JTS Statement on the Outpouring of Concern for Israeli Democracy

There are circumstances in which societal confrontations touch on the very foundations on which those societies are built. Such is the case with respect to the debate raging in Israel today, which has fueled a wave of protests that yesterday brought the country to a halt, and which have at least put on hold the precipitous passage of major judicial reforms.   

This is no ordinary political disagreement. What is unfolding in Israeli society today is a struggle about the basic principles of Zionism. Zionism aspired to achieve the secure conditions under which all members of the Jewish people could express their Jewishness freely and without fear, and through that freedom bring about a renewal and a flourishing of Jewish life and culture. It aspired, as well, to create a country rooted in democracy and protective of the rights and free expression of all its inhabitants.  

Democracy was not incidental to the Zionist program; it was among the prime guarantors that all citizens could be engaged players in the envisioned Jewish society. The 1948 Declaration of Independence said that the State of Israel would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex, [and] guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.” And what democracy demands was laid out as clearly as possible by none other than the revisionist Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky: “It is an incorrect view which states that government supported by the majority is democracy… . Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy.” Jabotinsky continues, saying “the aim of democracy is to guarantee that the minority too has influence on matters of state policy.” 

The majoritarianism that Jabotinsky flagged as inimical to democracy is exactly what is being proposed today and what is motivating Israelis to pour into the streets.   

As for the appointment of judges, it should be noted that an independent judiciary is foundational to Jewish views of a stable democratic polity. When the Torah spoke of the appointment of judges, it did not imagine people beholden to an appointing power. Instead, it stressed wisdom, knowledge of the common person, and imperviousness to corruption. And the great Jacob ben Asher, composer of the comprehensive 14th century code of law known as the Tur, wrote very simply that the need for a judiciary is critical because without it, whoever has the power will rule simply by virtue of that power.   

If a duly elected majority, which controls both the executive and legislature, also appoints the judiciary and can override any of its decisions, that majority is in a position to run roughshod over minority rights, and thus foil the aspirations of Zionism and the democracy it envisioned building. This is a powerful motivation fueling the demonstrations throughout Israel. 

When the prayer for the State of Israel is recited in synagogues, it asks that “the hands of those who defend our Land be strengthened.” This is rightly understood to include all those who don uniforms to protect the state from attacks from without and terrorism within. But there are today even more people whose peaceful but forceful protests are defending the State of Israel and Zionism itself. We should recognize that they, too, are included in this prayer. May their safety be secured, and may their patriotic efforts on behalf of the citizens of Israel and the character of the Jewish State prevail.