LettersLiberal Democracy in Question

A Response to Goldfarb’s Review Article on “Theocratic Democracy” by Nachman Ben Yehuda

We all know the problem of the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. I have a similar worry about books like Theocratic Democracy as case studies of Israel. I haven’t read the book, to be sure; and I have no doubt that Israel is interesting as a case study of political theology. But the Jewish State is, in my judgment, neither democratic not theocratic.

The case why Israel isn’t a democracy is more obvious (though frequently debated). I’ll skip this issue here. It would be more interesting to say why we shouldn’t refer to Israel as a theocracy.

If by “theocracy” we mean a state in which religious authority is important politically and even constitutionally, then Israel can be called a theocracy. But in this case this would be too loose: given the nature of monotheistic religions and monotheistic authority, a state is helpfully understood as a theocracy only if its principle authority is religious. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Israel. (Famously, Zionism was originally a- or even anti-religious. And while religion is on the rise in Israel as throughout the world, religious authority hasn’t yet replaced Israel’s secular political institutions.)

Now because Zionism turned to understand Judaism as a culture rather than religion, it is tempting to regard Israel as a non-neutral liberal state. On this view, shared by many, the Jewish State is Jewish in the same sense that Italy is Italian and Germany is German. If this is so, there’s certainly no point in talking of Israel as a theocracy; and, assuming we agree that liberalism doesn’t require cultural neutrality, there’s no problem at all in the concept of a Jewish liberal state. Unfortunately, even wise political philosophers such as Avhishai Margalit and Moshe Halbertal have argued for this position, making it much too easy for us Israelis too pretend we can go down this path. (I hope to write something longer about this point on a different occasion.)

It is annoying to Israelis like myself to admit, but Jewish identity in Israel is defined first and foremost on the basis of race. It is both necessary and sufficient to have the right genes in order to be recognized as a Jew in Israel. Necessary: for if you observe Jewish Law — and/or follow and identify with Jewish culture — but don’t have the right genes, you will not be officially recognized as Jewish. Sufficient: for no matter what religion or culture you follow and identify with, if you do have the right genes, you would be officially recognized. Since Judaism is the main organizing principle of Israeli politics, the correct category for analyzing Israel qua a Jewish state is as an ethnocracy.

There are only two ways of making exceptions to genes, and these tell us much about the nature of the rule. One possibility is converting to Judaism by the strict measures of Jewish orthodoxy. Those are exceptionally harsh: the idea is that one can in principle become Jewish even without the genes, but only under rare situations. (Famously, the flexible standards of reform American Judaism are banned in Israel.) The other, much more “lax” way of becoming Jewish, is having more or less the right genes and joining the IDF, which recently initiated expedited conversion programs. (Usually, you’d enroll in such a program if you’re an Israeli Russian immigrant who’s been drafted into obligatory military service, but your Jewishness isn’t completely clear.)

The only way to speak of Israel as a theocracy, in this light, is to argue that religious authority decides exclusively about one’s race. But this is only partially true: the Jewish state does recognize your Jewishness also if your father is Jewish and your mother isn’t. For these and similar reasons it seems to me that in order to understand what it means, politically and sociologically, for Israel to be Jewish, we need to focus less on religion (and culture) and more about race. An Ethnocratic Democracy then? This book still needs to be written.

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Omri Boehm

  • Omri, I agree that Israel isn’t a theocracy. Perhaps ethnocracy, as you suggest, is a more accurate description of the nation-state, but the religion-politics dilemma nonetheless is very much present, since the ethnic group is defined using religion. Whether Israel is a democracy is another complex matter. There are democratic rules and procedures, but they are limited, severely so for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and non existent for Palestinians in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. Democracy is clearly in the eye and identity of the beholder.

    I wrote about Ben Yehuda’s book because I think his analysis of an important dimension of the social condition is illuminating: a nation state that develops a common culture invoking a religion, where religion does the work to define citizenship, will have a hard time avoiding religious resolution of political problems. Religion and not politics will settle at least some issues. Politics will recede. Ben Yehuda shows how this has created enduing problems in Israeli public life, pointing to a civil war among Jews if it weren’t for the threat of the Palestinian-Arab other. This is clearly not just a problem in Israel in this age of the global ascendance of religion in political life.

    I am looking forward to your analysis of Margalit and Halbertal and their attempt to justify the viability of the Jewish Democratic state by invoking culture.

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