Posts Tagged 'Liberal Democracy'

Betzalel Smotrich, Religious Zionism, and Fundementalism

Betzalel SmotrichAt a gathering of religious Zionist public figures two weeks ago, Deputy Knesset Speaker Betzalel Smotrich talked about his diplomatic plan, which he dubbed “The subjugation plan.” The purpose of the plan, he said, was “to erase all Palestinian national hope.”

Under the plan, the Palestinians will be given three choices – to leave the country; to live in Israel with the status of “resident alien,” because, as Smotrich made sure to note, “according to Jewish law there must always be some inferiority,” or to resist, “and then the Israel Defense Forces will know what to do.” When the deputy Knesset speaker was asked if he intended to wipe out whole families, including women and children, Smotrich replied, “In war, as in war.”

Smotrich presented the Book of Joshua as the source for his remarks. According to the Midrash, Joshua sent the residents of the land of Canaan three letters in which he set out the three aforementioned conditions. Maimonides explains that if the non-Jews do not flee, they must have limitations imposed on them “so they should be despised and lowly, and not raise their heads in Israel.” If they resist, he says, “not a soul must be left among them” – in other words, kill them all.

How many of those who sat and listened to these horrible things – learned men and women, Torah scholars and community leaders – agreed with him? It’s impossible to know. There were protests raised during the question period, in which some of those in attendance expressed shock. But not everyone was shocked.

I thought back to the op-ed by Yossi Klein last month that raised such a storm. Does “religious Zionism” want to “seize control of the state and cleanse it of Arabs,” as he wrote? No, definitely not. Are there people in that community who indeed want to do this? Yes, absolutely. The question is how numerous they are, or, in other words, where to place Smotrich. Is he on the margins, part of an extremist, fundamentalist and zealous minority, who isn’t taken too seriously – or in the center, a future leader of a large public?

One of the characteristics of fundamentalist religiosity is the reduction of religious tradition into a rigid and simplistic framework of principles. It’s generally joined by a monolithic perception of history, as if all eras are identical and what was true 2,000 years ago is still valid today, and a strong desire to renew our days as of old, i.e., to bring the past into the present. All these together create a one-dimensional surrender to the authority of Scripture. This is generally done in a very untraditional manner, since fundamentalist obedience hews closely to the literal meaning of the text, while traditional religiosity recognizes that religious truth is complex (“There are 70 faces to the Torah”), provides interpretations of Scripture, and integrates other considerations into its approach to faith.

Religious Zionism is not fundamentalist. Most of the community leads a traditional religious life of interpretation and flexibility. Most live in the center of the country, in Jerusalem and Petah Tikva, Kfar Sava and Ra’anana. We’re talking about a middle-class, solid, bourgeois, satisfied community. Judaism for them is a deep identity and a way of life, but they don’t dream at night about rebuilding the Temple and they are pleased to live in a democracy.

But Smotrich understood something when he spoke with this community’s representatives. Because he was speaking to a totally observant audience, he allowed himself to expose the religious-mythic underpinnings of his ideas. He hoped that speaking about Jewish law and the Book of Joshua would lead to an automatic identification with his remarks that would be reinforced by the dormant foundations of a deeply rooted tradition. He hoped that his religious language would make his ideas much harder to oppose. Unfortunately, that hope is not unfounded.

Democracy, like liberalism, is an ethos. Religious tradition, like nationalism, is the foundation of identity and narrative perception. In a contest between them, it’s very difficult for the former to triumph. If during the 20th century Western nationalism substantively included democracy and liberalism (and thus also moderated religion), in recent decades there’s been a gap emerging between them. As we can see from the refugee crisis in Europe and the Brexit vote, when the masses feel that liberalism is undermining the foundations of nationalism, the response is to boost nationalism at the expense of liberalism. Narrative and identity trump ethos.

Certain people in the religious-Zionist camp, Smotrich among them, turn to Jewish identity and use a mythic narrative to enlist support for anti-liberal ideas. In a situation in which liberalism is perceived as opposing identity, or in a situation in which there is no answer defending liberalism that’s based on identity, they will succeed in drawing many after them, first and foremost those who are deeply connected to tradition. Only a position that emerges from one’s identity toward liberalism, that reunites nationalism and liberalism (and even religion and democracy), can prevent many religious Zionists and others from being drawn to the insane ideas of Smotrich and his ilk.

The fact that Smotrich is a dangerous fundamentalist who seeks to give the Palestinians a choice between transfer, apartheid or genocide is horrifying. It’s hard to complain to the Palestinian Authority about their encouragement of terror when the deputy Knesset speaker of the State of Israel supports this type of “subjugation plan.” He should be removed from his post and thrown out of the Knesset.

But even if this were to happen, the important question is what kind of response we, the religious and secular Zionists, proffer to his ideas. Until there is such an answer, he will continue to move from the margins to the center.

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Published today in Haaretz

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A TRULY Jewish democracy: On the ideology of Likud’s Moshe Feiglin

Moshe FeiglinThe last elections in Israel introduced many new faces to the Knesset, among them Moshe Feiglin. Feiglin heads a group called ‘Jewish Leadership’ and has for the past dozen years attempted, unsuccessfully up untill now, to be elected in the Likud Party’s primary elections in a high enough spot in order to become an MK (Jewish Leadership, however, was able to assist the candidacies of some of the Likud’s most hawkish members of Knesset, among them Yariv Levin, Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely). Now he has succeeded.

Feiglin is by any judgment one of the most methodical and principled thinkers in Israel’s right wing camp, and an effort to comprehend his thought is in order. Below I will attempt an examination of Moshe Feiglin’s concept of the democratic regime. I stress this is an attempt, as Feiglin did not write about it at length, and on the other hand  there are writings of Feiglin’s I haven’t read yet. What makes it easier for me to position Feiglin’s political-civic stance is the fact that he has referred to the issue specifically.

For instance, in the chapter (containing several articles) titled “The Jewish State – Democracy and regime” in his 2005 book, “The War of Dreams” (Milkhemet Ha’Khalomot) Feiglin writes about democracy that:

As I see it, democracy is but a method for changing government without violence. Several other values are attached: The freedom of expression, for instance, the equality before the law, and the separation of powers. But all is fluid, all is flexible, all is under whim of those who shape the term “democracy” to fill their needs. (“Democracy or Greater Israel,” 26.1.1998, p.464)

Feiglin is of course correct about the flexibility of the term “democracy.” Different states have used it in very different ways, and I hope it’s needless to point out that the Poplar Democracy of [North] Korea bears little resemblance to the liberal-constitutional democracy of the U.S. On the other hand, obviously, a democracy based on basic rights of its citizens, such as the freedom of expression and the separation of powers, is not truly subject to the whims of its rulers. That, after all, alongside other principled differences between versions of democracy which I’ll point out, is the crux of the issue.

Feiglin continues to explain his position:

If the land of Israel was truly a supreme national value for you, you’d understand that democracy has to fit the country, not the country democracy […] The State of Israel was created for the Jewish people, and its democracy is supposed to serve the Jewish people. If this state acts against the interests of the Jewish people, there is no longer any point in its existence, be it democratic or not. […] They [the Arabs] will never, never be fully equal citizens, in the national sense of the word. (Ibid., p. 465)

The picture becomes clearer: according to Feiglin, democracy has to fit the country, or rather the people living in it. When it comes to the State of Israel, this is the Jewish people, and hence democracy has to serve “the interests of the Jewish people.” That is why, for instance, the Arabs residing in the country have no chance at equal status, since they are not a part of the people that the democracy is supposed to serve.

No possibility of choice

What sort of a democracy serves a specific people, not universal principles? Of course, this is a popular democracy, known in its more mild versions as communal democracy. This version of democracy is principally different from liberal democracy. Feiglin, who is certainly well-read and learned, knows this well, and expressly differentiates between liberal democracy and communal democracy, only the latter of which he supports:

There are several views on democracy, out of which I’ll examine two: one liberal and the other communal. The liberal tradition supports a position based on one measure. It considers it to be a universal position, which is not biased towards other cultures, other values, other traditions. It believes in the values of equality and freedom of the individual, while the state is intended to serve the individual alone. The state in itself has no purpose, and it does not exemplify the values of its society.

The other view is communal. According to it, the person requires social-consciousness in order to reach self-knowledge, and only through this process does he come to know his views on morals and values. The community, therefore, is of the highest importance, and through it the person identifies with his country. The community and the state have an important role in the development of the values and the identities of the citizens. By this view, democracy is a form of government which allows the basic values of society to be expressed. Every society whose core values are freedom values can and should be democratic, but it must “fit the lid to the pot”– fit its democracy to its unique character and values.

A communal democracy sees the individual as an organic part of the community, to the point that, on its own, she or he cannot fully express themselves, regarding both their full potential and their freedom. Only by recognizing the reciprocal ties between themselves and the society around them, and – of no lesser importance – by becoming a living part of the surrounding society with its unique values and cultural characteristics, can the individual reach self-knowledge and thereby live a life worth living. Contrary to the liberal basic assumption, which discerns a tension between the demands of the community and individual rights, this concept sees in accepting communal values the only way to realize true individual autonomy.

The goal of communal democracy is the betterment of man. This is a goal liberal democracy doesn’t dare to actively promote, as it is obviously an act toward a specific ethical direction, and as such one in the course of which it will have to determine decree between conflicting values (such as freedom and equality) and cancel others (such as the freedom of religion). Communal democracy directs the individual towards a certain direction, reached allegedly through the common values of the community or even the whole nation; thereby it perfectly expresses the “will of the people.” According to this concept, every political system which will express the will of a community or a people is, by definition, democratic towards that community or people, no matter how totalitarian, illiberal or draconian its laws may be.

“The rule of the people” reaches its summit here, not because the regime allows each individual to make its own choices, but because the regime expresses the essential will of the people, with no possibility of choice. To a large degree, this democracy lacks representation, because the rulers do not represent the will of the people, but express it, or even become it and actualize it (in the same way the Fuhrer was the will of the German people, and each of his actions was the action of the Aryan nation). We are not dealing with the total sum of the wishes of the individuals of a nation, but with the essential will of the people as an organic entity, with the inner and deep expression of the people as a personality. On the other hand, liberal democracy is a representative democracy, which does not try to pave a certain ethical road, but only to maintain basic moral principles. Liberal democracy tries to create the conditions in which the citizens would be free to try and better themselves, to the best of their own knowledge, every little community in its own way.

A truly Jewish identity

According to its principles, a communal democracy has no place for different communities in the same state, since the state is wholly formed according to the values of one community. For this reason, “the Arabs” have no voting rights in Feiglin’s Jewish state (“Israeli citizenship to Jews only […] the immediate expulsion of any person of another people who claims any sort of sovereignty in the Land of Israel” – Ibid., p. 436).  This state acts on the collective values of Judaism which I imagine Feliglin derives from his own interpretation of Judaism. These values express in the most perfect way the will of the nation, and of course direct each of its sons and daughters towards their own fulfillment. It is possible Feiglin thinks only such a realization will promise true freedom to the individual, and hence to the community as well. As the title of the article quotes above notes, the Israeli democracy can be democratic only because it is Jewish.

Which is why the Jewish democracy may not retreat from the occupied territories:

The debate over the Land of Israel is not a territorial or a security one. The question of national identity is expressed today through the Land of Israel. Those who wish to get rid of territories are actually asking to disengage from Jewish identity. ‘The Jews have defeated the Israelis’, said Shimon Peres to Haaretz in an interview after losing [the 1996 elections] to Netanyahu. The debate between those who hold and those who wish to let go is the debate between those who hold to their Jewish identity and those who wish to disengage from it and replace it with a new Israeli identity. The process of the Disengagement [from the Gaza Strip – T.P.] is a process of forcing the new identity on the majority of the people. Hence, essentially, it must lead to a dictatorial reality, as indeed happens. Only an Israeli state living in harmony with its Jewish identity, a state intended to serve this identity instead of fighting it, only such an Israel can also be truly democratic. (Ibid., emphasis in the original).

According Feiglin’s model, maintaining hold of territories is not a question of security but a question of identity. A truly Jewish identity can be realized only through the holding of any occupied territories in the Land of Israel. Those, on the other hand, who wish to return such territories are trying to sabotage Jewish identity and replace it with “a new Israeli identity.” These are people like Shimon Peres and apparently also Arik Sharon, who carried out the “disengagement” from Gaza. We are speaking, of course, of leftists. That explains why in Feiglin’s view “the deep aspect of [the] Oslo [process] is a trend of assimilation, of ‘becoming integrated in the [middle east] region’” (Ibid., p. 454). And, indeed, according to Feiglin, the strategic goal of the left is to obfuscate and make us forget our Jewish identity (Ibid., p. 504).” Oh, well, perhaps this is related to the fact Feiglin thinksthe left is not a movement of life and emancipation. It is an ideology based on the aspiration of death” (Ibid., p. 29).

Note the principled basis behind those harsh statements: A communal democracy represents the essential will of the people. Hence, any person objecting to the actions of the state is ipso facto not truly of the people. Actually, it is almost impossible to criticize government in a communal democracy, because such criticism automatically excludes the critic from the community of citizens the government represents, and therefore also from the community of citizens entitled to its protection and to civil rights. For, how can a loyal citizen criticize the actions of a government representing his will? If his will is different from that of the government, he is certainly not a loyal citizen.

Such disloyal citizens are either foreigners, i.e. not members of the people; or they are members of the people, but ones needing re-education. One may recall the fate of such citizens from “popular” regimes in the past. In the Israeli case, even today left-winged people are sometimes reffered to as Erev Rav or Amalek, derogatory religious terms signifying traitors within or simply entities who are pure evil. This kind of people undermine the expression of the will of the people, the same will which can be assumed is known to Feiglin.  This is why, in Feligin’s “One Hundred Days Plan” (Hebrew) the Ministry of External and Internal Security will “be in charge of all the issues of security, acting against the enemies of Israel, foreign and domestic. An enemy of Israel is one who wishes to destroy it, either physically or essentially, as a Jewish State.” Anyone who supports a return of the occupied territories endeavors, as we’ve seen, to essentially destroy the Jewish State, first and foremost “essentially”. In Moshe Feiglin’s regime such dissidents will be dealt with by the Ministry of External and Internal Security.

Roots of the  popular democracy

It is not my intention to defame the communitarian idea; I am, in many ways, a communitarian myself, and as such I am a student of such great scholars as Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre and others. It is clear, however, that these thinkers do not dream of erecting a regime remotely similar to what Feiglin plans. There are several forms of communal democracies, some more totalitarian, some less. I don’t know where precisely Feiglin stands on this scale, even though the quotes above cloak his vision of a communal democracy with a very distinct odor. As previously mentioned, on the extreme scale of the communal democracy we speak of the same model under which all those “popular democracies” of the former Communist Bloc acted.

The French National Assembly. Click for source and enlarged view.As is well known, the origins of the concept that the regime acts under the “will of the people” derives from Rousseau, and from him it reached the Jacobins during the French Revolution and many of dictatorships of the 20th century. The idea is that the regime, though tyrannical, is not immoral, since it is perfectly expresses the will of the people. We can see this clearly from the decisions of the National Assembly under the revolutionary regime in France. Article Six of the constitution written by the Assembly in 1791 says that “the law is an expression of the common will,” and Article Five says that the natural rights of man by be abrogated by law. To wit, if the common will of the people is to limit the rights of the individual, there’s no principle problem here.

When the Assembly wrote the constitution, its members were thinking of the American Declaration of Independence, which stated that the rights of people are “unalienable” (which today means “inalienable.”). The United States created, by a long and painful process, a liberal democracy, where human rights cannot be ignored even if the majority desperately wants to, and even if someone thinks this is the “common will” of the people. France saw the creation of a Jacobin democracy, under which the rights of the individual can be cast aside in the name of the popular will, and its murderousness is notorious to this day. As soon as the popular will can abolish human rights, we have nothing more than a tyranny of the majority, or, in most cases, the tyranny of an individual who claims to understand the will of the majority.

Mao representing the will of the people. Click for source and enlarged view.As noted, that same idea served as inspiration to the “popular democracies” of the former Communist Bloc. In a famous speech in 1949, Mao Zedong contrasted “bourgeois democracy,” Western democracy, with China’s popular democracy (which he calls The People’s democratic dictatorship, since he recognizes the tyranny of the people towards the reactionary elements standing in its way). Mao thanks Marx and Lenin for formulating the theory which allowed China to move from a bourgeois democracy to a popular democracy, which brought “socialism and communism” and “a world of Great Harmony.” According to Mao, the true will of the masses is equal to the will of the proletariat, and it expresses the perfect society. He states that:

All the experience the Chinese people have accumulated through several decades teaches us to enforce the people’s democratic dictatorship, that is, to deprive the reactionaries of the right to speak and let the people alone have that right. […] The right to vote belongs only to the people, not to the reactionaries. […]The foreign reactionaries who accuse us of practicing “dictatorship” or “totalitarianism” are the very persons who practice it. They practice the dictatorship or totalitarianism of one class, the bourgeoisie, over the proletariat and the rest of the people. […]The people’s democratic dictatorship needs the leadership of the working class. For it is only the working class that is most farsighted, most selfless and most thoroughly revolutionary.

Replace “reactionaries” by Arabs or Leftists, replace “the working class” by Jews, and suddenly, there isn’t much of a difference between the leftist Marxist-Leninist tyranny and the right-wing nationalistic-Judaistic tyranny. It’s clear, anyway, that a popular democracy is not a traditional Jewish idea, but rather a modern Western one.

When safeguards become obstacles

As Feiglin himself noted, the failure of liberal democracy comes from insisting on the protection of principles it considers universal – precisely those human and civil rights, those difference freedoms and equality before the law. In a liberal democracy they must be guarded above all. In a popular democracy they are considered to be foreign principles of Western bourgeoisie, “Christian morality” or liberal soft-heartedness, and ignoring them is not only possible, but is necessary. This point cannot be overstated: In every democratic regime, there will be a conflict between the will of the majority and the rights of the individual or minority. In such cases, popular democracy will always prefer the will of the majority, and a liberal one – the rights of the individual.

For instance, if we think the right of a person over his body is absolute, then even if the majority decrees otherwise, he may not be raped. If we think a person’s right over her property is total, even if the majority says it should be taken from her, there is no permission to do so. These are the human rights embedded by the UN in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, following the lessons learned from the horrors of fascism. These are the same rights invoked by the opponents of the Gaza Disengagement, when they argued even a government decision cannot, in a democratic country, evict people from their homes.

Lord Acton, the same one who taught to us that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote that in a popular democracy:

The true democratic principle, that none shall have power over the people, is taken to mean that none shall be able to restrain or to elude its power. The true democratic principle, that the people shall not be made to do what it does not like, is taken to mean that it shall never be required to tolerate what it does not like. The true democratic principle, that every man’s free will shall be as unfettered as possible, is taken to mean that the free will of the collective people shall be fettered in nothing. Religious toleration, judicial independence, dread of centralisation, jealousy of State interference, become obstacles to freedom instead of safeguards, when the centralised force of the State is wielded by the hands of the people.

A final word. I have no doubt that Feiglin is sure that the communal-to-popular democracy he wishes to found not only will not be tyrannical, but would create a model society. I believe he is certain the Jewish people will express its will in a much more decent and better way than the failed experiments of the French or Chinese people; that he believes with all his heart that, unlike these (and other) disastrous experiments, a perfect and wondrous popular democracy is possible in Israel, since while the others had only a half-baked revolutionary thrust or a Marxist ideology woefully bereft of inspiration, the Israeli nation has the Book of Books to guide it and the Hand of God to support it.

And who knows, maybe this time the Lord will redeem us from our troubles, and make our path right where others have stumbled so terribly. As someone who would probably be taken care of by the Ministry of External and Internal Security in the early days of the new regime, I am not likely to live to see this miracle.

Some more leaders representing the true and only will of the people

First published in my Hebrew blog on 13.12.12, then tyranslated by Yossi Gurvitz and published on 972 on 17.12.13. Here adapted a bit.

Moshe Feiglin’s response:

As a rule, I stand by what I write and say. Of course every period has its own special emphasis. Words written while facing a demolished house and burned bus are not as words written on mundane days. The sentence you chose to quote [about the left’s ideology being based on the aspiration of death – T.P.] is an excellent example of the fine distinction between serious research and demagoguery. This is a sentence I fully support, but quoting it requires long explanations, otherwise it sounds as nothing more than a swearword. In order to seriously complete the mission you undertook, you should organize a proper meeting, in the view of your readers, which I’ll be happy to attend and answer all questions.


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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