Among the greatest revolutions of human existence is the possibility of creating an ethical society. The authors of Deuteronomy fantasized about it and the leaders of post-Enlightenment Western cultures were convinced it was possible to legislate it. The early Zionists not only believed that it would redeem Judaism and the Jewish people, but some, like Martin Buber, believed that a Zionist democracy — what he called Hebrew humanism — would redeem humanity. Historically, for Jews, modern democracy meant the possibility of full emancipation, survival, and integration. Religious freedom and protected minority rights would signal the fulfillment of many Jewish yearnings. A democracy ostensibly allows for the voice and needs of individuals and minorities not only to be heard and protected, but also to have influence in the public sphere. Modernity’s premise was that a true democratic society — a society created by the people for the people — would inherently be an ethical one.
Jews completely embraced the potential of democracy. It was as if this aspect of modernity was the historical equivalent of the long awaited arrival of the Messiah. Truly democratic societies — one might have argued — could solve all the difficult problems of Jewish existence. But the 20th century taught us the awful truth that democracy — and modernity, for that matter — is a false messiah. It hardly solved the problems of Jewish existence; in fact, it created as many difficulties as it solved. It may have allowed for more participation, but it did not protect us from the consequences of assimilation. As we were increasingly welcomed into the broader secular culture and society and found our way into the hearts of non-Jews, many Jews no longer saw a reason to remain committed to Judaism or to the Jewish community. After all, modernity allowed us to become “citizens of the world.” Most horrifying, though, the false messiah of democracy failed to protect Jews from the possibility that a democratically elected government would adopt policies aimed at our annihilation, forcing us — in the millions — into the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birknau.
And yet, democratic principles, post-Holocaust realities, and international politics also allowed for and formed the core foundations of and the declaration of the State of Israel. A Jewish democracy, then, could be a response to the consequences of the atrocities committed against the Jews. The promise of what Israel could and should be still animates the Jewish people in the face of both its successes and its failures.
At every moment in every part of Israel, dilemmas emerge from the apparent oxymoron of the two terms, “Jewish” and “democratic.” The conflicts of values are constant. Should marriage and divorce be regulated by civil or religious law? How much influence should Judaism have in the public sphere, and how much room should be made for minority cultures? The most recent Israeli election campaigns were a blur of counterclaims about the supremacy of certain sets of values over others, all while trying to attain a delicate balance between desired outcomes and political demographic realities.
Now we are faced with the most important challenge of modern Jewish life — at least as complex as that of defending and sustaining Israel in its first 65 years: ensuring that the next generation witnesses the fulfillment of the promise of Israel. Israel must now fulfill its internal and external responsibilities as a Jewish democratic society. This may be possible if the conclusion that Yair Sheleg draws in his February Sh’ma column is correct: “Many secular Israelis, therefore, are adopting vestiges of religious Judaism, and many religious people are adopting new linkages to a more modern — and democratic — world.” If we also engage courageously in an internal critique, we may have the possibility of reaching the next stage of the messianic vision: an ethical society worthy of being called both democratic and Jewish — one that fulfills and exceeds the dreams of its founders.email print