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The Jewish Origins of Israeli Democracy

The Israeli democratic system is resilient, but not because of democracy, or liberalism, or tolerance or religious meaning; it’s because all those principles are ingrained in the Jewish people, and in their political and social behavior.
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September 8, 2022
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Imagine a new state is being established. On the day of its establishment, it will be attacked by all its continental neighbors. It will withstand this attack and maintain its existence and territorial integrity, but it will lose one percent of its population to the war. For at least 30 or 40 years, this country will not know one day of peace, as it will take decades until some of its neighbors reconcile with its existence. From the very beginning, the country multiplies through major immigration, many people arriving from poor countries, either survivors of the Holocaust or those fleeing persecution in neighboring Arab states. To top it off, the country has no significant resources, oil or gas. 

What are the chances this country could maintain a democracy? 

This question is particularly relevant to the time because the world had just witnessed the fall of empires and the birth of nation-states. Post-WWII, almost 100 new countries emerged across the globe: in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. Upon achieving independence, most adopted democratic constitutions based on free elections, a multi-party system and a free press. With a few notable exceptions, India being one, the vast majority of these countries’ democratic institutions failed. They became one-party or authoritarian military dictatorships, turned communist or semi-fascist, and in some cases, a combination of all of the above.

Yet the country in question, albeit its flaws and challenges, grew from 650,000 people, most of them Jewish, to a country of nine million people, 20% of whom are Arab citizens. Against all odds and under far harsher circumstances than any of the other new states, it is somehow this country that maintains its democracy. This country is clearly Israel, but the question is, what is the cause of this disparity? What enabled Israel to maintain a democracy in the face of internal and external pressures that were far more difficult and harsher than any of the other newly established nations?

When you look to the scholars, you will find two answers, both of which have an element of truth, yet both are insufficient in answering this question.

One answer is that there is a tradition of democracy in Judaism. While the notion of human dignity is firmly rooted in the scriptures, any way you look at this theory as a means to explain the resilience of Israeli democracy results in a patently absurd conclusion. When you look at the Holy books, the Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms were neither democracies nor could they be, and the Hasmonean Maccabean Dynasties were Hellenistic tyrannies in one way or another. There is nothing in the text, whether in the Bible, the Mishnah or the Talmud, that codes for democracy. Liberal democracy is a modern post-18th-century development, so it cannot be that in the historical texts of Judaism that one finds the origins and sustainability of Israeli democracy.

The second theory is that the first Jewish immigrants to Ottoman or Mandatory Palestine came from Europe, bringing with them the European traditions of liberal or social democracy. To explain this theory, scholars reference the original settlers of North America, who brought with them the self-governing British parliamentary system, which was later enshrined in the American Constitution. In this view, as in the case of America, the first Jewish immigrants from Europe must have therefore brought with them the European tradition of enlightenment, liberalism and democracy.

This sounds more plausible than the argument of religious text and yet it is still insufficient in answering the question because most Jewish olim who came from Europe did not come from the traditional democracies of Britain, France or Norway. They came from countries that were in no way democratic and left those countries due to the societal oppression they suffered under the very political systems in which they had lived. 

These Jews came from Czarist or communist Russia, from Poland and Hungary, from Romania during the two World Wars, which were Italian semi-fascist dictatorships. And of course, others came from Nazi Germany or countries such as Austria or Czechoslovakia that were occupied by the Nazi regime. 

So, in this case if the founding fathers and mothers of the State of Israel brought with them the political tradition of their birth countries, they would have also brought systems such as the Italian one-party combination or semi-fascist tradition. The notion that Israeli democracy is the sole result of the exportation of European politics into the Jewish state does not stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.

The reason that Israeli democracy developed does have to do with Jewish history, but not because of text or one’s origin but because of historical and social context.

While European Jews may not have had political power in the sense of sovereignty and total self-governance up until 1948, when you look at the way Jewish communities operated in Europe, which constituted almost 85% of global Jewry up until the Holocaust, they had already developed centuries of experience with the principles of self-governance prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. The Jewish community or the Jewish kahal, were solid political entities in a minor but meaningful way.

Whether Jews lived under Muslim or Christian rule, from Spain to France, or later in Germany and Eastern Europe, they 1) desired a place of worship and 2) desired a location where children could learn about Jewish historical norms. They quickly realized that the only way to accomplish this without a state or political power was through a voluntary electoral system. European Jewish communities, some of which were large and some of which were small, were only established when a sufficient number of Jewish people assembled and decided to set up the community by electing some members as chairmen, secretaries or treasurers.

The system was not based on rabbinical authority but on the people’s ability to elect their own leaders. Sometimes the elected leaders were rabbis, and sometimes not. Some communities were more egalitarian, and some were less. Some were more oligarchic and allowed members of the same family to be continually elected and some were less oligarchic and placed limits on members of any family that could be elected at any given time to community leadership. But if you look at the histories of these Jewish communities, each of them operated as a little bit of a city-state, or a polis if you wish.

Jewish people might not have had a state, but they had been adapting community politics in the normative ways of modern elective democracies for centuries.

Jewish people might not have had a state, but they had been adapting community politics in the normative ways of modern elective democracies for centuries. Their electoral systems were not short of political fights or cliques, and there were all the nice and nasty aspects of modern democratic politics that one finds in Israel today. People seceded from a community because they didn’t like the leader or the community rabbi and moved across the street or to a nearby hill and set up a different community. It was through this process that Jews became articulate in their understanding of how to elect, create coalitions, fight the opposition and create a basic consensus of voluntary taxation.

In some countries, such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews formed larger regional councils, Va’ad Arba’ Aratzot, or The Council of the Four Lands. The council met once a year in Lublin to discuss the issues of creating political parliaments and community regulations without having sovereignty. They decided, for example, very early on in the 17th century that every young male should have several years of studying in a school so that he would be able to read Hebrew. They decided on voluntary taxation and simultaneously agreed on solidarity. When one community was devastated by natural forces, or by pogroms and wars, other communities set up emergency funds to help them re-establish their communities or join new ones.

By the time the Zionist Movement was established in 1897, they knew exactly what to do. The Jews who established the First Zionist Congress created elections and then held them. 

By the time the Zionist Movement was established in 1897, they knew exactly what to do. The Jews who established the First Zionist Congress created elections and then held them. When the first Jewish olim came to Eretz Yisrael at the end of the 19th century, they established the first agricultural colonies, and then a garden suburb that they called Tel Aviv. They knew how to do these things even before independence of the state because it is how they had been operating for well over a century prior. They first elected some members as secretaries of the first kibbutz or the secretaries of municipal communities like Tel Aviv. They knew how to allocate taxes, and they knew also how to collect those taxes through voluntary means. From very early on, the Jewish community in Palestine, first under the Ottoman rule, and later under the British Mandate established the local basis of self-government.

So, there is a tradition of elective government, of coalition, of very contentious politics, and never in the history of Palestinian Jewry and later in the history of Israel did any political party win a majority. There were pluralities, but never majorities. So, the current status quo of the Israeli electoral system is in fact nothing new.

The Jewish community in the newly established Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, didn’t have to invent a political system, the political system implemented was a continuation of how Jews had long operated. David Ben-Gurion, who had been elected the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, became the Provisional Prime Minister of Israel. The head of the treasury department, or the agricultural department of the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine, became the first ministers in their provisional governments. And the next thing, after declaring independence and then defending the country from an onslaught of attacks, was to set up elections. The political parties already existed; there were a number of labor parties, more liberal, bourgeois parties, and a number of lightroom (left-wing Zionist workers) political parties. The result was a tradition in which Israeli democracy was not an outcome of the constitutional assembly, which just looked at the British or French models, but one that grew organically from the political behavior of the Jewish experience.

The Israeli democratic system is resilient, but not because of democracy, or liberalism, or tolerance or religious meaning; it’s because all those principles are ingrained in the Jewish people, and in their political and social behavior.

The Israeli democratic system is resilient, but not because of democracy, or liberalism, or tolerance or religious meaning; it’s because all those principles are ingrained in the Jewish people, and in their political and social behavior. In truth, looking at the historical norms of Jewish political behavior, the tumultuous and anarchic nature of Israeli politics today is perhaps the greatest guarantee for the resilience of the system tomorrow.


Samuel Hyde is a writer/researcher at The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance, based in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is the editor of the book “We Should All Be Zionists” by Dr. Einat Wilf and is currently co-writing a second book with Wilf titled “Political Intelligence.”

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