Judaism and Democracy — Enemies or Friends?

May 1, 2023

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post on May 1, 2023 and was written by Hanan Alexander, the 2022-2023 Koret Visiting Professor in Israel Studies and Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Haifa. This semester, Professor Alexander is teaching Citizenship Education and Social Conflict.

The time has come to abandon old rivalries in order to offer interpretations of Judaism consistent with democracy so that Israeli voters can vote for a Jewish and democratic state.

The recent election cycles demonstrate that the majority of Jewish Israelis want to live in a Jewish state. They voted repeatedly for parties that support traditional Judaism of one form or another. However, the demonstrations of the past months against proposed reforms that subjugate the judiciary to the legislature show that the majority of Jewish Israelis also want to live in a democratic state. They will not put their lives on the line for a dictator.

The problem is that the streams of Judaism that most Israelis recognize as legitimate, and for which they voted – Mizrachi traditionalism, messianic Zionism, and ultra-Orthodoxy – tend to be ambivalent about democracy at best, anti-democratic at worst.

Extreme forms of Judaism are considered authentic

How did we get to a place where the most extreme, often authoritarian, racist and xenophobic forms of Judaism are considered by the majority of Israelis to be the most authentic, and what if anything can we do about it?

Zionism resulted from two European revolutions – Enlightenment and Emancipation. Enlightenment was a 17th-century intellectual movement that placed human reason at the heart of belief and practice. Emancipation was an 18th-century political movement that offered citizenship to all inhabitants of newly established nation-states, regardless of religious faith.

This challenged the two pillars of pre-modern Jewish identity, religion and politics. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews lived in separate communities governed by rabbinic law, which paid homage to local rulers as a collective, not as individuals.

“Enlightenment reason” challenged Jewish religious belief and practice, and “Emancipation politics” enabled Jews to leave their small communities as individuals, whether or not they wished to be identified as Jews, to become citizens of the larger nations in which they lived.

There were three major responses to these revolutions.

Responses to Enlightenment and Emancipation

The first response: Liberal Jewish religion, which accepted the terms of Emancipation so that Jews could become citizens of local nation-states. To this end, Reform, Conservative, and, to some extent, Modern Orthodox Judaism responded to the demands of Enlightenment reason with adjustments to Jewish belief and practice, each in its own way.

The second response: Ultra-Orthodoxy, which rejected the terms of both revolutions and sought to insulate Jews and Judaism from modern influences.

The third response: Zionism, which rejected the terms of Emancipation, believing that European and other Western societies would never fully accept the Jews. Secular Zionism also embraced the Enlightenment critique of religion, which it sought to replace with a new national Jewish culture grounded in humanism. 

With the destruction of European Jewry, those adhering to the first response ended up mostly in North America; those following the second and third responses primarily ended up in the newly established State of Israel. Whereas liberal, North American Jews interpreted Jewish life in keeping with the democratic values they found in the US and Canada, ultra-Orthodox and Zionist Jews, both secular and religious, have too often colluded to delegitimize their Diaspora counterparts by refusing them full recognition.

This is how Israel came to deny full religious freedom, a fundamental democratic right, to most members of the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, even as it sought their financial and political support.

The ultra-Orthodox and Zionists in Israel were eventually joined by Jews from North Africa and the Middle East whose Judaism had not been influenced by Enlightenment and Emancipation, which were European phenomena, and later by Jews from the former Soviet Union, who had lived under totalitarianism and knew little of the Jewish religion.

Neither of these large voting blocs has historic experience with, or strong commitment to, democratic values. The vast majority of those protesting the judicial reforms hail from the secular, cultural and humanistic segments of Israeli society.

They protest in the name of democratic values, even as they fail to uphold the fundamental democratic principle of religious pluralism for Jews. They do not protest in the name of Jewish values, however, because they have become increasingly inarticulate about how their Jewish secularism differs from their democratic liberalism.

Israeli Jewish secularists have tended to forfeit Judaism to the Orthodox. However, as messianic Zionism and ultra-Orthodoxy have overtaken Israeli Jewish religion, while collaborating with extreme ultra-nationalists who promote racism and xenophobia, Center-Left Jewish secularists say to themselves, “If that is authentic Judaism, I want no part of it.”

Those who support the judicial reforms, on the other hand, come from those segments of Israeli society that either oppose Enlightenment altogether, along with the democratic values that it spawned, or whose interpretations of Judaism never fully engaged Enlightenment ideas.

Rejectionism from both sides

In contrast, Reform, Conservative, and to some extent Modern Orthodox, Jews in North America, together with a small contingent in Israel, have rigorously engaged Judaism with democratic values for nearly two centuries. Yet, by virtue of their perceived inauthenticity, the conversation about democracy and Judaism in Israel tends to exclude them.

Sadly, this rejectionism has not been a one-way street. North American Reform, Conservative, and to a lesser extent Modern Orthodox Jews have been historically ambivalent about Zionism, conceived as the political self-determination of the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland. They prefer the belief that the United States and Canada will embrace Jews in ways that Enlightened and Emancipated Europe ultimately did not.

These communities are very often as disdainful of Israeli Jewish secularists as the latter are of Reform and Conservative Judaism, and have not encouraged their youth to take up the challenges of building a Jewish society in the land of Israel. Instead, they have tended to teach an idealized version of Israel, which too often leaves young people disappointed when confronted with Israel’s harsh complexities.

Combine this with a lack of exposure to the Palestinian narrative or to academic arguments about Zionism as a form of settler-colonialism, and we can understand why many of these young people feel alienated from the very idea of Israel as a Jewish or democratic state.

Although the North American liberal Jewish denominations may be more articulate than Israeli secularism about how Jewish sources express democratic values, they appear to be less effective in transmitting these interpretations of Judaism across the generations. This may be due, at least in part, to their doubts about the very political framework that has the capacity to nurture and maintain those interpretations through publicly funded educational and cultural institutions – the State of Israel.

In short, those interpretations of Judaism that celebrate modernity and seek to promote democratic values as expressions of, not antithetical to, Jewish life need one another now more than ever. These include the broad ideological mainstream of Jewish life, as opposed to the extremes – secular Israeli cultural humanism, Reform and Conservative Judaism, and the liberal wings of modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence, the time has come to abandon old rivalries in order to offer interpretations of Judaism consistent with democracy, so that the next time Israeli voters go to the polls, they can vote for a Jewish and democratic state, rather than facing a false choice of one or the other. 

The writer is a professor of philosophy of education at the University of Haifa and the 2021–2023 Koret Visiting Professor of Israel Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Jerusalem Post