Letters to the Editor: Did Jewish Self-rule in the Diaspora Contribute to Israeli Democracy?

Letters to the Editor
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Letters to the Editor

In response to “On the resilience of Israeli democracy” (Shlomo Avineri, June 28)

Anyone who has grown up in a Jewish community in the Diaspora (“galut”) is familiar with the way it is organized and ruled, based on membership fees, volunteer work, elections of board members and appointments of officials, including the rabbi. In the pre-democratic world, this form of self-rule was something unique and contributed to Jewish survival in an often-hostile environment.

Israel recently changed governments but it remains to be seen if the government will last and if it also means any regime change. Despite the polarization of Israeli society and the political turbulence in recent years, the change in government was peaceful, but the losing side, contrary to what is the case in more mature democracies, did not accept its defeat.

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Avineri, a professor of political science, claims in his opinion piece that the Jewish Diaspora tradition of representation and electoral processes contributed to the creation of Israel and the resilience of Israeli democracy. This was probably true during the British Mandate period and the first years of state-building. Today we see that other factors have also shaped Israel and are eroding its democracy.

First, Jewish communities were never true models of democracy, as they were managed by the wealthy members of the communities, the gvirim and parnasim, who represented them before the authorities. The rulings of the rabbis were seldom questioned and made people believe in false messiahs. The link between money and political power is still an issue of serious concern in Israel today.

Second, the Jews in Israel were also influenced by the societies in which they lived. Those coming from authoritarian countries in the Arab world and former Communist Eastern Europe had never experienced democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.

Unless they arrived with a strong Zionist ideology of building a better and fairer society, life in a Jewish congregation was hardly sufficient to prepare them for the need to respect democratic norms and values. Today, Israel must be one of the world’s most ungovernable democracies, reminding us more of the unruly Polish parliament (the Sejm) in the past than the glorious Jewish Council of Four Lands in Poland from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century.

In fact, the Jewish people was ill prepared to exercise political and military power after 2,000 years without an independent state of its own. After the return to its historical homeland, it has returned to the fatal policy of internal divide, unwillingness to compromise and nonrecognition of worldly powers mightier than itself during the last years of the Second Temple.

It was this divide, in the Jewish tradition called baseless hatred (“sinat hinam”), that resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the defeats against the Roman empire. The new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett referred to these in his much-interrupted inaugural speech in the Knesset. We see daily examples of it in the Knesset.

With all due respect to the democratic tradition in the Diaspora communities, Jewish life was also shaped by the status of the Jews as a defenseless, discriminated and persecuted minority. You would expect that this would influence Israel’s policy via its Arab fellow citizens and the Palestinians in the occupied territories but, alas, it has not.

A question for Avineri: Is Israel’s democracy sufficient resilient to survive such an unsustainable situation?

Mose Apelblat

Tel Aviv

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