrants to pre-state Israel for their moshavim, kibbutzim and towns, and later for the entire Jewish community there, were elected institutions. Jewish political culture was based on elections and representation – not because that’s what God commanded, but because that’s how Jewish identity formed in the purgatory of life and its challenges.

Anyone observing countries that have degenerated into various kinds of authoritarianism – like Turkey, Poland and Hungary, not to mention Russia – will discover that the main reason for this degeneration is that their history lacks any effective tradition of representation and elections. That’s also why Czechoslovakia, which did have a tradition of representation, is a different story.

The lack of any tradition of representation or elections similarly makes it harder for Arab societies to develop stable, effective democratic systems of government based on competition between opponents rather than enemies.

It’s also worth recalling that the rise of Nazism in Germany occurred in a society whose democratic experience prior to 1933 was very brief. Authoritarian Prussia and the legacy of Otto von Bismarck were much stronger and more deeply rooted in Germany’s political culture than the Weimar Constitution, which was identified with the results of Germany’s defeat in 1918 and wasn’t accepted by most of the German elites.

Even if most Israeli Jews aren’t aware of the historical roots of Israeli democracy, opposition to an authoritarian regime that isn’t based on elections and representation is a cornerstone of Israel’s political culture. This is the source of its pluralism and its multiplicity of parties, its commitment to an independent justice system, its right to demonstrate and its freedom of expression and the press.

These fundamentals sometimes impede governance, but they also undoubtedly prevent tyranny and a monopolistic control over the centers of power – not just because that’s what the law dictates, but because this behavior is deeply rooted in Israelis’ consciousness. That is why the seemingly monarchical behavior that sometimes characterized Netanyahu’s rule outraged so many Israelis, including members of his own Likud party and other rightists.

Just as religious pluralism and a multiplicity of synagogues characterized Jews’ religious and community life for generations – even the Hasidic movement wasn’t able to find a single rabbinic leader acceptable to all its sects – political pluralism, elections and a multiplicity of parties have characterized modern Jewish life in both the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. These are the barriers to tyranny and dictatorship within the Jewish political DNA.

For similar reasons, no dictator has ever come to power in countries with the Anglo-Saxon tradition of self-government, whether they have a written constitution like the United States or no written constitution like Britain. Both there and here, this behavior stems from a political culture with deep roots in society, rather than the importation of abstract principles from abroad.

Has the danger disappeared now that the government has changed hands? Of course not. The shameful scene at the Knesset when Naftali Bennett gave his inaugural speech as prime minister, coupled with several moves and statements by rightists since the new government was formed, attests to trends that contradict this historical Jewish political culture and might well prove dangerous.

Consequently, we must hope the traditional pluralism and anti-authoritarianism that’s so rooted in our society will also continue to accompany the Jewish state in the future.

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