The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Michael Oren on Israeli Democracy

Before he became the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren carved out an impressive career as a historian, teaching at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown, and penning two critically acclaimed works of Middle East scholarship, Six Days of War and Power, Faith and Fantasy. His essay, “Israel’s Resilient Democracy,” recently published in Foreign Policy, is a reminder of that past vocation. Part history, part impassioned advocacy, it presents a compelling narrative of the hopes, struggles and attainments of the Jewish state over its brief existence. An excerpt:

In the United States, as in most Western countries, democracy evolved over the course of centuries. First nobles and then commoners wrested rights from monarchs, established representative institutions, and expanded the parameters of freedom. Democracy in Israel, however, emerged without the benefits of this gradual process. Taking root in hostile conditions, nurtured by a citizenry largely unfamiliar with Western liberal thought, democratic Israel appeared to sprout from nothing.

When Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the Jews of Palestine and the thousands who joined them from tsarist Russia and around the Middle East had no exposure to democracy. Ottoman rule offered few models for democratic development and, in its final stages, brutally suppressed human rights. In fact, communism — imported from Eastern Europe in the form of collective farms and labor unions — influenced the political culture of the pre-state Jewish community, or Yishuv, far more than republican or free-market ideas…

Ultimately, democracy in the Yishuv emerged not only from the requisites of state-building, but also from the legacy of tradition. The Hebrew Bible questions absolutism and the divine right of kings, and endows each individual with civic rights and responsibilities. For centuries, Jewish communities had organized themselves along democratic lines, with elected officials and public administrations… Innately, the Zionists understood that their future state would be both Jewish and democratic, regarding the two as synonymous.

Read the whole thing. For anyone looking to understand Israel, its history, its problems and how it perceives itself, there are few better places to start. Israeli democracy is sometimes messy and the policies it comes up are sometimes less than ideal, but the achievement and consolidation of democracy in this nation of immigrants, many driven into exile from all over the Middle East, remains one of the inspiring stories of the last century.

The Passover season that ended today should not be, well, passed over without a tip of the hat to a state which, in spite of everything, remains committed to democracy. Not everyone around the world is glad that a Jewish state exists; most Americans are, however, and Via Meadia is glad join our fellow citizens in hoping that for Israel and its neighbors, this may be a year of peace.

Published on April 14, 2012 7:28 pm
  • Anthony

    Will Israel retain its character as both a Jewish and Democratic state going forward as she celebrates her 64th year as a democracy WRM? Michael Oren believes so and proffers a sound case that she will (democratic nation-state of the Jewish people) – here’s to peace for Israel and neighbors.

  • Aron Matskin

    >… and Via Meadia is glad join our fellow citizens in hoping that for Israel and its neighbors, this may be a year of peace.

    Thanks!

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    “For centuries, Jewish communities had organized themselves along democratic lines,”

    I don’t believe this is accurate. In my reading Jewish communities in eastern Europe at any rate were ruled by a tiny minority (1%) composed of the smartest and richest, i.e., a rabbi-merchant elite.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    It was in revolt against this oligarchic-theocracy that produced modern Hasidic Judaism by the way, if I may express it in my own words. Maybe somebody can correct me.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    On a more constructive note, I once wrote this:

    https://sites.google.com/site/thetorahandthewestbank/

    Long live Israel.

  • Jim.

    “In spite of everything, remains committed to democracy”

    Good to hear.

    So this means that all of their recent debates have been settled then, as to “whether they could remain both a Jewish state and a democracy”?

    So what did they finally decide — to tolerate the possibility of a Palestinian majority, or formally announce a plan for a two-state solution that would keep the Palestinian majority in a new country called Palestine?