Are Democracy and Ideology Incompatible?

Categories: Jewish Identity

Once when Zionism was still just a movement with the goal of establishing a Jewish State in Palestine, democracy, ideology and politics were not mutually exclusive. Although this philosophy called for Jewish self-emancipation, Herzl was also personally entranced with diplomacy and diplomatic negotiations. Still, he was committed to achieving the goal by empowering the will of the people through western enlightened means. Democracy was to be the name of the game. Little did he realize that the generahl debateh, the handmaiden of what passed for democracy in the shtetl , was fired by ideological disputes. The Zionist Congress he convened in 1897, even if guided by his Basel Program, was fractious.

From its founding at the First Zionist Congress, the World Zionist Movement was based on the Basel Program. Max Nordau submitted a version of the Program on August 30th, the 29th day of Congress deliberations, which read in part, “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine, secured under the law of nations.” Subsequent negotiations with the British government yielded slight emendations. Instead of recognizing Palestine “as” the Jewish national home, the text was changed to read, a Jewish national home “in” Palestine. Later the Balfour Declaration of 1917 further circumscribed the national home conditioning it on the understanding that the rights of the existing [Arab] population would not be prejudiced.

Neither Herzl nor the British cabinet were versed in Jewish Law, yet they came remarkably close to the judicial sense of the Mishnah, “when two people each claim ownership of a prayer shawl [or any object]) and each says ‘it is entirely mine’, they must divide it.”

Six years after the euphoria of the Balfour Declaration, the British retreated from granting Palestine, in its entirety, as the Jewish homeland. First they detached western Palestine, giving the land on the eastern side of the Jordan River to Emir Abdullah. On May 15, 1923, Britain formally recognized the Emirate of Transjordan under the leadership of Emir Abdullah. Predictably, Zionists reacted in anger as the move effectively reduced the area of any future Jewish national home. Thus less than fifty years before the Six Day War, a geographic split mirrored the division of pragmatists vs. uncompromising militants, Herut, and today’s messianic Gush Emunim. Ideologies are free floating, hard to nail down, so they need concrete images. Two things emerged which symbolized Herut’s position: an anthem, “Shtei gadot la-Yarden, zu shelanu, zu gam ken.” “The Jordan has two banks, both of them ours.” And a banner on which a hand holding a rifle was slanted over both parts of Palestine, with the words, “rak kach”, only this way. Back then, and continuing to this day, many Orthodox Zionists believed that one could not, one must not, divide the holy land. Belief and holy are words that evoke ideological commitment; and as such, the mindset is not disposed to compromise. Such a stance differs from realism in politics, which is the science of the possible, whereas ideology is predisposed to fixate on the art of the impossible.

Today, those Orthodox settlers in Gaza and the West Bank who resist disengagement from territories occupied since the 1967 war harbor a deeply ingrained belief that the State of Israel has concluded its task, and that in its place a halakhic kingdom must arise. The edicts of rabbis should be the law of the land rather than civic legislation and due process.

During the years of my reserve duty, the army assigned me to lecturing and discussing Zionism with soldiers. Often the discussions began with the question: What is Zionism? From group to group the answers varied. Changes might be explained by swings in the mood of the country and the general zeitgeist, but seldom, if ever, did I hear Zionism defined as an ideology. More frequently, it was seen by young Israelis as an organization, an Aliyah service, or a collection of nostalgic, pious truisms. The lowest common denominator tended toward something like this: Jews were always persecuted; this went on for centuries; during the Holocaust, persecution turned into genocide; but now we have our sovereign state which will ensure that it can never happen again.

At best, Zionism is (mistakenly) perceived as synonymous with Israeli patriotism. This does permit Druze soldiers, for example, to feel good; perhaps giving them a sense that they can share in society with the majority. But at worst, Zionism is thought of by young Israelis as something not personally relevant to their lives.

It would be as unwise to take the best case option of patriotism at face value as it would be to accept the worst case charge of irrelevance, for unlike many of their Jewish overseas peers, contemporary Israelis play an incredibly better game than they talk.

They have bought into the mischievous notion that the founding generation was much more idealistic than their own; they see themselves as children of the receding shadow. It is as though T. S. Eliot was referring to them when he wrote, “Between the idea and the reality, between the notion and the act, falls the shadow.”

So, is Zionism now normal enough for a Norman Rockwell poster? Should we stop looking for utopia or aspiring to Henry Thoreau’s Walden?

Not so fast. Today, almost 10 years after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the Shin Bet security services are feverishly searching for the next generation of Jewish fanatics, the new revolutionaries. Those who believe the time has come to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount perhaps as a way of torpedoing the disengagement plan.

An exaggeration? There was a dress rehearsal in 1980. At that time, Yisrael Ariel, chief rabbi of Yamit, called on soldiers who had been sent to evacuate the settlers of that northern Sinai town, by force if need be, to “disregard your officers’ commands because they are illegal.”

Just how ironic and dysfunctional ideology can be became clear when Prime Minister Begin’s government was embarrassed at having to enforce the law of the land on “idealistic, committed Zionists.” Begin, who was certainly not a deconstructionist, had to order the dismantling of Yamit as part of the peace agreement made with Sadat.

Now a replay. Last week a slew of Shin Bet agents went to the home of Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, now head of the Temple Institute in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. They came neither to arrest him nor to have a cup of tea with him. Ariel, 60, is categorized as a “retired revolutionary,” and the Shin Bet was there to gather information which might avert Jewish subversion. For years Rabbi Ariel has been making ritual vessels and implements for an envisioned Third Temple. He is an embodiment of the ideological connection between the Temple Mount and Gush Katif, the settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip. Thus, the decision to take his pulse.

Thousands of schoolchildren, students and soldiers have already visited his Institute, watched the films and performances, listened to the lectures, and run their hands over the objects that the Institute is planning to place in the Third Temple. Ariel’s books about the temple and the prayer books for Jewish holidays that the Institute has published are bestsellers among the national-religious public. The Shin Bet, however, is interested in the operational aspects of his doctrine.
In discussions with soldiers some protested, “Gush Emunim has stolen the flag from us.” How depressing the claim that lacking the ideology and the symbolism of their Orthodox opponents, the soldiers found their tasks doubly difficult. They turned to me – or, more aptly, they turned on me – with the accusation, “Why didn’t secular Jewish educators provide us with a countervailing ideology?” In typical fashion, as happens even in arguments between secular Jews, the soldiers quoted from the Tanakh: “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint” (Proverbs 29:18.) I replied that they should go back and read the second half of that often half-quoted verse, “But he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

I am not as sure as I was then (on a number of scores) that ideology has to be a danger to democracy. First, the case of the petitions, demonstrations, the hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis who cried “foul” to the war in Lebanon, exercising their lawful right of protest. So the flag has not been irrevocably stolen as the trophy of irredentist hawks. Second, what makes the difference – what is essential – is the recognition that one must accept the consequences of acting out one’s ideology. Eli Geva, is a case in point. The colonel in command of IDF forces besieging Beirut, publicly expressed his disavowal of the aims of the war, his anguish at the manslaughter he feared he would be expected to perform, and he suffered the consequence of summary dismissal from the army.

I was wrong on another score. I thought Eli Geva was alone, unique. I had forgotten that the ideology of humanism has been alive and well all along, even if stuttering in its articulation. Thirty seven years ago, one of the most dramatic humanitarian texts of modern times appeared as the book The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Conversations About the Six-Day War. In it, Aharon, a young soldier from Kibbutz Yifa’at, recounted his feelings during the battle for Jerusalem.
“We were in a covering action as the rest of our unit advanced inside the Old City…we had a number of heavy machine guns… and on the rise opposite us there was some kind of a fire-fight the whole time… they shot at us and we shot back… some of our tanks opened up on them and they began to run… one of them didn’t even take off his uniform like many of the others trying to escape… he just ran… and our entire fire power was trained on him, and he tried desperately to escape… he kept running and at last he got away. So it’s hard for me to say that the pangs of conscience I had were because of my kibbutz education, but anyway, I was glad that he escaped.”

Arik Sharon condemned what he saw as the confusion, muddle-headedness, and anxiety these words expressed. “Whoever says ‘I fired and missed and then felt relieved’ is a traitor.” It seems that the ideological battle between humanists and those who call them traitors was drawn as early as the summer of 1967. Yet changing circumstances can even change the stand of generals. It did for Rabin. Now it appears to have affected Sharon.

Just how was the ideological battle drawn? The question of where to begin clamours for attention. During the revolt against the Romans, Rabbi Akiva, the renowned spiritual leader of the rebellion, was asked what idea subsumed the entire rationale of the Jewish life view, and so could guide behavior on the battlefield. He answered that the greatest principle, the one on which the whole Torah rests, was “Love thy fellow as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). When his followers asked him to explain who “thy fellow” referred to, he replied, “Kol sh’hu ben-brit”- anyone who is a Jew. The operational conclusion being that when there were both Roman and Jewish casualties, the only responsibility for care was for the Jew. His pupil, Ben Azzai, took issue with his revered teacher, and said, “There is a greater principle than that,” and he argued that the verse that begins chapter five of Bereshit takes precedence. “This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made He him, male and female created He them, and blessed them.” The operational conclusion being that all casualties deserve care.

Ideological disputations, educational principles, pragmatism born of war, and restraints on the exercise of power have all been with us for more than two thousand years. We, compassionate, humane, universalist Jews have been around a long time.

The author’s forthcoming book about Israeli literature and society entitled “But is it Jewish? Affirmations of an Unrepentant Zionist” will be published soon by Biblio Books. For more information, or to order a copy, email

About Amnon Hadary

Amnon Hadary was born in Palestine in 1929, spent the years '38 to '48 in Chicago, and returned to Eretz Yisrael in time to serve in the Palmach during the War of Independence. So he has experienced life in the diaspora in one of the world's oldest democracies and homecoming to one of the newest. A founding member of a kibbutz Gesher Haziv, where he lived for 20 years, he has spent the past 35 years in Jerusalem, writing, editing and lecturing. His first book, "To Royal Estate: The American Jewish Novel", (in Hebrew) was a critique of American Jewish literature. Married, with children and grandchildren, his commitment to Zionism remains vital: its realization attainable only through the imperative of peace. The affirmations of an unrepentant Zionist are written in that spirit. Amnon was a shaliach to Habonim in Philadelphia and Vancouver in the late 50's and served as Workshop Madrich at Gesher Haziv for 6 consecutive years.
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